Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
First, introductions. I have just emerged from a two-year stint in Conservative Campaign Headquarters. First in the press office, then latterly as Chief of Staff to Grant Shapps, who was our political Party Chairman at the time. The second job was fascinating. I absolutely loved it, not least because it involved probably the longest, most gruelling hours I have ever worked in my life.
For 18 months to polling day, the political part of the Chairman’s Office involved a mishmash of media work, diplomacy, leading the Team2015 volunteer project and financing/corralling the teams that led its various offshoots (Roadtrip, larger CF action days, six Battlebus teams, SNP-themed stunts), managing Grant’s support team, coordinating with the rest of the Party, and – from a unique vantage point – getting a helicopter view of the whirlwind of the General Election campaign. The competence and the chaos, the quarrels and the gossip, the victories and defeats…you name it: almost everything tends to fall into the orbit of the Chairman’s Office, at some point. Like the Whips Office, it is a clearing house – a junction box for decisions and bad news.
With Lord Feldman’s Party Review on the horizon, ConservativeHome asked me to scribble down a few observations and thoughts, in answer to this central question: How can we build a Conservative Party machine fit for the 21st century?
This week, I’ll address Party membership.
A standing caveat: I haven’t spoken with anyone in CCHQ before writing this. This is partly because I don’t want to get anyone in trouble – but it is also because the Conservative Party is important to me, and we should take this review seriously. Lord Feldman deserves praise for getting it going. It is long overdue. The group of us who care deeply about our campaign machinery may be quite small, but we should take the time to respond thoroughly, even if it means some quite geeky expeditions into A-B testing and the finer points of our Party’s constitution.
Our Party’s membership infrastructure is broken. Just like the Norwegian Blue in that famous Monty Python sketch, it is a dead parrot. It is not ‘resting’. It is not ‘stunned’. It is definitely deceased. It has ceased to be. It is no more. Our whole membership system needs to be abolished, and rebuilt for the digital age.
The blame lies not with any person in particular, but with our creaking Party Constitution, which needs substantial redrafting. For the fact-fans out there, here is how it currently works:
1) In a rash of enthusiasm you join your local Party, or sign up via Conservatives.com.
2) You pay a single, one-off fee of £25.
3) You get nothing in exchange for this.
4) Sometimes your data is shared with your local Conservative MP or candidate. But sometimes it isn’t.
5) Sometimes your data is shared with the leaders of your local Association. But sometimes it isn’t.
6) Your data will almost certainly *not* be shared with your local Conservative MEP, Assembly Member, Councillor, Area Chairman, Regional Chairman, or anyone more senior in National Convention, even though they have all been elected to represent you.
7) You will probably be told nothing about your local or regional Party.
8) Around this point, you will start to get letters asking you for money.
9) Your local Party will get taxed £5 by CCHQ, for the privilege of having you on their books.
10) This may sometimes mean that your Association hides you, ‘off the books’, to save money. Other Associations may simply not have the capacity to input your details into their computer system. But, the result is the same: there is a risk that you will never appear on CCHQ’s central database at all.
11) At some stage, if you have been logged onto the CCHQ system, your Association will be asked to reveal your postal address. But they do not have to input your email address, or your date of birth.
12) At the end of the year, your membership will unceremoniously end. Finished! That’s it! You will almost certainly be booted out: and forced to rejoin the Party. If you are lucky, you will get a letter or email warning you about this. But most of the time, you won’t. It is incumbent on your local Party to sign you up again. And, if they don’t bother, tough luck. Welcome to the Tory Party!
This is clearly suboptimal. It means that we leak members like a sieve. It is a rude way to treat our friends, and it is biased towards withholding and hiding data – which causes inactivity at all levels of the Party. It is the opposite of how Netflix, Sky television, or O2 would treat their customers. No-one, if starting from scratch today, would design such a broken system as this. But this is what we have.
There are many problems as a result. Chiefly: CCHQ does not know precisely how many members that we have, at any point in time. Because of our archaic Party Constitution, it is forced to tax local Associations £5 per member, and then guess – based on that sum of cash – at our membership figure about one year in arrears.
The system also causes massive headaches for our campaign efforts. It means fewer people get involved, smaller Associations wither away, and instead we have a massive underclass of registered Conservative supporters – who may contribute financially to our cause, deliver leaflets, share our graphics online, go out canvassing, and yet be denied the full rights of Party membership. For the sake of basic fairness, we have to change this. Everyone who supports the Conservative Party deserves the same rights as everyone else.
There is a final problem. Imagine you are in the CCHQ Press Office, monitoring the news. It is a late on a Friday evening a few days before a crucial election. And then the telephone rings. Disaster! It is a journalist. They tell you: some loudmouth on Twitter – who describes him or herself as a Conservative – has said something appallingly stupid and every newspaper in Britain is now running it tomorrow as an extremely negative story. The journalist asks: ‘Are they a Party member and will they be formally expelled?’ This is a fair question. The problem is, there is no direct way of checking. A modern political party needs the ability to defenestrate idiots and traitors – quickly – at the pace of the news cycle. But, at the moment, our poor bloody infantry in the press office have to simply hedge their bets, and say: ‘We are urgently reviewing this…’
So, how can this be fixed? Here’s what we should do:
1) Hire a proper Membership Department, with the best people from the private sector;
2) Centralise all membership records and all supporter data into CCHQ, so that there is only one kind of member/supporter, and their data is always held centrally;
3) Share all relevant membership and supporter data as widely and proactively as possible, with anyone who has a formal leadership role in the Party – all levels of the elected voluntary party, candidates, MPs, MEPs, Assembly Members, Councillors, you name it, depending on what local area they represent.
4) Devise some sensible rules of engagement for people communicating with members in their area (no spam, an easy unsubscribe function) and enforce those rules diligently.
5) Scrap the £5 per member tax, which is levied by CCHQ on Associations.
6) Instead, allow Associations to set their membership fees locally and then let them keep 100 per cent of the income that they generate. The current £5 levy is chicken feed to the Treasurers’ Department, and the benefits of a mass membership are vastly more desirable.