Robert Colvile is the Director of the Centre for Policy Studies.
A few years ago, the intercom went late at night. It was a local Tory activist, who wanted to check how I was voting. “Let me put it this way,” I said, “I’m a senior leader writer for the Daily Telegraph.”
I’ve long been part of the Tory tribe. I grew up in a part of the country where (as Jeffrey Archer once put it) they didn’t so much count the Tory vote as weigh it. My mother ran the village Conservative association, and was one of the activists who took a punt on a young unknown called David Cameron when he ran against Andrew Mitchell to be our MP.
I worked at the Telegraph for a decade. More recently, I edited CapX, and now run the Centre for Policy Studies. But here’s the thing. In all of that time, the Conservative Party has never actually asked me if I wanted to join it.
Indeed, the thought never seems to have crossed its mind – even when I actually registered to vote in the London mayoral primary in 2015.
The other day, I was at a dinner with various others with similar backgrounds. One had briefly worked at CCHQ. One was even an MP. Only one of us, that we could recall, had ever actually been asked – at any point in our careers – to sign on the dotted line. (And it wasn’t the MP.)
The recent arrival at CCHQ of Brandon Lewis, James Cleverly, and a horde of talented new party vice chairmen will, hopefully, be a galvanising moment for the Conservatives’ organisation.
Already, the changes have started. A few weeks ago, visitors who clicked on the “join the party” link would see an autoplaying video of party chairman Patrick McLoughlin announcing: “I joined the Conservative Party in 1977. I believe in the good government can do.”
Even his closest friends would not argue that Patrick McLoughlin, in jump-cut close-up, was the sexy young face of the Tory party. Or that going in on 1977 was the way to attract new voters. Or that those enthused by “the good that government can do” would naturally gravitate towards the Tories.
But it didn’t even matter. Because this video didn’t even have subtitles, the golden rule of internet video. So all most users would see was a mute video of a large man in a beige room.
Now, if you visit the same page, the face of the party is the brilliant Kemi Badenoch – one of those same talented vice chairmen.
But it’s not enough just to get the presentation right. The Conservatives need to reach out, too. Every one of us around that table had dozens of friends, working in all kinds of industries, who were absolutely petrified about Jeremy Corbyn. Would they sign up to join the Conservative Party, and tramp the streets knocking on doors? Almost certainly not.
Could they be recruited for some kind of “Anti-Corbyn League”, or persuaded to chuck a few quid in to it? Almost certainly.
These aren’t CEOs or company directors. They’re the worker bees who want to keep their small share of the honey. But as far as I can see, they’re not even on the party’s radar.
As Mark Wallace and others have pointed out on this site, the Labour Party has become pretty good at marketing itself. But its recruiters don’t go in on Saint Jez. They pick people up via single-issue campaigns. Do you love foxes? Sign our petition to protect them. Do you want your children’s school protected from the Savage Tory Cuts? Just give us your email address.
The result – alongside the Corbyn personality cult – is that Labour has a flourishing mass membership. The Conservatives, as we all know, are lagging far behind.
The other day, I actually went through my inbox – I am, for obvious reasons, on various Tory mailing lists – to see what attempts the party had actually made to win me over.
There was, as I suspected, pretty much nothing. That acknowledgement email in 2015 had a “join the party” line at the bottom. But it was given equal weight to an oddly capitalised injunction to “Leave the Party a gift in my Will”. Which in itself says something about the membership demographic.
In the years since, most of the campaign emails have read like they’ve been sent from a Nigerian spammer, borrowing the identity of a succession of Cabinet ministers: “How Robert can stop Corbyn and Khan:”, “Exclusive invitation”, “Watch this, Robert”, “Lets rise to this moment together Robert” (that last mistyped missive sent in the name of, yes, Patrick McLoughlin).
At a time when every business – especially the media businesses I have worked in – lives or dies by its ability to develop and retain customer loyalty, the Tory party has displayed a magnificent insouciance to the whole process.
And even if you are tempted to sign up, you have been offered nothing beyond the chance to “play an active role in the Conservative Party”. By which they mean being asked to canvass and do phone banks. Oh, and you can also “attend our annual Party Conference and receive voting rights in Party elections”.
Last year, Robert Halfon gave a speech to the Centre for Policy Studies and 1900 Club in which he argued that the Tories should be a modern trade union. The idea received the predictable level of scorn from the Left – and some on the Right.
But as Robert pointed out, what he meant was that, like trade unions, the Tories should actually offer something to their members: discounts, group savings, insurance, fuel cards, bus passes for young apprentices.
It’s not actually a new idea. Christopher Shale, a former board member at the Centre for Policy Studies and constituency chairman for David Cameron in my own constituency of Witney, wrote his famous “Operation Vanguard” memo about how to revive Tory associations by appealing to the “politics light” majority. Central to that was the idea of actually giving people something for their membership, beyond endless demands.
Whether it’s the Shale/Halfon model or my own suggestion for an Anti-Corbyn League, there are all kinds of ways in which Lewis, Cleverly and their new team can expand the ranks of the Conservative Party’s support. And I know they’re thinking hard about this.
But sometimes the simple truths are the most obvious. Why is no one signing up to support the Conservative Party? Perhaps it’s because no one’s ever actually asked them to.