Priti Patel is MP for Witham, and former Secretary of State for International Development. This is the first of two articles about Conservative Party reform.
Our Party is the greatest and most successful political party in history. Nowhere in the world is there a political party with a better record of success at being democratically elected and running Government.
In 2017, we won 59 more seats than Labour, more votes, and a higher vote share than any Party at a General Election in a generation. And yet we lost valuable colleagues when we were unable to compete against a Labour movement who treat Corbyn like a modern day messiah and will do anything to get him elected.
High turnouts, a fluid electorate, and a volatile political climate has changed the dynamics of political campaigning and activism. While membership numbers limit our ability to knock on doors, deliver leaflets, and have direct face-to-face engagement, now is the time to address the question: how do we adapt to the changing political landscape to win next time?
It seems obvious, but we must become a grassroots movement again that empowers our members, trusts them, and respects their voice, views and opinions. Our volunteers come from all walks of life and they are our greatest asset. Their dedication and values have been at the heart of our electoral success.
Like so many, my membership of the Conservative Party began as a volunteer, 29 years ago, and I know that in a world dominated by 24-hour news and social media our volunteers, activists and members can feel under-valued. This has to be addressed. They are the beating heart of our movement, who loyally campaign with us and helped to take us out of 13 years in opposition.
Here are a few suggestions to provoke a debate, and give Brandon Lewis, his new team and the Party Board some thoughts as they work to secure the future of our great Party.
Firstly, as true Conservatives we must move away from the centralised approach of running our Party and devolve power to our members, once again becoming a grassroots-based organisation that is led by its members to run its own affairs. Within that, there are areas where we should value the contribution of our members, including candidate selection which has become a centralised process so remote from the grassroots that the very members who work to get their candidates elected are, more often than not, merely presented with a pre-determined list of people from which to choose. Often that list has been determined by the Party hierarchy in a highly un-transparent and undemocratic way.
Secondly, we need to be far more innovative with our membership fees, in terms of what it costs to be a member of the Conservative Party. We will never become a mass organisation again until we trust and value our members more. Many of our members give far more than money with their time and expertise, especially the young. Others donate well in excess of the minimum through much of their life, but understandably go through times when £25 – or £50 a couple – is a bitter pill to swallow in return for the right to elect the Party leader once every decade, and for the rest to be an unpaid postman.
We need to return to a time when membership was matched by a voluntary contribution, trusting the members to finance the party as best as they are able. We should consider keeping youth membership at £5 until the age of 25. Young members are worth their weight in gold in the social media and digital engagement skills which they bring for nothing. Members, however they contribute, are far more important than their annual subscription to the Party.
We all know from our own experience and our work at the grassroots that a one-size approach does not fit all, and the role of our members in the very activism that we want to promote, combined with the political instincts and experience of candidates and associations, must feature in how we recalibrate the grassroots. Building capacity for the ground war starts with our people and is critical to how we can continue to succeed in the future. Be in no doubt, our Party faces a battle. It is a battle that must be won house by house, street by street, ward by ward, and community by community, but must start by investing in our people. I will write more about all this on this site tomorrow.