John Penrose is MP for Weston-super-Mare.
The next five years could redefine Britain for a generation at least. Brexit will create an inflection point for our country; a moment of change at least as big and important as the one faced by the post-war Attlee Government that founded the NHS and the modern welfare state.
So where will our next set of big, era-defining ideas come from? What will our generation leave to our children and grandchildren, to match the NHS and the welfare state?
The Conservative Policy Forum (CPF), the Party’s internal think-tank (which I chair), stands ready to play its part in finding them. We regularly ask Conservative members what they think about key policy areas, tapping into the collective wisdom and experience of the Tory crowd on everything from health, education, and policing to foreign policy and defence.
The most recent example was our general election ‘Members Manifesto’, proposing everything from maintaining NHS care based on clinical need rather than ability to pay to a review of UK tax havens. Almost half of its ideas appeared in some form in the official Manifesto itself a few weeks later, a hit rate that other think tanks would love to match.
It also proved the modern Conservative Party’s centre of gravity isn’t the billionaires and hedge fund managers that Labour likes to pretend. Instead it turns out that, collectively, Party members are a reliable, sensible, balanced, and decent group of people – rather like most Brits, really. Ask them a sensible question, and you’ll get a sensible answer.
And, of course, persuading people to participate is miles easier if you know your ideas will genuinely reach cabinet ministers and Downing Street policy wonks. Ours definitely do, and no other think tank can make the same claim as credibly as us.
But the challenge of finding, refining, and testing era-defining ideas is enormous. So the CPF has to raise its game, and we’ve set ourselves three huge challenges to make sure we’re ready for the task ahead.
The first is membership. Most think-tanks don’t really want or need lots of members, but it’s absolutely central to the way the CPF works.
It means we’re already the biggest think tank in the country but, now the Conservative family has just discovered a load of long-lost cousins in northern towns that haven’t voted Tory in years, we’ve got to get even bigger. They’ve all got to be signed up and included too, so all those new voices are authentically heard in our policy debates from now on.
Secondly, we may be able to help raise the Conservative Party’s general membership at the same time. There are more than a few seats which have just elected brand-new Tory MPs for the first time in decades (or ever, in some cases), but where the local Party membership is microscopically small. They urgently need more members to support their campaigns and back them up.
As most people get involved in politics because a particular idea or a cause lights them up, the chance to get your ideas included in Government policy ought to be one of our biggest membership recruitment drivers too.
Third, we’ve got to rediscover the thrill and theatre of debating ideas and policies. Ideas are the raw material of politics. They’re what gives people the passion, energy, and zeal to do great things and support important causes.
But, strangely, the Conservative Party has never been particularly comfortable about exploring this at a grassroots level. We’re brilliant at coffee mornings, thank you very much, and pretty good at stuffing envelopes and delivering leaflets too. But we’re a bit nervous, for some reason, about discussing policies.
We shouldn’t be, and the CPF can be the way we fill that gap. We’re the organisation which can play host to friendly, respectful debate, and feed the flames of passion for ideas. Online or onstage, in pubs or clubs, in the north and the south, on every topic, we have to hold debates which encourage Conservatives to be comfortable duelling with ideas and rival policy proposals.
Last year’s Party Conference was a great example. For the first time in years, there was a genuine policy debate on the main Conference stage. CPF members pitched rival ideas, and then the audience voted; think of ‘Strictly Come Politics’, or perhaps ‘Political X Factor’ if you prefer. But, crucially, it was fun – and it showed what we’ve been missing all these years.
Once Labour chooses its new leader, the battle of ideas will truly be joined. The stakes couldn’t be higher, but nor could the rewards.
I hope as many people as possible will get involved in the CPF. It’s a great way to see which policy ideas can survive and flourish, and which ones might just be that elusive, era-defining flash of brilliance that could become our generation’s legacy to our grandchildren. No person or political party has a monopoly on wisdom, so your country needs not just you, but your ideas as well.