Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.
Most of the debate about what the
Conservative Party needs to do to win overall majorities at future General
Elections focuses on policy and message – and rightly so. Even without an
organisation on the ground, parties with an attractive message can achieve
But organisation does matter.
In marginal seats, it can make the difference between victory and defeat.
And our organisation is not what it used to be.
The way in which we have
historically organised ourselves now compounds that problem in two ways.
First, because we still generally
organise on a constituency-by-constituency basis (with each constituency having
its own Conservative Association which is largely left to get on with things)
rather than pooling resources across a wider area, the general decline in
membership has been felt most in safe Labour seats and Conservative/Labour
marginals, particularly those in parts of the country that are more difficult
territory for us. In some safe Labour seats, we have simply ceased to
exist. And in many Conservative/Labour marginals, our membership is so
small that it is difficult to raise funds for campaigning or find enough people
to deliver our literature. What strength we have left tends to be in safe
Conservative seats and it is very difficult to motivate activists in these
areas to go and campaign elsewhere where their efforts might have some impact
on the number of Conservative MPs elected to Parliament.
Second, because the central
organisation of the Party is under the control of the Leader of the Party, our
organisational focus is always on the next general election to the exclusion of
all else. When I worked at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, we would
agree after each General Election defeat that we needed to rebuild a
Conservative presence in places like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and
Newcastle. We would start to invest a bit of resource in this, but as soon
as a General Election approached everything would be focused on winning that
Now you may ask whether it really
matters that we have no presence in these areas. I would argue that it
does for two reasons. First, there is an issue of principle: I believe
that at our best we are a ‘One Nation’ party. We do not seek to pit one
section of society against another as Labour does, but to unite people of all
backgrounds from all parts of the country who share a set of values. We
can’t do that if we don’t aspire to represent all parts of the country.
But there’s also a practical reason why our lack of organisation in our major
cities matters: it affects our prospects of winning suburban marginals.
The media tends to be based in cities. If they don’t see Conservative
activity in their area, it affects their coverage – which is read, watched and
listened to by many people in suburbs as well as in the cities themselves.
So we face three problems: the
decline in the number of people willing to join a political party; the particular
impact this has had in safe Labour seats and some marginals because we organise
on a constituency-by-constituency basis; and the way in which our organisation
focuses on the next Election to the exclusion of all else. What should we
do about these problems?
Getting more people involved in the Party
We have to accept that the days when
over a million people were prepared to join the Party have gone for good, so we
need to find other ways of engaging people with the Party, whether that’s by
registering as a ‘friend’ online, supporting a particular campaign, getting
involved in a social action project or attending a public meeting organised by
their local MP or councillor. By way of example, in Croydon I’ve started
advertising the Conservative Policy Forum meetings that I speak at to all the
electors for whom I have an email address, and as a result we’ve increased
attendance at these meetings five-fold. The lesson is clear: there are
far more people who will attend a public meeting, help out clearing up the
local park, support a campaign to save the local library from closure or even
help to deliver our literature than are willing to pay a membership
One big opportunity to engage more
people is when we select candidates, whether for council elections or for
Parliament – and doing so is likely to boost the electoral prospects of those
candidates too. In Totnes in south Devon in the
run-up to the last General Election, the local Association sent all 69,000
electors a postal ballot paper. 16,639 people returned their ballot
paper, 20 or 30 times as many as would have taken party in a traditional
process. They chose Dr Sarah Wollaston, who was duly elected Member of
Parliament with 3,000 more votes than her predecessor.
If we are selecting a
candidate, holding a discussion meeting or running a campaign, our aim
should be to get the maximum number of people involved, regardless of whether or
not they have paid a membership subscription.
Some people argue that
this will make matters worse: if there aren’t significant benefits to being a
member even fewer people will join, they say. I think this is mistaken on
several levels. First, some things will be still reserved to members
(when it comes to selecting candidates for example, members should still
control the initial sift, otherwise there is a danger of our opponents
controlling the process and selecting someone unsuitable). Second, most
people don’t join the Party because of the benefits attached to being a member,
but to make a contribution to the Conservative cause. But third and most
importantly, people are more likely to join a vibrant organisation.
Organising on a
When deciding what our
organisational structure should be in a particular part of the country, we
should be guided by three principles. First, identity: Associations
should cover areas that people identify with. Second, scale: Associations
should cover a large enough area to sustain a viable organisation with a
headquarters and some professional support. Third, permanence: if
possible we want to avoid having to re-organise ourselves every time
constituency boundaries change.
In Croydon, we’ve merged the three
Associations within the borough to form the Croydon Conservative
Federation. This passes the identity test: no-one identifies with
the constituency boundaries; they identify with the borough. It passes
the scale test: we have an office and can afford to employ several staff.
And it passes the permanence test – the borough of Croydon isn’t going anywhere
And strange though it may sound,
this organisational shift has changed our culture. We think of ourselves
as ‘Croydon Conservatives’. When there are Council elections, we go and
work in the marginal wards, whether they are in ‘our’ constituency or another
part of the borough. When there’s a General Election, everyone works in
Croydon Central. People attend branch fundraising events right across the
borough, not just those in ‘their’ constituency.
There are other solutions short of
federation. In Gloucestershire, the six Associations have kept their
independence but come together to fund a state-of-the-art county campaign
centre. In other parts of the country, Associations have kept their own
offices but share an agent who works between these offices or a safe
Conservative-held seat pays for professional cover in a nearby marginal.
What matters is not the detailed structure, but the principle that we
concentrate the resources – both financial and human – that we have in the
seats that will determine whether or not we win elections.
matters. We can’t afford to ignore the decline in our organisation any longer.
Alongside the strategy Lynton Crosby is developing to win the next Election, we
need to think about a long-term plan to rebuild our Party.
This is an extract from a book of essays to mark the launch next
Monday of a new campaign group looking at ways to broaden the appeal of