Less than two years before a General Election, this Conservative Party Conference was always going to be dominated by thoughts of 2015. Policy ideas abound, as you might expect, but there is also a remarkably large amount of discussion about the party’s campaigning machine.
It’s a perfectly justified concern. The Eastleigh by-election demonstrated all too vividly the way in which some Associations have withered on the vine, while our recent publication of party membership data shows the scale of the decline on a national scale.
The Scottish Conservatives have been particularly hard-hit. Despite (or because of) that they are the source of one possible solution.
There are only around 10,000 Tory members in Scotland now, and the independence referendum demands far more boots on the ground than they can muster from that base. They have therefore decided to appeal more broadly for supporters and activists.
Databases from previous campaigns were scoured and pulled together for a mass mailshot inviting people to join Conservative Friends of the Union. They made it free to subscribe, and that first invitation resulted in 50,000 people signing up.
Overnight the support base they could call on to leaflet, to display posters, to fundraise and pass on the Better Together message increased five-fold. The number has since grown to over 80,000.
Not only has this approach expanded their number of troops, it has raised money, too, bringing in £250,000 in small donations.
This must be the way forward for mass political campaigning. Demanding people pay a subscription before they can get involved in campaigning means we miss out on large numbers of potential activists and supporters, and their donations, too.
We must ask ourselves, which would the Conservative Party rather have – a small number of pre-paid members, or a large army of supporters who join for free and give their time?
Focused, issue-based campaigns like the independence referendum are good opportunities to do this kind of work. When such issues are live, various tracts of the electorate become more motivated than normal, and if they find the Conservatives are on the same side as them then that experience can help to overcome mistrust or stereotypes which would otherwise prevent them from ever considering voting Tory.
Grant Shapps’ Team 2015 initiative and the targeted data-gathering exercises such as How Much Would Labour Cost You, are a good start – but they must expand swiftly to produce a new, stronger Conservative Party.