This is the second of three posts about Conservative Party reform. Read the first here.
As Paul argued yesterday, there is a need for fundamental reform of the Conservative Party in order to ensure it is built to last. The short-term pressures of the electoral cycle have encouraged a succession of leaders and party chairmen to focus on winning – or in some cases surviving – the next election, while neglecting the medium- and long-term task of building and sustaining a successful movement.
It’s a difficult habit to break, but it must be broken.
In this second article in our series, I revisit the question of how to rebuild a grassroots Conservative Party:
- The grassroots matter – they aren’t just for show. An effective party needs its experts, philosophers, candidates, policy wonks, comms experts and logistics people. But without a motivated grassroots base, those institutions are like tanks without crews to operate them. Ultimately, a campaign needs people around the country delivering its message and promoting its values, or else it is doomed to failure.
- It is an unavoidable fact that Conservative membership figures have declined drastically in recent years. True, that’s part of a wider trend away from joining things, but we have suffered more than our main competitor, Labour.
- It is also an unavoidable fact that at times various senior members of our party have not treated the grassroots with the respect they deserve – the phrase “swivel-eyed loons” may be disputed but the very fact that it was all too believable shows the problem.
- The result of the atrophy at grassroots level was perhaps most vividly shown in the Eastleigh by-election. MPs were rushed to the seat not to lead the troops but to be the troops – long-standing neglect of the local Conservative machine left us struggling badly. Worse, it seemed to take the central party by surprise.
- There is some good news, though. In September we revealed that party membership numbers grew by at least 15,800 (11.7 per cent) last year. That’s the first year of growth in a decade, and Grant Shapps deserves congratulations for it (and for agreeing to publish the figures in the first place).
- A more specific reaction to the weaknesses revealed by Eastleigh has been to develop a shock troop approach. Team 2015, now composed of 25,000 volunteer activists focuses their time on target seats. RoadTrip2015 is a mechanism for delivering hundreds of people to target seats or by-elections for campaign days.
- Both the Team and the RoadTrip are useful, but they also have their limits. They can plug gaps in the line or help in set-piece battles like by-elections (with notable success in Newark in particular) but that is a world away from fighting a General Election, where we need people in over 600 seats all at the same time.
- The only sustainable way to compete simultaneously across the country is to rebuild the Conservative Party as a mass membership, grassroots movement.
- The first step in doing so is reforming the membership model. We currently ask people to pay for the privilege of leafleting in all weathers, giving up their time to attend meetings and receiving the brunt of anti-politics feeling from strangers whose doors they knock on. It’s a product best suited for masochists, and sales are limited. It should be possible to ‘buy’ membership with activism; in countless associations across the country people are in shorter supply than money. The Scottish experiment of Conservative Friends of the Union could be one model – or James Cleverly’s Candy Crush Conservatism offers another.
As well as reducing the cost of joining our party, we should raise the reward for doing so by increasing the power and representation of the membership. While we have a democratic system for choosing our leader, the rights of members and associations have otherwise been severely eroded. There ought to be radical reforms to the way the grassroots feed into policy, candidate selection and party management.
- Finally, our party should build alliances based on beliefs, not just on badges and brands. A century or more ago there were vast campaigns for single issues, like free trade, running alongside parties as well as within them. The germ of a modern equivalent can be seen in Robert Halfon’s successful campaign to cut fuel duty – it was right, it was economically sensible and it was popular. Imagine if we had built a free, simple organisation alongside the Conservative Party specifically targeted at delivering it. People care about issues even if they aren’t engaged by political parties – such a transactional approach (vote for us, get what you want on a topic you care about) is the only way to start on the long road of reconnecting the two.