Garry Heath is the Chairman of Wycombe Conservative Association. He is also currently the Director General of Libertatem, the Impartial Advisers’ Trade Association.
In the wake of the EU referendum result, Conservative Association Chairman will have to display leadership to heal a deeply divided Party. This task will be made more difficult by the leadership contest that has been thrust upon us.
But we must also recognise that unless the party changes its structure, we will not be relevant to the electors who voted against the political class that has become so detached from both the public and from the party membership that gets them elected.
Let us start with healing. Conservative members are, fortunately, both a forgiving and resilient bunch, and most constituencies will have seen the referendum conducted in a civilised manner. Those members who supported Remain are likely to accept “the will of the people” – not least because the turnout was so large.
Chairmen need to guide the discussion towards the future rather than an autopsy of the campaign itself. The referendum aftermath presents all local parties with terrific membership opportunities. In my constituency, Leave has recruited ten times the number of volunteers that we have as members. A large number of these volunteers are not party members, so the opportunity for new members is here for associations that move quickly.
There will also be opportunities to recruit from UKIP. The referendum result has rendered UKIP somewhat superfluous. Many of their members will have worked with Conservative members and have developed relationships. Others are ex-Conservative members who may wish to come home. Whilst there may be immediate opportunities to recruit, once our new leader is elected there will be the potential for wholesale member acquisitions.
The one group that maybe to more difficult to assimilate will be those party members who have completely bought into “the European Project”. Most Chairmen will know of members who may be more emotionally attached to the EU than the Party. This is particularly true of a minority of Conservative MPs. We must try to keep these folks on board, but only if they want to.
Moving to structure, if the Party is to make progress it needs to understand what moved over 17 million voters to reject the experts and vote out. Remain and the political elite that supported them “bet the farm” on this one, and lost.
Across most democracies, there is increasing voter anger about a political class who believes that it has the monopoly on knowledge, and that they are the ranchers and that we, the people, are the cattle. The biggest issue I had with Project Fear was the disdain it showed for the general public who it believed were idiots who could be stampeded into the correct decision.
If the Conservative Party is to be relevant, it will need to start to treat its members with respect and be a far more democratic in its structure. In particular, it needs to be the pin that pricks the “Westminster Bubble” and fights its underlying smugness.
Currently, members know their status from the communications they receive from CCHQ. We all receive an e-mail which generally purports to come from a minister. It rarely tells us anymore than we read in this morning’s newspaper. It comes from a “no-reply” email address, so there is no way to respond. Finally, always a demand for cash.
Every CCHQ Email tells the members their place. “Here is what we think, we don’t care what you think – send us more money, plebs.”
This attitude comes right from the top. The low point of the referendum came for me when the Leader of this Party told our MPs to ignore the attitudes of the membership. This was compounded by memories of the “swivel-eyed loons” comment from the Chairman. How can you recruit potential members when that happens?
We need a long look at CCHQ and its smug attitude. The Party Structure Review needs to be put on hold, as it was in danger of increasing the influence of this metropolitan political elite, and marginalising members even more. We also need to re-establish that the membership has real influence over the running and policies of the party. We need to elect the Chairman, rather than have him the current leader’s university chum. We need a clear path for members to progress within the party – rather than keeping quiet and doing the political classes’ bidding, and the Party Conference needs to return to a members’ convention not a lobbyists love in.
Our first opportunity for influence will be the leadership election. We need to know from those candidates not only their views on the nation’s future but on the Party’s future. Hard questions need to be asked, and we Chairman and our members need to be far less submissive in the process. Members appoint the leader: we need to use that influence to create change.
Our second opportunity may be coming sooner than is helpful – namely, a new General Election. We are going to see a great number of vacancies. We need to select candidates who have real experience of the outside world and avoid the shiny SpAd candidates that we will be encouraged to adopt.
Some Associations should also take a long look at the conduct of MPs who wish to stay in the EU. Has the electorate lost all respect for them? Can they contribute to a post Brexit world? Is there any danger of them jumping party? Better to deal with this before an election than after.
The Conservative Party is potentially in the best place for 50years. It needs to re-establish itself as the party of those who aspire to do better. A voice for the self-employed. A voice for those who love their country, and a voice which listens to real people and does not get entangled in metropolitan fashion.
We can hoover up the votes on the millions who have voted UKIP, particularly the aspirant working class, and those who voted in the referendum but avoid general Eeections. Labour can represent a metropolitan elite, the Conway Hall agitprop and some state workers. There may be some new Social Democratic movement, but with the European Project removed what will be their reason for existence? There are great prizes to be one but only if Association Chairman display leadership – now