Garry Heath is the Chairman of Wycombe Conservative Association. He is also currently the Director General of Libertatem, the Impartial Advisers’ Trade Association.
For the first time after many years of abstinence, I will be attending Party Conference in Birmingham. I used to be a conference junkie during the 1980s and 1990s, but the whole experience changed when the location moved from seaside to city centre.
Not only did the cost of attending increase significantly, but the conference moved from proper debate to a three-day TV show whose output was controlled to within an inch of its life. What CCHQ saw as professional was in reality mediocre and patronising. The conference’s purpose moved from a members’ event to a lobbyists’ convention.
The chance of the average member being called to speak was next to zero, and instead a string of Parliamentary candidates stood at the lectern, like lamped rabbits, desperately trying to remember what their media training course had taught them the week before.
Conference has lost its soul, and members are now just expected to fund and clap, and put up with fringe meetings as their only channel of communication. So should it change? Yes – as part of a much bigger package of Party reform.
Our Association has acquired another 130 members during the last six weeks as part of a national increase of 50,000 in the Conservative Party. We have taken action to make these new recruits welcome locally, but whether they stay or not will also depend on how they are treated by the national party.
We are not starting in a good place. Our previous leadership oversaw the deliberate marginalisation of Conservative Associations and members. Regional Offices were closed, and professional agents became the exception when they used to be the rule.
At one point, David Cameron told Conservative MPs to ignore the views of their Association members and, to add insult to injury, members were identified by the previous Chairman as “swivel-eyed loons”. Why should anyone join a party that ignores members and insults their views?
The Party leadership became part of the Westminster Bubble. Its only political aspiration was to deliver the New Labour agenda marginally more efficiently than Labour. Our ambition was also compromised by the all-out concentration on a small number of target seats. The 2010 general election dissolved into a Flanders-type battle of attrition over a small patch of ground by three parties with primarily the same policies gift wrapped in different rhetoric.
There was no attempt by any of three major parties to attract the white working class who wasted their vote on UKIP or stayed at home. There is a bigger world that SW1 and the Party needs to come to terms with quickly. Voters are sick of being lectured, divided and marginalised. We have to attract the average worker. Labour used to have that banner, but now only represents a metropolitan elite and some government employees.
The Brexit vote was as much a vote on the political class as the EU. Either we widen the membership of political parties and change the way they are funded, or the next stop will be a UK-style Donald Trump. Theresa May and her Government appear to understand this, and have identified that democracy itself needs to be bolstered.
If the Conservative Party is to remain relevant to our 50,000 new recruits; we must include them in its running. Members must have a proper voice in policy, and we must admit some home truths. CCHQ needs root and branch reform. It lives with the bizarre conviction that it is a successful campaigning organisation. It isn’t. It lost two of the elections in which Tony Blair led the Labour Party heavily. It failed to achieve an overall majority against that well-known charisma-free zone Gordon Brown, and barely scratched a win against Ed Miliband who we used to think was Labour joke leader until it elected Jeremy Corbyn.
CCHQ seems to believe that members and constituencies are an irrelevance to its metropolitan brilliance. We need to get back to real politics which deals with the people’s real issues. So it’s off to Birmingham today to see where the Party Review has got to, and to hear Theresa May speak. But the most important speech will be from Sir Patrick McLoughlin. He needs to show activists some real love and give them hope that they will be taken more seriously than they have seen for the past two decades.
Oh, and one more thing: if I am offered one more mug, I will not be responsible for my actions.