Rebecca Ryan is Campaign Director for Stand Up For Brexit.
The Conservative grassroots are feeling betrayed. Over the past year, I’ve had hundreds of conversations with activists at every level of the party who are totally outraged by how Brexit has been handled. The reactions range from utter disbelief to volcanic rage. Membership cards have been cut up. Tools are being downed. Since the Brexit referendum, which so many members were so delighted to finally be offered, and were so passionate about delivering – hence David Cameron’s majority in 2015 – the grassroots have been slowly frozen out. The result is that the Brexit which so many of us thought we were fighting for could be slipping away.
All of this could have been avoided had the membership, the beating heart of our party, been listened to and supported. It’s often said that the cliche about cliches is that they’re true. The cliche about party members is that we’re sometimes over-zealous, but that we believe in the cause, and are prepared to give up vast amounts of our personal time and money to try and keep the Conservative Party in office and advance its interests. To expect the Party leadership to at least attempt to reflect our views should not be too much. In fact, a healthy two-way relationship between the senior Party and the troops on the ground is absolutely essential.
Ever-centralising control has not worked. The answer to the Conservative Party’s current and future problems is not for the leadership to hunker down and enclose itself in a bunker, but open its ears and listen. We know that when the leadership works in tandem with the wishes of its members, great things can be achieved: our victory in 2015 is evidence of that. But when it stops listening and goes off in its own direction, problems swiftly occur; our near-defeat by Jeremy Corbyn merely two years later is evidence of that. We should not be afraid of recognising that, at the height of our modern success in the 1980s, associations were far more autonomous and the dialogue between activists and senior party figures was much more open. Messages were sent – both ways.
My Stand Up For Brexit campaign has given me unparalleled access to the Conservative Party on the ground. Our mission is quite simple: to raise MPs’ awareness of the discontent amongst members of the public, Conservative activists, Assocation Chairmen and party members over the Government’s Chequers White Paper. We ask MPs to Stand Up For Brexit by rejecting Chequers, and delivering the Brexit that was promised at Lancaster House and in the Conservative Manifesto. That means leaving the Single Market, Customs Union and European Court Court of Justice overview.
Given Theresa May’s statement last night, and the letter subsequently issued by Jacob Rees-Mogg, I feel confident that the 51 Conservative MPs who have pledged to uphold these key tenets of Leave will stick by their promise. Naturally, I am deeply disappointed by the path that the Prime Minister has chosen. It seems to be the very opposite of what the British people voted for and our Party is committed to deliver. A permanent customs union with the EU, without any guaranteed means of leaving it, is simply unacceptable. It’s hard not to conclude that the current policy is the result of a leadership which has become totally detached both from the Conservative family as a whole, and fro, the wider electorate.
It is time for “the troops” to be taken seriously in the running of the party; we are not just there to deliver leaflets. I know that any mention of ‘party reform’ can be terrifying for senior figures, who fear losing control to curtain-twitching village fete organisers. But that’s a stereotype – it’s not what the conservative membership actually is. Supporters of my campaign come from every part of the party. They’re southern, northern, white, black, gay, bisexual. Everybody is represented, and united in wanting the best for our country through a Conservative Party which is sensitive to the electorate and fulfils its promises.
To achieve this, local associations need to expand their appeal, and in particular, start engaging with 30-55 year olds. We become naturally more conservative when we approach 30 and start looking to settle down. Eighteen year olds are often focussed on in political debate; they are great assets and do fantastic, energetic work. But we need the machinery and vitality to appeal to the “establishing a career”, “just-having-children-and-setting-up-home” demographic. They are our core vote. They need to be harnessed.
Being committed Conservatives, we are worried about damaging the party and, therefore, are squeamish about questioning its decisions and structures in public. As part of our campaign, we had 45 Association Chairmen and senior party members commit to oppose Chequers on the first morning of this year’s conference. They were the brave ones; many more feel nervous about coming forward publicly. A culture of distrust is crystallising between the membership and our Parliamentary representatives. That is unhealthy, and needs to be dealt with. Principles and political careers are not always the happiest of bedfellows – but the grassroots admire those with principles, and are worried that too many of our MPs are abandoning them in favour of possible preferment. 80 per cent of the membership are Brexiteers. 70 per cent of Conservative voters support Brexit. And yet 70 per cent of MPs are Remainers. How has this huge disconnect been allowed to happen? And what can both sides – the volunteer and the professional Party – do to change it?
Ultimately, we need to take the climate of change that delivered Brexit and use it to reinvigorate the Conservative Party at every level. Rather than letting those who leant us their vote disappear off into the disengaged horizon, we must deliver on their expectations, and seize their newfound but rapidly dissipating interest in democracy to remould the Conservative Party into a responsive and engaged vehicle for all. And that happens by re-empowering the grassroots.