Andy Street is the Mayor of the West Midlands and is a former Managing Director of John Lewis.
During the last few days, I have been reflecting on the contribution of volunteers to our Party. I am relatively new to active involvement in politics, and the incredible work that our grassroots volunteers carry out never fails to impress and inspire me. I believe that their approach provides lessons that the wider Party should reflect upon.
I entered politics directly from the world of business, where the dynamic between management and employee is very different to that between a political party and its grassroots activists, and the motivations behind everything that is done.
Yet I was lucky enough to work at John Lewis for 30 years, where the company’s entire structure and ethos was about a partnership. The firm was built on the concept of working together to achieve something we all believed in, and then sharing the success.
As we approach this year’s conference, when all facets of our Party are brought together, I have been struck by how similar that John Lewis spirit is to the dedication that drives our Conservative activists. There is, of course, a key difference – our volunteers aren’t paid. Their dedication is vocational, inspired by a wish to do the right thing for their communities and our country.
Those same members carry great responsibility, in selecting the candidates who will represent their communities when the nation goes to the polls. Here in the West Midlands, they are currently selecting parliamentary candidates across key seats as a general election approaches. Important decisions are being considered in areas like Birmingham Edgbaston, which was so totemic of Tony Blair’s victory, and in Dudley North, which we lost by just 22 votes at the last election. Members are also sadly choosing a new representative for Meriden, a future Cabinet Minister’s seat if ever there was one. And, of course, members have just exercised the huge responsibility of selecting the new Prime Minister.
In just the last few days, I have witnessed how volunteers contribute to the success of our Party, in a huge variety of ways. Allow me provide a few examples.
Last weekend, across the seven West Midlands boroughs of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall and Wolverhampton, we saw hundreds of volunteers turn out for my “Street Clean” weekend. Conservatives from all backgrounds and of all ages joined and supported voluntary community groups and businesses who regularly clean our streets, to tidy up litter blackspots across the region. It was a massive yet informal and fun event that provided a visible and positive example of community-minded conservatism in action, from leafy hamlets near Solihull to urban Dudley. Oh, and they collected more than 500 bags of rubbish.
Then, in contrast, we had a formal party meeting for my re-selection by the Area Council. This provided an opportunity for representatives of all seven West Midlands boroughs to grill me on my record and my plans for the future of our region. It brought some truly thought-provoking questions on everything from the Mayoral role to the future direction of our party. I was honoured to be selected to stand for re-election next May.
Our re-selection system ensures that MPs and Mayors are accountable to their members. Even if ultimate accountability lies with the nation’s voters, re-selection puts Party power back in the hands of local associations and grassroots activists.
On Thursday, we welcomed William Hague for a fundraising dinner – a brilliant evening with an exceptional politician. Every strand of our Party was represented at this event, with councillors and volunteers rubbing shoulders with MEP Anthea McIntyre, local MPs James Morris and Wendy Morton, as well as Jay Singh-Sohal, our impressive candidate for Police and Crime Commissioner.
Finally, over the weekend our teams were out again campaigning across the region, delivering thousands of community-led issue surveys, leafleting and canvassing. I was out and about too, joining volunteers as they pounded pavements and climbed tower blocks to support our excellent candidate Gary Sambrook, in Birmingham Northfield.
That is a selection of the voluntary contribution to the week of West Midlands politics, from picking up litter to welcoming Party celebrities, from seamlessly organising the inner functions of the Party machine to knocking on doors and speaking to voters. It illustrates the variety of ways in which volunteers contribute to Party life, and I know it is reflected up and down the country.
All of this made me reflect on how perhaps the Partnership of John Lewis and the teamwork of the Conservative Party aren’t that far apart after all. So, what is the prime contribution made by our activists? Is it their time? Their energy? Their ideas? Their fundraising? Their shoe leather? I think they are the glue that binds us together. They provide unity.
UK politics has never been more divisive. Entrenched positions in Westminster and polarised opinions over Europe have at times exaggerated the differences between political colleagues, rather than emphasising what they share, and what they agree upon. How ever unpredictable UK politics gets, our volunteers and activists continue to do their vital dedicated work, the bedrock on which everything else is built.
In the West Midlands, our success has been built on an understanding that, while there are often differences of opinion, unity of vision is crucial. To use a business idiom, while there may be dissent in the boardroom, there must be unity outside. This approach has seen our region return more MPs, win more Councils, and end last May’s local elections only one councillor down.
In a sense, that idea of a common bond and a unity of purpose against a threat we all understand (we see it every day in the West Midlands, long considered by Labour to be their natural territory) is a lesson to our MPs. That requires debate, compromise and ultimately putting collective interest above self interest. This is what our Party members and volunteers do every day.
In a week during which Labour activists attempted to unseat West Bromwich’s Tom Watson as Deputy Leader, deepening divisions within their Party that run from the top to the bottom, Conservatives can be thankful that our own volunteers provide the stability that allow us to function as a Party in such challenging times.
As we prepare for Party Conference, and others look to identify and exploit our differences as we debate the great challenges facing our nation, we can rely on our grassroots activists to provide a unity that has always made us a formidable force.