Stephen Canning is Cabinet Member for Innovation at Essex County Council and a former member of the Conservative Future National Executive.
2016 has been many things. For some in politics it’s been an annus horriblis where everything they felt confident about was tested, and for others it has been an emboldening 12 months for individuals to speak out.
In Brexit, in Jeremy Corbyn, and in Donald Trump, we have seen that movements matter. Where people feel they have a genuine stake in the outcome, a voice at the table for the strategy, and part to play in the campaign, they will come out.
As a Party we have so much to be proud of. Labour’s shambolic leadership election, followed by an equally chaotic leadership challenge, is an embarrassing comparison to our swift and efficient selection of our new Prime Minister.
We now have a strong, capable leader with a clear direction and a mandate to deliver on a choice the people made. Behind her is a united Cabinet and a Conservative Party machine at the top of its game.
Our challenge, however, lies in our people. Where Labour have Momentum, we have direction – but not necessarily the people to march in that direction. The Conservative Party needs to urgently build a movement once more, a band of ‘Mayites’ ready to lead the charge.
Already great progress is being made – the Conservative Party Review is moving ahead with the centralisation of Party membership, an extension of officer terms to fit the electoral cycle, and a voluntary coming together of associations all progressing. But more needs to happen, and soon.
For starters, our young people should no longer be looked at as a potential pool of leaflet fodder. They will certainly, given the ageing demographic of our Party, play a valuable role in being the backbone of our future delivery network – but they can also be so much more.
A commitment to embedding young people within our Party, from association level upwards, rather keeping them at arm’s length, is a first step. We must ensure that each association, each area, each region, and the centre have a form of youth representation. Not a separate hierarchical entity, but an embedded, integral part of how our Party is formed.
We should ensure that we have training programmes on offer, training our young people up on modern campaigning techniques but also on public speaking, on interview techniques and other professional skills. Let’s make the Conservative Party a place you go to gain useful life skills, rather than just pushing leaflets.
By correctly harnessing the future talent of our Party, we can ensure it continues to grow and that those who move through its voluntary and elected ranks have the skills required to win in modern politics.
But to become a true mass movement we must move the Conservative Party away from an exclusive looking club, to becoming an open, empowering platform: an organisation geared to allowing those who share a common passion – a country of fairness which works for everyone – but who vary in the paths they wish to reach it, or the particular ideas they’d like to dig into to explore them.
Our Party needs to adapt to being a “party-as-a-platform”, where it offers up its members the tools to be able to go out and advocate for the Party, recruit for the Party, and champion the Party, without central hand-holding.
From access to members-only portal offering insight into campaigning and policy, to conference calls with senior members of the Party, and the sharing of certain strategies and ideas with a more direct way for members to input – there is much that can be done to empower the grassroots.
And we also need to quickly rethink how we ask our members for money. Donations are vital to the survival of our Party, like any campaigning organisation. But a cheapening of our Party by continuing to shift tea-towels and mugs, rather than investing in the development of valuable products – like specially collated books – or support for localised fundraising which can be shared with the centre, is not supportive for the long term health of our donor base.
We have strong Prime Minister who has a clear commitment to deliver for everyone in our society. Now let’s make sure she has the movement behind her to do that.