Priti Patel is MP for Witham, and a former Secretary of State for International Development.
The Conservative Party is widely regarded as the most successful electoral force in Western democracy. Our flexibility and years in government have not happened by chance. We have previously adapted to the socio-economic changes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to remain relevant and electable through strong leadership.
Now we must adapt and evolve again – not because of Brexit, but because of the wider social, economic, demographic and technological changes in Britain today. Alongside the need for invigorated aspirational policies that drive social mobility, help people succeed and improve life chances is our ability to appeal and mobilise our grassroots.
Fundamental to us being able to appeal to the public and win votes at elections is for us to reform as a party. The Party centrally needs to rebuild and strengthen the relationship with members and activists to motivate and mobilises them not only at election times, but throughout the electoral cycle. Our Party is nothing without its grassroots members and activists: those that stuff envelopes, deliver leaflets and campaign in election after election. Sometimes hopelessly outnumbered, they champion our values and beliefs across the land and fight our corner, often against great odds.
However, over the last decade our activists, supporters and members have become a distant feature of an increasing centralised Party machine. Remote, distant and out of touch with the aspirations and hopes of those we expect to pound the streets, knock on doors and fundraise on our behalf.
At every level from CCHQ through to our MPs, we must become a party that respects and values its members. No longer should members be treated like an embarrassing relative hidden away from view; no longer should they receive lip service, and no longer should they be denied a voice in the future direction of both the Party and policies. To turn our Party into one of mass membership far more needs to be done to engage Members.
So how does the Party centrally change its approach to our grassroots to welcome and value them? As I have previously written on this site, it seems obvious. 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.
First, as the party of devolution, we should apply the ethos of devolution to our own organisation and devolve power to our members, once again becoming an organisation that is led by its members to run its own affairs. As Conservatives, we talk about trusting people, families and businesses, so we should do the same, and start to trust our membership.
Secondly, we should hold a review of our membership fees and barriers to membership and participation in the Party. For many people on low and fixed incomes, paying a £25 membership fee on top of the donations and support asked for by attending dinners and social events can be too much. How about keeping youth membership at £5 until the age of 25? Young members are worth their weight in gold from the insights and skills that they bring, and the more we do to inspire and motivate those who share our values into the Party, the stronger our base becomes.
Third, empowerment – a word which will terrify those MPs with little grassroots hinterland. Give our members and local associations the opportunity to have a real say in discussing and forming the policies, ideas and vision relevant to their communities and our nation’s future. Policies that are local, relevant and in grounded in the knowledge and experience of activists across the country would help to reinvigorate and inspire our members. Policy forums attended by ministers and online communications with members, supporters and activists to canvass views on policy would go a long way to facilitating that engagement.
Fourth, a key way to reform our internal structures and increase participation from grassroots – as well as party accountability – is to introduce elections for the Party Chairman for a fixed period. This would mean that there would be someone sat around the Cabinet table when decisions are made who is there with a clear mandate to represent our grassroots – and that person should have their finger on their pulse of our membership. This would then help the Party Board to make long-term decisions in the best long-term interests of the Party. The Party Board must also shape up and collectively have more places than those appointed by the Leader. It is the Party’s Board, not the Leader of the Party’s Board – and those who make the Party, including activists, should have an expanded role which would also give the grassroots a clear and unequivocal voice on the direction of policy.
Fifth, Party Conference has become increasingly corporate and stage-managed. Conference lacks the dynamic and exhilarating atmosphere it had when I went to my first Conferences in the 1990s because, amidst all the corporate stands and members of the media, grassroots and member engagement is severely lacking.
Grassroots members have little incentive to attend. Conference costs are comparable to the costs of a holiday, and the sheer lack of time given to members by senior Party figures is woeful. Conference should be a moment to recognise and reward many of our long -tanding activists, and even them for their contributions to their own communities as well as the Party. It is time to reintroduce a proper reward and recognition scheme for great work by volunteers. Such a scheme would not only be popular amongst members, but would also act as a good incentive to grow the base and get the best out them. And as believers in freedom and democracy, we should never be afraid of debate either with ourselves, or with the public that we seek to serve. Give the members their day at conference, and enable questions and motions from the floor. Associations should be free to submit motions for debate, and politicians should have the courage to respond.
Sixth, we can do so much more to be active in our local communities and be vocal about what we do. When I meet members across the country, I am always impressed by the number who are involved in a range of local community groups. From volunteering for local organisations and charities to school governorships and youth groups, our members provide a tremendous service to their local communities. We should praise and celebrate those who are active in their communities. The portrayal of the Party by our opponents and some in the media can be quickly and easily dismissed by showcasing the work we do in local communities.
And, finally, the Conservative Party must be a welcoming home for those who share our values of freedom, enterprise and opportunity; and also for those who are motivated to campaign for lower taxes, less state intervention, more choice and the empowerment of families to take control over their own lives.
At a time when we need to battle against Jeremy Corbyn’s dangerous brand of socialism and highlight the stark choice facing the British people, we need to build our capacity for the ground war with our people and a Conservative base that is motivated and mobilised as an election-winning campaigning machine.