Jake Berry is MP for for Rossendale and Darwen.
Our Conservative Party is well known for its ruthless efficiency when despatching and electing new leaders. This was shown in the coronation of Theresa May. The battle was clean, fast and efficient and it gave our Party the opportunity to unite around a woman with the potential to be one of the greatest of our Great British Prime Ministers. She is an excellent new leader.
Following this triumph, many of my colleagues in Parliament are looking on with glee at the continuing woes of the Labour Party. Their ongoing leadership battle is tearing the Opposition apart. No-one does circular firing squads like the left. It is the bloodiest of blood sports and the current shambles in the Labour Party is proof that they are currently unfit to govern our country because Jeremy Corbyn cannot unite his parliamentary party.
Where Corbyn is effective, and which should concern us as Conservatives, is that in 48 hours this week he inspired more people to join the Labour Party than there are members of the Conservative Party nationally. This has grossed the Labour Party almost £5 million, making an activist-rich, left-wing, Momentum-dominated Labour Party a real threat to the Conservatives.
I know this threat is real because Momentum is out in force in my constituency. Local meetings and visits now host a small but growing and motivated group who spend these events regularly trying to shout me and our government’s achievements down. Conservatives simply do not behave in this way, but even if we did, with association membership standing at 250 it is hard to imagine us having the strength in numbers to turn up in force at every local gathering. To put this in perspective, my reserved estimate for the Darwen Labour Party is nearer 1,000 – a huge natural advantage in this northern marginal.
The General Election proved that there is a ‘silent majority’ out there who support us and many of them will help us if we ask them. They don’t go on protest marches, they don’t sign petitions or wave placards but over 11 million of them voted Conservative in 2015 and we need them to join us now more than ever. It doesn’t need protest marches or rude placards about the Labour Party to take advantage of the opportunity a new leader brings to at least double our membership numbers. If we are to win the next election we need to bring more people on board, engage younger people and get our positive, One Nation message of a party that works for everyone out to as many people as possible.
The Conservative Party’s recent review highlighted membership administration as an area where reform is needed. I would go even further and suggest it needs complete revolution. Many associations suffer from out of date records that are hopelessly inaccurate. This is caused by limited resources and an inordinate amount of time is spent trying to resolve basic membership queries. If we were to centralise our membership system and let a department in CCHQ manage databases, membership renewals and reminders, associations could continue to receive the bulk of the fee but they would be freed from admin and bureaucracy, leaving them free to concentrate on campaigning, recruiting and winning elections.
There are tried and tested ways to increase participation. Having worked with Grant Shapps on setting up Team 2015, I know this can be done. I remember when we signed up our 1000th activist, then we hit 2000, and then 3000. From a standing start we created a network of activists who could make a real difference on the front line. At the time we were told point blank that this could not be done. The scepticism ranged from comments such as ‘”people don’t join political parties anymore” to outright hostility from local Conservative Associations who believed fighting elections is “like being a member of a magic circle and secrets should not be shared with anyone”. It took a lot of grunt work to get it off the ground but we can and must repeat this to win again.
I’m a firm believer in best practice which is why in Rossendale and Darwen we have rolled out Andrew Kennedy’s ‘registered supporters’ scheme that has worked so well for West Kent Conservatives. In addition to our membership we now have 600 registered supporters who are invited to local events, join in on campaigning activities and social occasions. During the leadership election, I made the point of emailing both members and supporters to ask for their views. This wasn’t just a PR exercise, I was genuinely interested to involve them to hear who they would nominate in my position. Their responses were thoughtful and helped me decide who to support.
So we can and must do more to harness those who voted Conservative in 2015. The good news is that the work has begun. My local association’s membership has increased 20 per cent over the last month as participation has increased in response to the leadership contest. With our new Prime Minister’s popular agenda of fairness for all, we are better placed than ever to encourage people to get involved.
But we must act now because when the Labour Party finally find a leader who can win elections they will be well funded, backed by the Trade Unions and will have over half a million members ready to help them. The Conservative Party must seize this opportunity. It is time for ‘Maymentum’.