Suzy Davies is Conservative Assembly Member for South Wales West.
For far too long there has been a debate about what Conservative Party membership actually gives our members in Wales. What do you actually get for your £25 per year?
Yes, being a member allows you to have a say in who your local association selects as your candidates in elections for the Westminster Parliament, the National Assembly, and local government.
And yes, you can have your say in who the leader of our Party is when the question is asked – even though the question itself is confusing at the moment. Leader of what, exactly?
For many of you, that will be all you get. And when we consider that years can pass without there being candidate selections and leadership contests, that £25 per year is looking like a pretty raw deal.
To some members, once you become an Assembly Member, or an MP or councillor, you are suddenly seen as being a member of the “professional” party as opposed to one of our grass-roots activists.
That can be unjust. Our hours can be long, and we are sometimes away from our constituencies for days on end. Even so, it is an image that some of our elected members at various levels of government do little to overcome. Suddenly being too busy to do the hard yards with our hard-working activists on the doorstep – until there is an elected looming.
Having been a candidate in both rural and urban seats, having served as a councillor, and having held a number of roles within the Party’s voluntary structures, I know what those hard yards can feel like. In all weathers and at all times of year, sometimes alone, often competing for time with work and family. Everyone is busy.
In my role as an Assembly Member, I continue to support our activists and candidates not only in my own region (seven constituencies) but across Wales, travelling from Anglesey to Cardiff in support of candidates in General and Assembly Elections and to Alyn and Deeside in North Wales for a crucial by election we had earlier this year. A bit of moral support, for candidates in difficult seats as well as target seats.
Successful parties, like successful businesses, invest in their workers. Membership needs to be about more than just having your name added to a mailing list so that you can be encouraged to come leafleting each weekend. Members are not there to be used solely as leaflet fodder.
You, our members, have ideas and opinions. You have experiences from all walks of life and from all parts of the country. We need to capitalise on those experiences and ideas to continue to improve our Party and build policy.
Having previously been the Welsh Conservatives’ Policy Director, I took up the task of compiling our manifesto for the 2016 Assembly Election. I say compiling intentionally as it was my plan, and belief, that we needed to engage with our members in Wales to hear their views on policy.
That task was more difficult that I imagined.
Emailing out to members, or to association chairs and deputies, led to some responses, but not enough. And when I spoke with members later it became clear that many never got sight of those policy requests, while others sent them back up the chain but they did not reach me.
This is why we need to start doing things differently.
Doing more online and through social media is crucial, but it is not a silver bullet. Yes, we must engage with you through modern formats, but we must not forget that many of you prefer to raise their opinions on a more personal level. There is a lot to be said for seeing the whites of someone’s eyes from across a table when discussing ideas.
Let’s give those old fashioned local Conservative Policy Forum meetings an injection of the 21st Century. First question: do they work for you at all? If not, would they be better if you could join in via Facetime or Skype, in real time?
We rarely watch TV in real time these days. How do you feel about contributing via catch up if being part of a live meeting is unrealistic for you?
While Wales is a relatively small country, many members feel that the concentration of activity in the south east, around Cardiff, just replicates the problem for the rest of the UK: too much happens in London. If you live outside Cardiff, it can often feel like all the time and attention is focused away from you, whether you are in rural West Wales, the cities of North Wales, or even just up the road in Swansea.
We need to reverse this perceived divide.
By taking the Welsh Conservative Assembly group on tour around Wales, we can get to the heart of our communities and find out what you really think and how the decisions of the current Welsh Labour Government actually affect your lives on a daily basis.
This is something I already do in my role as a Welsh Conservative spokesperson. I have travelled to Anglesey to meet businesses and to Gwent and Welshpool to discuss culture and heritage. However, l’d like to see the whole Assembly Group carve out time to do this together throughout the year. All the better if our MPs can join us.
We also need to open up the party to new voices. The Assembly group has already announced the setting up of a youth cabinet, but the Welsh party needs to allow members to take some responsibility to include and highlight the experiences of women, people with disabilities, ethnic minorities, younger people, and carers in their own policy proposals.
We make better decisions if we hear from Conservatives of all backgrounds and from all parts of Wales. It also helps us prompt others to ask themselves whether they too might be Conservative, as I did. We might too stand a better chance of persuading more members, from all backgrounds, to stand for election. We need candidates who can not only represent but reflect the communities we hope to serve.
This is important if we are to produce policies for the whole of Wales – and even more important if we are to act as a credible opposition to the Welsh Labour/Lib Dem Government in Cardiff Bay.
However, it is vital that we do this if we are to replace that coalition Welsh Government with a Welsh Conservative-led government at the next election in 2021. That’s got to be worth £25 of anyone’s money. We owe it to our members to adapt and grow as a Welsh party, but just as importantly, we owe it to Wales.