Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.
Don’t get me wrong, I love Nando’s just like the rest of them. Indeed, I think I am in that strange coterie of Tories such as Grant Shapps, Gavin Barwell, and Stewart Jackson (previouslty MP for Peterborough, and now Chief of Staff to David Davis), who recognise that there is nothing like a hot peri peri sauce to let out all the political stresses of the day.
But, Nando’s discounts (however tempting), are not a fundamental way to win back members. For a start, there are numerous schemes, ‘Taste Cards’, credit cards, loyalty cards (including Nandos own) et al, that do these things already. So why would anyone join the Conservatives for Nandos, if they can get these things already and don’t need the political baggage that comes with it?
This doesn’t mean that all ‘retail offer’ schemes are wrong, but they need to be set out completely differently. If we do offer discounts of any kind, they should reflect our values.
As Theresa May stated in her 2016 Party Conference speech, and her current Chief of Staff tweeted only a few months ago, Conservatives are the true Party for workers. Her first speech as Prime Minister noted that we would be doing all we could to address social injustice. So why not put this into practice as a Party and not just as a Government?
To win back members, we need to change the whole nature of our membership organisation, making it more democratic, ensuring it is accessible for the lower paid and most importantly, is a place that the most disadvantaged can feel at home.
Our party should be more like a modern trade union than just another branch of a Nectar Card. I don’t mean that Tories should join the Len McClusky barricades. Far from it. But, offer instead a range of services that trade union memberships offer and much more besides.
How about free legal insurance for workers and support for working people when faced with disputes with management? When a big corporate company like Carilion goes down, why not have welfare support and advice for any Conservative members left unemployed?
Conservatives could offer a discounted Fuel Card to members to take at least a penny or two off the price of petrol, and energy bill discounts for the lower paid.
Perhaps a bus travel discount for any apprentice who is a Conservative member, reflecting our determination to build an apprenticeships and skills nation. What about help with cheaper loans (avoiding the loan shark companies), or health insurance schemes for the elderly? Many big companies do these things, so it should not be beyond the abilities of the Conservative Party to negotiate these kind of arrangements.
Such support; legal, welfare and helping with the cost of living, not only reflect our values in terms of helping workers. But they also mean we practice what we preach in terms of social injustice and cutting the cost of living.
However, we need to do even more – and actually give our members a real stake in the Conservative Party.
When you join a trade union, not only do you get all the membership services, you have a stake in the organisation too. Democratic participation must go hand in hand with financial support. By this, I don’t just mean proper democratic (one person, one vote) elections for the Board, and for key affiliated bodies to the party, but something more radical.
Why should the members not have an opportunity to really have a stake in the party they represent by actually owning a bit of Conservatism that they have chosen to invest in?
The Party could create a separate Conservative Co-operative that provides the services mentioned above, but also allow each member to have one share or more in the company. They could be awarded a or few more shares as a reward, such as for consistent records in campaigning.
The Co-operative could also work a little like a philanthropic credit union, offering members the chance to save some monies with the interest going to fund the activities of lower paid members – for travel to Conservative meetings in London, or travel costs for the annual Party Conference.
At present we have no real mechanism in which ensures that hard-working members on lower incomes can be as involved in the hierarchies of the national party, as those from wealthier backgrounds.
It is no accident that those who do get to the top in the voluntary side of the party – albeit deservedly – are often those with significant incomes that mean that they can afford the travel to London Board meetings and the like. If we had this special fund, including a proper scheme for Parliamentary Candidates, this would not only be the right thing to do, but give a powerful signal of what kind of party we were.
My argument is a simple one. Free Peri-Peri chicken might attract a few members in the short term, but won’t provide the radical change that we need to attract or convince thousands of working people and the many from disadvantaged backgrounds that Conservatives are on their side.
There is a real chance here. Within in a few months of their appointment, Brandon Lewis and his team have already revived our campaigning force. But, if we want to go back to the days when Tories had over one million members, or even begin to match those of the Labour Party, it is not Nandos conservatism that we need but a real Workers Party of Great Britain.