Stephen Canning is a member of Braintree District Council, and an Essex County Councillor. He is also Deputy Chairman (Political) of Conservative Future.
I’m excited. Really, really excited.
Is it because of the outstanding General Election result we achieved? Obviously I’m thrilled about that, but no.
How about the fact David Cameron has just outlined some brilliant plans that will help turn Britain into the nation we can be proud of? I am beyond happy that our country is getting what it needs, but not that either.
I’ll tell you why I’m excited - it’s because of something which (like all great things) has a small part to do with Essex, or more specifically, a man in Essex. That man is Robert Halfon, who, alongside Lord Feldman, is launching a whole-scale review of the Conservative Party, offering in Lord Feldman’s words “a plan to re-shape our Party, renew ourselves and grow stronger for the years ahead”.
I joined the Party eight years ago this summer after writing to my local Member of Parliament, Brooks Newmark, about a local skate park. From there I got involved in local campaigning and helped set up our very own local CF branch.
Last week, Beth Prescott, a CF member from Yorkshire and Parliamentary Candidate in Pontefract, inspired the Twitter hashtag #WorkingClassTories, which provided a fascinating insight into the makeup of our Party and the frustration many members feel at the misrepresentation of Conservative members.
The lesson she can teach the review is that we might not have “shy Tories” but instead “lack-of-a-reason-to-shout-out-Tories” (which is admittedly less catchy). When offered a space to speak and encouraged to do so, not in a centrally commanded way, our members are proud to showcase the diverse walks of life which they come from.
Lord Feldman and Robert Halfon have some bold ideas, some exciting concepts and some fundamentally new ways of thinking. This review will help open us up to challenge our current approach and ensure that we are best placed to continue delivering what the country needs.
This isn’t about policy, this is a review of how we recruit, maintain and entertain members and how we then take those members with us to win election after election.
This is something on which Conservative Future activists up and down the country will have some fantastic insight and proposals.
The lesson from each of the best young branches I’ve seen is that they’ve created a sense of unified identity and buy-in. A huge number of York students proudly proclaim themselves as York Tories – some many, many years after they’ve graduated. They do this because they feel that at every level they have ownership of the organisation and the power to shape it – something that the Party should look to emulate nationally.
This can be achieved by expanding the policy forum concept, where grassroots members come together to debate discuss policy issues, to the whole Party’s work – including how we conduct membership drives, national events we may hold or products that may be stocked in the merchandise store.
Team2015 managed to build up a movement of nearly 100,000 activists who raised their hands specifically saying they wanted to do something active to support the party, not just be another member on a list. That’s something far more valuable and powerful than £25 a year. The challenge now is how the Party can continue to harness their enthusiasm. That might mean accommodating them into our peace-time structure, or creating a new structure that will utilise them.
One of the most interesting lessons I learned from the campaign, which I also hope the review will take heed of, is the involvement of many campaigners with the party. Throughout my time I’ve been surprised by the number of activists who are either not members of the Party or who have joined it centrally. This in itself poses both a unique challenge and opportunity. How do you provide this flexibility of entry, whilst also ensuring good talent is still making its way into local associations?
The concept of a £1 membership mooted by Robert Halfon would be a fantastic start. But beyond that the Party needs to think how it identifies the future leaders of its movement among these people, equipping them ready to be on the frontline of campaigning in 2020 – perhaps by holding training weekends across the country. This will require investment and it will require commitment but it will also mean we will enter the next General Election in an incredible position.
The paradox here is that although we will need to ask less of our members to join, we will need to offer them more in return.
So as I said at the start, I am genuinely excited. I believe this review is an opportunity for our great Party to seize upon an amazing surge of energy and support, especially amongst young people, and at its helm we have two impressive figures.