I chaired a panel on family policy yesterday at the Conservative Renewal Conference at Windsor: the speakers were Harry Benson of the Marriage Foundation, Kathy Gyngell of the Centre for Policy Studies and my former Parliamentary colleague Tim Loughton. Later, I was a panel member myself for a Question Time-type session with Adam Afriyie, Marta Andreason, Alex Deane from the City of London and Weber Shandwick, Simon Richards from the Freedom Association, and Matthew Sinclair from the Taxpayers' Alliance – very ably chaired by our own David Dimbleby, Windsor and Maidenhead's very own David Burbage.
Listing the other sessions and speakers would be a lengthy business, one perhaps better left the the conference's own website. Organising the conference will have meant a lot of hard work, so many thanks to George Bathurst, Richard Hyslop and Phil Sage, Conservative Renewal's co-founders. I'm sorry to have missed the meeting of the Conservative Philosophy Group, which took place at the same time as conference's final panel, and the dinner that followed the conference addressed by Jesse Norman. I would say that there were about 200 or so people present at the conference, and draw two conclusions from that fact and the proceedings.
- Ministers should speak at the Renewal Conference. As I write so, I'm not thinking primarily of the decision to pull Ministers out of this year's conference, though I agree with Adrian Hilton that it was wrong. Rather, I am mulling over CCHQ's view that Ministers should campaign in marginal seats and not visit "safe" ones. At first glance, this seems sensible; on deeper inspection, it's flawed. This is because what is true in this Parliament is true in every Parliament: CCHQ necessarily wants to focus on the marginals. It follows that members in those "safe" seats must resign themselves to being treated like second-class citizens, at least as far as interacting with the most senior of their fellow party members is concerned. No other organisation would run its affairs in this way: imagine the CPRE declaring that it would deliberately neglect its members in places where it had the largest branches. Furthermore, there is no longer such an animal as a "safe seat", and the decline in active party support needs to be reversed, fast. The Windsor Conference is becoming one of the larger gatherings of party members outside the party conferences proper. Ministers should go where members go.
- What members want most from David Cameron is a little bit of love. More autonomy in selecting candidates for Westminster and the European Parliament…more of a say at Party Conference…electing the Party Chairman…no shortage of solutions was offered yesterday to the fall in party membership. I would say that about a third of those present applauded or nodded when solutions of this kind were floated by speakers. This isn't to say that the remaining two-thirds disagreed, but the speeches, comments and suggestions from the floor suggested that what members want most isn't so much institutional change as emotional reassurance. In short, they want to know that the leadership is – as politicians put it – "on their side", and cares about them. They voted for Cameron decisively in 2005 (more so than MPs), but that early affection has cooled, for reasons too familiar for me to list all over again. During the quarrels between the Liberals and the SDP during the 1980s, Roy Jenkins once called for "a little bit of love" between the two parties. I came away from yesterday's conference thinking that what activists want most from the leadership is a little bit of love.