Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
The past few weeks have shown how the Conservative Party can pull together and unite in the best interests of our country. On the steps of Number 10, Theresa May set out an ambitious mission of opportunity for all regardless of your background – a Britain that works, ‘for everyone, not just the privileged few’.
Her mission was backed up on these pages by our new Party Chairman Patrick McLoughlin who said the Party machine will do what it can to keep us in power and delivering that ‘One Nation’ agenda.
However, just as Conservatives believe in the ability of individuals and communities to solve their own problems, we should not leave the mission of delivering opportunities, for those from less privileged backgrounds, to just those Conservatives in government. It should be a mission of our entire party, making full use of the resources and infrastructure that we enjoy.
Over the years, I have worked with fellow Conservatives to win the confidence of those who may not, at first appearances, be natural Tories. Many of these people share exactly the same values as Conservatives. They want opportunities for themselves and their children; they understand the value of hard work; they want life to be a little easier, with their hard work rewarded by a home of their own and a good standard of life.
The Conservative Party has pushed itself into a mind-set that there are no-go communities, either demographic or geographic. That must change. Ruth Davidson has shown in Scotland that even areas that we thought were lost to the Conservative cause can be regained.
We might be able to win elections by showing that we can manage the economy better than Labour, and that our pro-enterprise policies will generally trickle down to help more people than Labour’s policies.
We know that the Left theorise that throwing ever more taxpayers’ money at poverty will simply solve the problem. But on the right, we often take an equally theoretical view that rolling back the frontiers of the state will see civil society flourish to fill the gap or encourage people to help themselves.
But we don’t live in the theoretical world of economics text books which assume every individual is a “rational economic agent”. Some people don’t see an alternative to the state and while a welfare state does offer help to many people, it can also trap them or even fail those in need. If we are to roll back the state, the Conservative Party must play its part in stepping forward to fill that gap.
In the past the Conservative Party was visible in many communities, not just through Conservative clubs, but also through the local Associations as well. We need a discussion on how we can rediscover the sense that our local party organisations are not just there to push leaflets through doors and run away before the occupant gets to the door.
How can we make our Associations part of our local communities again? As hubs of voluntary and community work, fundraising, and even incubators of local enterprise. I know that many people reading this will say that their Association Membership has dwindled, and that it’s easier for me as a London politician to say that we should open up offices that are usually on busy high streets. I’m not pretending that this will be easy or that it can happen in every city, town or village, but surely we now need some radical thinking to stop an inexorable perception that grassroots Conservative Party membership will decline.
Most Conservative-minded people are also community-minded. We have to ask why they join the Conservative Party today? For many people they complain that they join, get a letter, and then only really hear from the local party when they want something. People don’t join political parties for the raffles; they join to make a difference. By giving them that opportunity, perhaps we can reverse the decline in our local Associations and tackle some of the problems in local communities.
For example, instead of complaining about immigrants in the local area not speaking English, why can’t local Conservatives offer free lessons? Where the local job centre seems not to be helping people back into work, let’s set up a local jobs club, or run a jobs fair or a training session. I know some local Conservative associations who have already done done this and many more Conservatives who already work with local voluntary organisations.
I believe that this sense of Community Conservatism, as opposed to top-down Conservatism – would help to tackle the sense that politics is the preserve of a privileged few.
By all means, let’s make the state more efficient at delivering services, but where the state is a hindrance rather than a facilitator or crowds out voluntary initiatives, let’s roll back the state, roll forward society and place Conservatism truly at the heart of our local communities. With Labour in its current state of turmoil and its local branches being hijacked by trade unions or national campaign groups, we have a huge opportunity to rebuild the Conservative Party’s presence in neglected communities and to demonstrate that there are alternatives to the state in helping those in need.