Rob Semple was Chairman of the National Conservative Convention from 2015 – 2018.
This will be a strange Party Conference for me. For the first time since 2010, I will not be there as an elected representative of the membership on the Party Board, but – like most representatives – simply as a Party member. For the last three years, I have had the honour of serving as Chairman of the National Convention – elected by Party members to be their voice on the Party Board, and expressing their views directly to two Prime Ministers and three Party Chairmen.
In my time as Chairman, I had the privilege of working alongside both David Cameron and Theresa May. As Prime Minister, she is doing an incredibly difficult job in almost impossible circumstances, and that is widely recognised across the country. I have always been struck by the instinctive loyalty that our members show to the Party Leader – and in May, we have someone steeped in the party who knows the commitment and dedication of the volunteers. It does not make the headlines, but if you venture outside of the Westminster bubble then you will find Party members increasingly frustrated about the ‘noises off’ and the endless obsession of the media with ‘leadership challenges’.
The National Convention meeting on Sunday will be the first since the introduction of central administration of membership. This process was three years in the making and could not have been done without the support and co-operation of Conservative Associations across the country. This is the key building block to growing our membership, and it brings us in line with other professional membership-based organisations in the modern world. There are so many new possibilities that are now open to us – in my view, it is the most significant change to our Party systems in decades. Renewal rates are already showing improvement in the areas where the new process has started.
More and more Associations are now choosing to organise themselves as Multi-Constituency Associations. Where appropriate, the voluntary Party should see this as the basis of our campaigning structure for the future. Sharing resources must be our focus to take on a Labour Party bankrolled by the trade unions. The campaign centres we set up across the North of England, covering several seats and sharing resources and staff support between them, played a significant role in the 2010 and 2015 election successes in that part of the country. MCAs are just the natural next step that create more permanent structures and allow for better, longer-term planning – and it is long-term planning that is the key to winning and then holding marginal seats.
We have made significant progress with the Conservative Policy Forum too, including the election of a voluntary director. It is a growing and vibrant part of our Party and I know my colleague and successor Andrew Sharpe, who has led much of the work in area, wants to do even more. I am pleased that the Prime Minister and Party Chairman share the desire to have even greater input from members to policy development.
We have also seen a huge investment in our campaigning structure with the recruitment of over 80 Campaign Managers since the last general election. Having long-term, professional campaigning staff right across the country will allow us to rebuild our infrastructure, not just in our heartlands but taking the fight to Labour in theirs as well. In the local elections in May this year, we saw the early benefits and, as the Campaign Managers grow in experience and skill, I am certain we will see our campaigning strength multiplied. The scale of investment that the Party has made in this programme should not be underestimated.
Whilst this investment is both needed and welcomed, we as a Party cannot forget the first rule of politics – that divided parties do not win elections – and none of us, especially our MPs, should lose sight of this well-learned lesson. Of course there are differing views within the Party over Brexit, mirroring those across the country. The Prime Minister, in my view, has put the ball firmly back in the EU’s court and she needs the backing of a united Party. The focus of our conference this year should not just be on Brexit. It should also be about showing how we are going to make life better for the people in our country. The public will be looking to our Party to show how we will improve their lives on issues such as housing and the NHS. These are issues that matter to people’s daily lives and resonate in the long term with the electorate.
Think of the opportunity that exists for our Party if we stay resolute: a Brexit deal that the country as a whole can get behind, a vision for Britain set out by the Prime Minister on the steps of Downing Street and, at long last, parliamentary boundary changes that ensure equal votes for the electorate. But to achieve this we need to remind ourselves that it took us 13 years to recover from the last time we allowed Europe to determine how the electorate saw our Party. We must not make that mistake again.’