Hamish McFall is a public relations and marketing consultant, and is a former Parliamentary candidate.
The Conservative Party faces two May challenges. The first is to support Theresa May as she tries to achieve a good-deal Brexit. The second is to prepare ourselves for the local elections on Thursday 2nd May next year. The result of those elections will set the scene for the next General Election and could be decisive in determining whether the UK elects to suffer a socialist government led by Corbyn and Momentum. I will not dwell on the first challenge other than to offer loyal support to the incumbent. The second challenge is already raising important questions at local level, and it is not too late to have a winning campaign.
We have traditionally been a party which gave autonomy to local Conservative associations. At this level the news is encouraging with more members joining, or re-joining. Most new members have chosen to join because they wish to do something to stop the threat of Corbyn; they join the local association because they want to be part of something in their local community, and that’s where they expect their subscriptions to go and to be spent. Very few think of themselves as joining the Party nationally. Each of our new members has to pay a meaningful minimum subscription; unlike Labour, where you can join (don’t) for next to nothing; or the Lib Dems who have toyed with a free subscription and have also considered making someone who is not even a party member, let alone an MP, leader.
So our membership is on the increase. How could CCHQ possibly go wrong? Businesses want to win new customers just as newspapers want to win new readers, but they try not to alienate their existing most loyal followers in the process. Our most loyal followers and hardest workers are our sitting and aspirant local councillors. Surely CCHQ wouldn’t do anything to alienate and demotivate this core group of supporters? I think they have done a good job of trying with the introduction of the new councillor selection process. It would be interesting to know if other associations have had similar experiences to those I have talked to.
The new system is over-complex, but I will try to explain it. Instead of adoption (or re-adoption for sitting councillors) everyone has to go through a process of mandatory selection. During this first round, anyone wishing to stand as a Conservative candidate in the May elections must fill in an application form, sign a pledge of allegiance to the Party, and attend a specially convened selection panel. This applies to sitting councillors of however long standing and to new candidates alike.
Each is allowed to make a short presentation and then is asked a series of questions, which must be the questions that CCHQ has mandated and can only be asked using the words dictated by CCHQ. Rather than grateful and welcoming, these questions each have a certain harshness: “Why are you are member of the Conservative Party?”; “Which Conservative policies do you not agree with?”; “When did you last see your father?”; “Have you stopped beating your wife?” – you get my point.
A fair number of long-serving councillors have been offended by this process, and a larger number feel that it is an unnecessary layer of central control. If candidates get through the first round, then they are invited to apply for a particular ward. Further meetings are then convened and the candidate is invited to talk for three minutes to members of that ward in a meeting where the Association Executive is also present.
Questions are then taken from the ward representatives and they then vote on the candidate. If there are less than 15 ward members present (we have had no wards with 15 members present, some have had only one or two and most none) then their vote doesn’t qualify and the Executive can ask questions. The Executive then votes and their decision is final on a majority basis. If there is more than one candidate for a single position, then both candidates have to be questioned together and each asked to answer the same questions. It looks like a terribly over-complicated system and it has probably done more to put off both existing councillors and potential candidates than anything else.
It is possible that this new system works really well in metropolitan boroughs and that it is just in rural seats that both panelists and candidates resent the enormous waste of time and effort that this process represents. But if others agree with me, should CCHQ adapt and develop the system to make it more fit for purpose? Sitting councillors could be spared the first round, for instance. Their re-adoption could then be decided, or rejected, at the second round.
Being prepared to put yourself forward as a local council candidate is a marvellous thing. It is something that CCHQ should encourage. The current regime makes it uncomfortable for existing councillors and unappealing for aspirant ones. For those sitting councillors and for those prospective councillors who have put up with the new CCHQ inquisition, great opportunities lie ahead. Between now and Christmas we have a chance to cement the foundations that can be built on in the run-up to polling day in May.