The Times (£) editorialises this morning about the Conservatives and ethnic minorities, and in doing so makes two general observations – one explicit, one implicit. The explicit one is that “[CCHQ] is always focused on winning the next election. The time frame is never more than two or three years in advance.” The implicit one is that this applies more than ever under David Cameron, who has a way of appointing two Party Chairmen at a time, neither of whom are expected to take much interest in anything other than winning the next election. The paper is correct on both points.
It has long been true that CCHQ – CCO as it was – has been coming-election-focused. This applied as much under Chris Patten as under Andrew Feldman, and as much under Norman Tebbit as Grant Shapps: to those names from a generation or so ago, one might add Cecil Parkinson or Kenneth Baker or Willie Whitelaw or Iain Macleod. These were all substantial political figures in their own right, who were thus able to tell it to the Party leader as it is (or was). It’s worth noting that the nearer a poll got, the bigger a hitter the Chairman was likely to be: Parkinson, Tebbit and Patten were all pre-election chairmen.
Grant Shapps is a super-energetic technophile, campaigner and spokesman, who deftly steered though the long-overdue disclosure of the Party’s membership figures, for which Number 10 should be grateful. Andrew Feldman is a better politician than many of those with Ministerial posts. As a team and together with Lynton Crosby, they have put a rocket up CCHQ’s harrying of Ed Miliband. But neither are powerful first-rankers – like Patten or Tebbit from that previous era, or (say) William Hague or Theresa May today. Nor do they carry a sense of standing for the Party itself. Lord Feldman, in particular, is the Prime Minister’s creation.
The cost of this focus on the short-term, as the Times argues, is problems with the long-term – or at least warding them off for another day. The risk of this is that they are likely to grow even bigger, and they are large enough already. Very simply, there is a long-term problem with “the Tory brand”. More people say that they would never vote Conservative than say they would never vote Labour. The Party has well-rehearsed problems in northern cities, among ethnic minority voters (a soaring demographic), and among young people, despite a certain swing to the right in their thinking. Above all, it lacks a natural connection with the modern equivalent of Thatcher’s C2s.
One answer to this is: elect a single Party Chairman, and put CCHQ in the hands of the members. Another is: do nothing – the difficulties are all about leadership and policy, and if these are tackled then the problem will right itself. Neither are persuasive. There must be a solution that avoids the extremes of setting up a potential rival to the leader, with his own electoral mandate, or abandoning the problem as too difficult to solve. The Times suggests “an independent Conservative National Committee with responsibility for a long-term dialogue with minority groups and for addressing some of the Tories other long-term challenges”. This is a bit more like it.
Indeed, the logic of this thinking points to splitting up the Party organisation altogether. CCHQ would deal with everything short-term – in other words, elections. It would become what its newish name already suggests it is: a campaigning organisation concentrated solely on winning target seats and delivering a Tory majority. It would deal with advertising, telephone canvassing, online activity, Facebook, Twitter, action days, by-elections, rapid response, opposition attack, propagating the message. The leader would continue to appoint the Chairman. CCHQ would deal with everything short-term.
Something else would have responsibility for the long-term: ethnic minority voters, students, membership (and supplements to it), candidate selection, building up support in business and among the professions, in universities and the institutions of civil society – charities, campaign groups, unions. It would have its own research and outreach capacity. What would this something be? One possibility would be an organisation along the lines of the Conservative Foundation. This declares its mission to be protecting “the long-term finances of the Conservative Party.” The new equivalent’s mission would be to protect the long-term electability of the Conservative Party.
Like CCHQ, it would raise its own money, which the latter would be unable to touch: this is crucial. Under such an arrangement, the Party Chairman would be unable to divert strategic resources to meet temporary need. So for example, staff and press officers dedicated to building up the Party’s long-term relations with the ethnic minority media, or the churches, could not be sacked or redeployed to meet short-term demand. Donors unwilling to stump up for the election campaign of today might none the less be willing to do so for the revitalised party of tomorrow. The director of this new Foundation might be elected by Party members, or perhaps simply be appointed by the Board.
Too much overlap? Maybe. Damaging competition to raise money? Possibly, though the Party believes in the merits of competition. But such a division of labour would answer Mark Wallace’s question: what are we doing to win the 2030 general election? (Or for that matter the one that is due to take place in only six years time.) He reported yesterday that CCHQ is concentrating its efforts not on marginal seats, but on target ones – an important distinction. This is further evidence that its energies are concentrated on gaining that elusive majority next year – and further supports the case for getting everything else Party-related out of its way.