Fringe events at the coming Conservative Party Conference to be held by the taskforces set up by the Conservative Policy Commission.
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Chris Skidmore is Vice Chair of the Conservative Party for Policy, and is MP for Kingswood.
As I have written previously, politics is the art of the narrative. Voters need to know who we are, and what we stand for, if they are to trust us with another five years in government. For the past two years, however, Brexit has dominated the political bandwidth. The correction to this anomaly will come: and, post-Brexit, there will be a rapid realisation that a new settlement of what an independent UK will truly offer its citizens will be needed. No longer will politicians be able to hide behind the well-worn excuse that EU rules prevent Westminster from enacting change or regulations. There will be a marked expectation of not only accountability, but also greater transparency in how our democracy operates. Above all, there will be a return to the ‘bread and butter’ of political discourse: domestic policy.
As the general election last year showed, voters do not just want to go to the polls to give their views on Brexit- something which they have already done and expect us primarily to get on with it. When asked, they know that it gives them the opportunity to choose a party that sets out how they will make their lives better, not just for them as individuals but also for their communities. They expect hope and they require change, not more of the same. And the party that is able to best able to make that offer, that communication of a vision, in words spanning no more than a few sentences- crucial for those campaigning on the doorsteps who are asked, what will you do for me?- will be best placed, external circumstances apart, to secure a majority.
With this in mind, I want to turn to the work that is going on, often unremarked, behind the scenes, in order to prepare the Conservative Party for the next general election manifesto in 2022, a general election that will define Britain’s path and its post Brexit settlement for the next decade.
In January, I was appointed Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party for Policy. This was a purposeful move, designed to underline the clear difference between the role of the Number 10 Policy Unit, in enacting existing manifesto commitments, as well as developing and driving current government policy announcements, and the political role of the Conservative Party in designing policies for elections for the future, policies that we would seek to deliver if we are able to secure a future majority in government.
During these early months in the role, I wanted to work to rationalise how the Conservative Party as an organisation, or rather a wider family, approaches its policy-making function. For the membership, there is the Conservative Policy Forum, which ensures that associations are able to participate in policy paper discussions that are then fed back to number 10 and the relevant government department. We have now ensured that this process allows for much more regular contact and feedback, but have also begun to establish a series of monthly webinars, so that Secretaries of State can also communicate back to members on relevant policy papers. The CPF is one of the fastest-growing parts of the Conservative party, and I want to ensure that this develops into a serious point of contact and access to policy formulation for the future.
At the same time, however, the party has numerous ‘Friends’ groups, which often seek to promote, or represent, a particular cause, country or profession. It makes sense for the future, that when it comes to policy formulation, these organisations should work centrally through a policy structure of CCHQ, which is why I set up the Conservative Policy Network, to bring structure and clarity to work that is going on across all branches of the Conservative party.
Under the Conservative Policy Network, it also made sense to ensure that we engaged fully with the policy work of our Welsh and Scottish Conservative colleagues – not to dictate their own manifesto processes, but at least to work together, sharing expertise and knowledge. Donald Cameron has been established as the Scottish Policy co-ordinator, while Darren Millar in Wales has been appointed Vice Chair of the Welsh Conservatives for policy. At the same time, through the Network, we are ensuring regular meetings with other elected Conservatives, from the Regional Mayors to Conservative PCCs and councillors.
While the Conservative Policy Network remains a soft network, I believe it will allow for a common approach of working as a team, and ensuring that each constituent part of the party knows where to ask for policy assistance, but also how to scale up ideas through a recognisable structure.
The establishment of the network was intended to be only an initial first stage in reforming our policy process as a party. In July, I was further appointed Chair of the newly constituted Conservative Policy Commission by the Prime Minister. This has been the first time since David Cameron established the Conservative Policy Review in opposition, that such an approach to consult so widely on future policy direction has been taken.
As part of the Policy Commission, five Taskforces have been established: Energising our economy, Transforming our public services, Building a fairer society, Sustaining our democracy, and Shaping a Global Britain.
All Conservative MPs and Peers were invited to apply for roles on the taskforces at the end of July. Last week, I announced the names of the ten Co-Chairs who have been appointed to each task force. Further parliamentary members will be appointed this week, including Backbench policy chairs of the 1922 Committee. At party conference, three non-parliamentary members for each taskforce from the wider Conservative Party will also be appointed.
Each taskforce will be holding a fringe event at Conservative Party conference. [See the charts at the top of this article for details.]
Each will be publishing a set of around twenty key questions – or challenges – which we will be seeking evidence on from all interested organisations. These will be published both on a website that is being designed ready to launch at Conference, as well as a booklet, and I hope that this will elicit a wide response.
Returning from conference, between October and the end of March 2019, each taskforce will hold regular weekly oral evidence sessions at Westminster and in London, and I am keen to involve as many organisations, think tanks and interest groups as possible in this. Each taskforce is also committed to an evidence session outside of London every month, with a minimum of six evidence sessions across the country, including every region and devolved nation where appropriate. These are currently being organised so that every week a taskforce will be visibly out and about across the country. To achieve this smoothly, the Commission and its taskforces are being fully staffed in CCHQ, with each taskforce having its own adviser appointed through the Conservative Research Department.
Once the engagement phase of the review is complete, each taskforce will publish an interim report between June and July 2019. The structure of the consultation questions/challenges will ensure that, with around ten page responses to each question, the reports will be around 200 pages long.
These documents will be interim proposals, precisely because I wish to ensure that the Conservative Party membership have the opportunity to be consulted upon them. This will take place over the summer 2019, with then final taskforce reports published at Conference 2019.
As the Prime Minister stated on the launch of the Commission, each task force ‘will go out and engage with people in every part of the United Kingdom to develop new policies that can improve the lives of people in our country … The Commission’s task forces will undertake the most extensive exercise of policy renewal ever conducted by a party in government. I want it to produce fresh, innovative thinking. Above all, I want to listen to the communities who voted for change two years ago’.
The challenge that has set may seem a daunting one, yet it is crucial for the renewal of the Conservative Party in government. The work of the Conservative Policy Commission, engaging across the country, listening to party members, communities and businesses, has only just begun, but I hope that this endeavour will help to shape the future thinking of the Conservative party as we approach the start of a new decade, and indeed a decade in government.