Syed Kamall is Chairman of the European Conservatives and Reformists Group and is an MEP for London.
After a poor general election campaign, our performance in the London was particularly bad. Seats were surrendered which we would have expected to retain; seats we could have gained returned whopping Labour majorities.
As a Londoner, and as the city’s MEP, it pained me to see a Hard Left-led Labour Party tighten its grip here.
Now, a wholesale examination of what went wrong nationally will surely be held – but one place to start is London.
Because the bitter truth is this: CCHQ does not understand how to campaign in London.
The Party’s headquarters may be located in London but it is not plugged into London life. It connects with the wonks who deliver policy papers and polling figures to Matthew Parker Street but not the Londoners who deliver the sandwiches, clean the windows or empty the bins.
London is not like the rest of country. Its relatively liberal social attitudes and diversity set it apart. So does the close proximity of wealth-creation and prosperity with social-deprivation and poverty. The contrasts are astounding. The Chelsea Flower Show blooms in the same London borough where the Grenfell Tower tragedy occurred. The towers of Canary Wharf, where some of the wealthiest make their money, can be seen from some of the poorest housing estates in Tower Hamlets.
For a place so populous and different, we need our own unique voice and a distinct Conservative brand.
We need our parliamentarians, City Hall Tories and London borough councillors all working in together in a co-ordinated way across the city – and we must learn to use social media in a savvy way to engage with an electorate that sees itself as the savviest in the world.
It may well be that, like Scotland, we need a devolved or separate party structure. That way, we could match our message and our actions to the territory, the culture and the people.
In the autumn, I am planning a series of seminars in London to ask how we can better engage with: younger voters; black and minority ethnic (BME) voters; and local communities via community Conservatism.
These are the three fronts on which we must engage to make a mark in a place like London.In recent years we seem to have given up on reaching out to younger voters and party members. Of course I realise CCHQ has suffered burned fingers more than once over the years from the activities of younger Conservatives or from “grown-ups” who claimed to have the magic formula for harnessing their energy.
But we must not ignore the need to reach out to each generation as it first becomes politically aware and active. And to do that we must be less prescriptive, less authoritarian, more helpful.
I am told that some university campuses these days are to all appearances Tory-free environments. Even before Conservative Future was disbanded, in some universities and associations there was no CF branch to join.
And those which did exist got little interest or help from the centre. The growth of CF was mainly down to the efforts of dedicated individuals.
“Here’s your card – now behave yourself,” seems to be the message.
We have to become a forum for ideas and debate rather than an organisation that imposes a set of rules and beliefs and demands adherence to them.
One of our first priorities in London will be to ensure that there is a Conservative presence at as many freshers’ fairs at universities across London as possible this autumn. I will also be working with London Region to help rebuild a replacement for CF at local constituencies, but led by younger members.
Our approach to voters from different BME communities must change, too. For too long we have merely said “We have an open door…”, then sat back and wondered why few people from under-represented communities step through it.
An open door is only any good if people feel they will be welcomed. If we want to attract more members or voters from London’s different BME communities, we need to show them that we have people who look and sound like them, not only in the party but getting on in the party.
We must encourage and promote talent, nurture ambition and aspiration in everyone whatever age, colour, religion, gender, orientation, accent or social background.
While my friends on the left would happily go on marches and protests in favour of greater equality, I used to think that just quietly getting on with the job and breaking barriers would be enough to demonstrate our party’s openness. By becoming first an MEP and then the first BME leader of any pan-EU political group in the European Parliament, I hoped that just by being here I would encourage many others to break down barriers, too.
It turns out I was wrong, and all of us in the party have to acknowledge that we have got it wrong.
I know we have got it wrong when I hear of an experienced Asian candidate, who voted Leave in last year’s EU referendum, but was told to apply for a parliamentary seat which heavily voted Remain at the recent general election. When he protested that the party would be mad to select a Leaver for such a seat, he was told he would win it and keep it for life. CCHQ failed to understand this. They viewed the seat purely through the prism of challenging a sitting BME Labour MP and a relatively large BME population. The Labour MP massively increased her majority.
So long as CCHQ’s approach to promoting talent is as clumsy and monochromatic as that, we will continue to struggle.
Many of us scoffed when Corbyn tweeted about unlocking the potential of BME citizens. But in retrospect I wonder how many young black or Asian voters saw that message – perhaps retweeted to them by dismissive Tories, including me – and thought: “Well at least he acknowledges I’m here and have a vote.”
Finally, we need a proper relationship with communities which have traditionally been a challenge. Not only must we acknowledge the unemployed, low-paid, vulnerable and ill – we must be out there talking to them and addressing their problems.
I have often spoken about the need for a new, radical brand of Community Conservatism and I believe now it is needed more than ever.
It means engaging with these communities every day. It means not only hearing about their challenges – but offering practical solutions.
If like me you would like to see less reliance on the state and more non-state solutions to poverty – real help towards self-sufficiency instead of contracting out your compassion to the state – then that means rolling up your sleeves and doing something.
If energetic and inventive people need employment, let’s harness micro-lending to help them start their own business. If newly arrived migrants can’t speak English, let’s offer free English classes at the nearest Conservative office instead of moaning about it.
It is no use expecting these hard to reach communities to accept us if we only turn up to talk to them at election time or – dare I say it – when a disaster strikes.
By engaging on these three fronts, we have a chance to regain the ground we have lost in the capital. We must listen to, engage with and help London’s young, its different minorities and its struggling communities – and start offering all some reasons to support us.