Benedict McAleenan is a former
Conservative Agent and currently works in Public Affairs at Edelman. Follow Benedict on Twitter.
ConservativeHome has rightly been wondering about Party membership figures. And
the Sunday Times and Daily Telegraph, ever keen to help, have done the maths.
But Conservatives should not despair at the claims. As society has changed in
the last 60 years, so has the way people engage with brands and movements.
Across Europe and across the parties, traditional party memberships have been
dropping for decades.
To say that a drop is a “dire situation,” or “an emergency,” or that we’ll have no
GOTV operation come 2015, is just wrong. It suggests we can’t conceive of anyone
helping us without paying £25 first. It suggests we’re not comfortable with
alternative ways to build relationships.
Between 2008 and 2010, I worked for now Party
Chairman Grant Shapps, helping him to take his own majority from 5,946 to
17,423 – a swing of 11.1 per cent, or just over double the Party’s national average. It
isn’t a natural Conservative seat either – Grant won it in 2005 from Labour
after a hard, two-election struggle. Did we manage that by fretting about
membership numbers? Did we see a drop in membership as “an emergency”? No, of
course we didn’t.
We achieved a swing of 11.1 per cent by connecting with
the community at every turn, offering it something of value and keeping careful
track of our relationships so that we could turn to them when we needed. By the
2010 campaign, we could mobilise a thousand activists, but only a fraction were
Conservative Party members. Most were local people with whom we’d communicated
with, helped or worked with at community events in the years before. From
these, we built an incredibly effective campaign machine.
Like with so many campaigning issues, we can
learn from the private sector. For example, the major supermarkets, masters of
understanding their customers in depth:
If your nearest supermarket was a political
party, do you think it would stop at the categories of ‘member’ and ‘not
member’? No, it would delve deeper, gather data, analyse and respond. It would
find ways to draw non-members closer and closer and find other ways to get them
involved. And it would offer community-serving alternative resources, like they
already do with store-based community centres or recycling facilities.
That is how we’re going to win in 2015. A looser
but better organised machine. An intelligent, dynamic understanding of a wider
support base. And a whole-hearted integration with the community.
If you live in Welwyn Hatfield, every year
you’ll be invited to the local Christmas Market at Hatfield House. Run by
the Conservatives. You’re welcome to join in ‘Wel Hats’, a Wednesday
knitting session to raise funds for Help for Heroes. Hosted by the
Conservatives. You’ll be invited to a range of non-Conservative community
events. Advertised by the Conservatives. You can attend the Summer Party
of the Mixed Group, to fundraise for the Christmas Lunch of local elderly
people in sheltered housing. Hosted by the Conservative MP. You can help
your MP to solve real local issues by joining him knocking on doors every few
weeks – no need to wear the rosette if you don’t want to and everyone’s welcome
to pub lunch afterwards. Run by the Conservatives. You can attend a
Q&A fish ‘n’ chips event twice a year to quiz your MP on anything and
everything. Run by the Conservatives.
At these events, mirrored across the country,
helpers are working shoulder-to-shoulder with Conservatives to serve the
community. When it comes to election time, the same helpers will be motivated
to help us out not because of some membership card but because of the shared
community service. The technology and the data-handling that helps us to manage
this efficiently is new, but the community-building approach is where this
Party has almost always excelled.
How that translates in practical terms can be
seen in the mobilisation we’re already seeing at CCHQ. Team2015 is a national resource to deploy
crack troops to our target 40:40 seats. We did the same at a local level with a
team called ‘MPACT’ to great effect. The new face around CCHQ, Barack Obama’s
2012 campaign chief Jim Messina, is a master of grassroots mobilisation through
better use of data, showing that the Party is serious about understanding its
supporter base. The ground war is clearly being prepared.
The real grassroots of our Party is not just the
membership. To really access our grassroots we need to dig right down into the
community and access the shared Conservative values at work in our
neighbourhoods. Developing those relationships will help us win the next
election. Worrying about membership headlines will not.