Fiona Hodgson is President of the National Conservative Convention and chaired this year’s Conservative Party Conference.
Now that the dust has settled on Party Conference, I want to take this opportunity to look back at Manchester 2011 and set the record straight on one or two points. In the week that has passed since David Cameron’s speech, a lot has been written about the role of party members at Conference. As President of the National Convention and Conference Chairman, I don’t feel it would be right to let these pass without making some comment and – in some cases putting forward another point of view.
First, let me address head on the notion that Manchester 2011 was a "Conference without members". This is simply untrue. Not only did Conservative Party members form the single largest group at Conference, but over the last six years the number of Party Members attending Conferences have increased significantly – reaching a peak at Birmingham last year. Yes, this year the numbers of members were slightly down on 2010 – but overall, the numbers have increased by around a third since David Cameron became Leader and there were almost 1,000 more members at Manchester 2011 than Blackpool 2005.
Second, and even more important, the striking thing about Manchester 2011 from a volunteer’s perspective is just how much more was given to Members this year. There was a real sense that, this year, the Conference started to belong to us again – the Voluntary Party.
Take policy debates. For years, Members have been crying out for live debates in the main hall. Many of us wanted to go back to the good old days when volunteers have a strong voice on policy on the Conference stage. And what happened this year? Not only did we have two live Conservative Policy Forum (CPF) debates on the fringes of the Conference, chaired by the Minister for Policy, Oliver Letwin, but on the final day, the Voluntary Party quite literally took centre stage, with a debate slot on the main stage in central hall, featuring contributions from the audience and a strong panel. This was a real leap forward – and a fantastic success.
Look at other aspects of Conference and you see the same thing: a stronger voice being given to volunteers. For instance, at this Conference we had another Members-only Meet the Chairman session which I chaired and where Party activists could quiz the Party co-Chairmen. It was absolutely packed and could have lasted twice as long.
The point is that there has been a step change over the last 12 months at CCHQ in the way the Party thinks about its grassroots. Since being appointed, both of the Party Co-Chairmen, Sayeeda Warsi and Andrew Feldman, have gone out of their way to emphasise that they want to bring the strands of the Conservative "family" together, and have done far more to work with the Voluntary Party. Their joint statement in the Conference Handbook about how “the Voluntary Party is the Conservative Party” speaks volumes about their approach.
As a result, there have been some very real improvements during the past year. Among other things, the Office of the Voluntary Party has been established at CCHQ, headed up by one of the most able professionals, Stephen Philips. Following requests from the voluntary Party, the Conservative Policy Forum has been revamped and re-launched. The voluntary party also now appears for the first time on the Party website. The recent adjustments to the Candidates’ list was carried out without any interference from the centre. A new Speakers Bureau is being set up by the Chairman’s office to help Associations get the high profile speakers they need. More training is being provided for Association Chairmen by CCHQ. And with a new Members Toolkit and Members First newsletter, CCHQ is continuing to push hard on a Membership Drive.
Is there more that can be done? Of course! Clearly all this is a journey, but we are now a long way forward from the strained relationship that existed at one time between the membership and CCHQ. So I hope that just recognition can be given to the fact that members were not “airbrushed” out of the Conference this year, but that progress was made to ensure that their voices were heard. After all, to coin a phrase, “we are all in this together” and one thing that the Conference clearly identified was that we all want to achieve an outright Conservative Majority in 2015! And if we are going to make this happen, we need to work together as one strong Conservative team.