Paul Abbott is Chief Executive of Conservative Way Forward and an Associate Director at Portland Communications.
Without wishing to rehash my old columns on membership (see here and here), the grumbles about the mayoral primary ballot in London do rather underline the point. We lack a single, centralised database of our members: and this makes it diabolically tricky to run a primary vote. This is not the fault of CCHQ: it is the fault of our creaking constitution, which urgently needs reform.
The staff in CCHQ are good people, and they deserve a massive share of the plaudits for the victory in May. Most of what they do is Rolls Royce. But, on membership, they are trapped between the devil and the deep blue sea. Our out-of-date constitution forces us to sign up locally, not nationally; and as a result the Party has had to build (in-house) a series of fiendishly complex workarounds – FilePlan, BlueChip, Merlin, and VoteSource. These databases depend on local compliance, Associations are not always able to keep them updated, and they always have to be live-tested in the field, which can cause hiccups. This is the basic issue. We are burdened with an analogue constitution in a digital age.
One of the best things that we could do to improve our long-term strength as a Party – and to put Labour under maximum pressure – would be to centralise membership records and use off the shelf software to replace VoteSource. In other words, joining the Conservative Party should feel as painless and as simple as joining Netflix, Amazon, or Spotify: automatic renewal, managed centrally. Lord Feldman’s Review is our best hope of this in over a generation. We must give him the courage to be bold!
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Last week, I caught up with a few friends who were candidates in 2015, “back from the war”. Most were broke. Some had been forced to move in with their parents. A few were facing quite serious financial hardship.
Seeing them made me feel a bit sheepish. In the past, I have been slightly and perhaps even irresponsibly gung-ho about pressing ahead with selections – to keep up the pressure up on Labour. Forward! And all that.
But the reality seems to be that we have a whole swathe of young(ish) Conservatives out there who are shattered, and half-bankrupt. It is a lesson. For those on lower incomes, who are single parents, or who are self-employed, the campaign has taken its toll. Collectively, as a Party, we should do more to help them next time: that is, if we can persuade them to have another crack at it.
Robert Halfon wrote a thoughtful article about this very issue back in 2005, when he was a candidate working and campaigning at the same time. Iain Dale once estimated the cost of candidacy at around £30,000. And Tim Montgomerie found in a similar survey that people faced a financial burden of between £27,000 and £41,000.
There is no getting away from it. Campaigning costs money. It is an honour and a privilege to represent the Conservative Party, and it absolutely should involve some self-sacrifice. But we could also try to improve the machinery, to help those who are struggling to make ends meet. This could include regional bursaries for single parents, or helping to find cheap rooms for candidates on low incomes. It might also be worth setting up independent bank accounts, overseen by our professional field agents, to make sure that donations really do always reach candidates – rather than just being folded into general funds.
Most of the candidates who I spoke with were hugely positive about the experience, and would love to do it again. But, some of them genuinely struggled with the costs. One said:
“Travel, lunch for volunteers, renting a room… All of the above are essential, but the Association would not let me use donor funds for any of the above. So, you end up with a situation where I have raised enough money to produce good literature, but could not afford to get to the seat to deliver my own leaflets!”
Another told me:
“I had the strong impression from my Association that they were expecting me to quit my job during the short campaign, and be a full-time candidate, even though I could not afford my rent. It was hard. I wanted to do more, but could not afford it.”
A third candidate said:
“I was incredibly lucky that my family gave me a loan, and helped me out when I ran out of money. But, what about people who don’t have a family to fall back on? A bank will hardly lend you money for an election campaign that you may not win.”
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Finally, kudos to Conor Burns! A few months ago, he had a rather brilliant and cheerful brainwave about adapting the larger action days that CCHQ had been running through the election. In peacetime, he said, surely we should be building up our local activist base, rather than just swamping a seat with a one-day blitz? Instead of leafleting, he said, why not get people talking with friendly voters, inviting them to join the local Association?
It was a capital thought. I am pleased to say that Conservative Way Forward have now trialed his fine idea – twice. Once in Finchley, to help Mike Freer, and also in Bournemouth to help Conor himself.
In Bournemouth, Conor got a positive response from over 100 new people – all previously non-members – who attended an event and said, Yes, they would like to get more involved with the Conservatives. Which shows that it can be done!
Our plan at Conservative Way Forward is to scale this up, gradually, especially in our weaker London boroughs. We need more boots on the ground, to help our Mayoral and GLA candidates. The Conor Burns plan might be one way to do it.