William Rutherford is Chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Conservative Association and of the West Kent Group of Conservative Associations.
During the last few months of campaigning I have tackled some difficult questions on the doorsteps, but one in particular stood out – “Why would anyone want to join a political party?”
As Chairman of an Association, falling Party membership is a key concern. It’s clear why political parties want members. At the national level healthy membership numbers are seen as giving a political party legitimacy, demonstrating that essential link between the governing party and the governed. At the local level members are vital to our campaigning effort – conducting what has become known as the “ground war”.
Anyone who was involved in the recent campaign will know that there are some significant gaps in our “ground forces”. Some Associations have managed to retain their campaigning ability, but in many parts of the country, either through neglect or complacency, our frontline is crumbling.
Team 2015 did a great job at plugging our gaps during the campaign, but bussing in volunteers a few weeks before an election is simply not a sustainable solution. We need to ensure that we have local members who understand their communities and represent them within the Party, just as they represent the Party within their communities.
In West Kent we are lucky to still have a good activist base. By bringing together five Associations into a grouping we have been able to employ a professional staff, share our campaign experience and provide mutual support to each other, as well as to target seats in our region.
Nevertheless we can see that membership will become an issue for us. Our activists are veterans of many a campaign, and a traditional approach to recruitment is simply not sufficient to replace our losses to age or infirmity – the trend is not our friend.
People join political parties for a variety of different reasons. Some join for personal benefit, such as becoming a candidate or an elected official. For some there is a social element to membership, perhaps the opportunity to attend events with their MP or to identify with a particular social group.
The largest motivator, however, is ideological – belief in the party’s aims, goals, or values and the desire to help deliver these through supporting the party.
We know that across the county 11.3 million people voted for Conservative candidates on May 7. We certainly can’t expect a meaningful number of them to suddenly turn into activist, but we need to find a way to draw some of them towards us, securing not just their vote, but their wider support.
This will not be achieved by charging them £25 to deliver leaflets in the rain, while we spend their £25 on membership administration, meeting invitations and letters asking them for more money.
Here is West Kent we are trying a new initiative to widen our support base, taking advantage of the good will generated by our election victory. Every household across our five constituencies will receive a “thank you” card from their respective Member of Parliament; alongside it will be a reply-paid invitation to be become a “registered supporter”.
They will not have to pay anything, join any committee, or make any commitment other than to give us their email address. In return they will get two newsletters a year from their MP, invitations to hear visiting guest speakers and an opportunity to attend an annual drinks reception with the MP.
In order to test our theory, we have already trailed a version of the registered supporter letter. We identified a block of Conservative pledges for whom we had email addresses, but excluded all those who had in the past provided some sort of practical or financial support. This sample of about 2,000 voters received an email offer to become registered supporters. Within the first eight hours we had receved 250 positive responses.
We hope that over the next five years the loyalty of these supporters will continue to grow. We will not nag them for donations, or press them into action or share their details more widely. Instead we will aim to cultivate a bond with them, based on common interests and common concerns. In time we hope they may become the activists of 2020 and beyond.
Lord Feldman’s announcement that he is to review the Party structure is very welcome, and it is reassuring to know that these sorts of issues are being considered at the highest level. There are already some innovative ideas being generated across the volunteer party and I hope that in conducting this review Lord Feldman’s panel will give these consideration.
Where there are effective local structures we have the opportunity to test the different ideas. If we have the courage to experiment and to trust the appeal of our core values, we will be able to revitalise our grassroots.