Brian Jenner is a member of Bournemouth West Conservative Association and has been involved in urban regeneration for the last six years.
As a member of the Anglican church I am familiar with the prayer for ‘all that builds up our common life.’ What is our common life? And what’s so good about it? Only now it’s starting to disappear does its value become clear. We’re living longer, we’re getting married later, some of us separate from spouses and it has a consequence. There is a growing number of single households in every street of our villages, towns and cities. Involvement in churches, political parties, amenity groups, and unions of all kinds has declined. We are a society of individuals.
The Conservative Party has suffered badly from this trend. Its independent local constituency structure was once a cornerstone of the local community. When elections came around they had an army of volunteers. They attracted clever and fashionable young men and women. No more.
Look at the Conservative Party website and it says, join us, deliver leaflets, and be part of the team that returns the Conservatives to power. Why would anyone want to do that? The modern consciousness is not conditioned to promote causes out of duty instead it asks, ‘What’s in it for me?’ – and of course, unless you want to be a councillor or an MP, there is nothing.
The Conservative Party has made an effort to change its policies but no effort to change its culture. Its attitude to its volunteers is extremely patronising. The Party is obsessed with fundraising: tickets for events, money for raffles not to mention regular begging letters.
Common life may be in decline, but people are unhappy about it. How has the church dealt with declining membership? The wing of the church that is in rudest health is the evangelical wing. Holy Trinity Brompton and its off-shoots the pews are packed. The secret of their success? Worship with a social network. They are constantly organising things and involving people.
The Conservative Party has to develop a strategy that involves people without preaching to them. Why not identify the decline of our ‘common life’ as a political evil it is determined to deal with? By discovering its roots as a well-organised organisation which brings smart people together it can succeed. Party officials need to focus on creative engagement with the communities they seek to govern. No return to the days of cheese and wine parties where the volunteers tug their forelocks to the MP. There are many more imaginative ways to raise funds and engage a new audience.
If a new restaurant opens in the town why can’t the agent contact them and ask them to lay on a buffet for the local Conservative Association? The restaurateur promotes his business, the agent organizes a lively event. Young professionals will pay £20 to attend a speed-dating event. Wouldn’t they prefer to go to decent political soirée with none of the stigma of a singles night?
The future of political parties is as training organizations. In London I chose to join a group called Toastmasters’ International instead of the Conservative Party. It’s a kind of public speakers’ anonymous. I spent five years practising public speaking, evaluating colleagues, organising meetings and recruiting new members. This is the kind of thing a political party should run for the benefit of its members. The slogan would be – join the Conservative Party and we will teach you how to speak in public and how to manage people.
Instead of initiating all new members into the art of leaflet delivery, identify the skills their members have and use them in a pro bono capacity. If you want to be successful in politics you have to be alert to technological change. If the Association hasn’t got someone with the skills to produce a decent newsletter or a website, contact the local university to find out if a young person will help them out in return for work experience.
The Conservative Party somehow thinks it can win again without reforming the local branches. One of my colleagues joined the Conservative Party two years ago. He worked extremely hard as a volunteer expressed the sentiment: ‘The more I get involved with the Conservative Party, the less inclined I am to vote for them.’ Electoral fortunes will not improve until this problem is addressed.