The Conservative Party’s money is essentially at the leader’s disposal. In recent years, it has increasingly been focused on target seats. In the short-term, this is vital: majorities can’t be won unless marginals are, too. In the longer-term, it brings problems. A target seat today may not be one tomorrow. What happens to developing Tory support in all the other constituencies? To building up Conservative support among ethnic minority members? Among students? In business? Among academics? In civil society more widely – charities, campaign groups, trade unions? What about working for the third party endorsements that so helped Labour last summer?
Above all, what about membership? It isn’t the be-all and end-all: there are ways of mobilising non-members for elections, as the succcess of Team 2015 showed. But it would be perverse to argue that a party can thrive with a membership in freefall. This site’s best estimate is that Party membership, while not as low as the 70,000 that is now being reported, has fallen to under three figures. Labour has over 500,000.
This is the essence of the problem that confronts the genial Brandon Lewis, the new Party Chairman, and his no less genial deputy, James Cleverly. Both were appointed alongside no fewer than nine new Vice-Chairmen, who join the four that were already on place. Their responsibilities cover candidates, youth, women, communities, business, local government, training and policy. We read that they will be paid. Will they be resourced? For without a budget and staff, they cannot work effectively.
Eric Pickles called for a ten year outreach programme to ethnic minority voters in his recent review. Our own Mark Wallace has set out a ten point programme, in the wake of his comprehensive exploration of why the Party’s election machine failed last summer, which included urging the hire of permanent campaign managers and a new outreach programme for those third party groups. None of this will happen if the money isn’t there. Chris Skidmore is the new Vice-Chairman with responsibility for policy. Will he be given the freedom to take a revived Policy Board in-house, working with the 1922 Committee and the Conservative Policy Forum? What about a new Policy Commission, as George Freeman has suggested, taking evidence from people who aren’t Party members at all, and starring some of the bright new members of the 2015 and 2017 intakes who weren’t promoted last week? How about a revived, updated Swinton College?
Very little of this programme can be achieved without financial commitment. The only viable solution is to elect the Chairman of the Board, one of this site’s four proposals for Party reform, together with more of the Board’s members, as urged by Robert Halfon. Only then would it have the independence required to negotiate with the Party leadership about the distribution of resources. Until then, the logic of the relationship between the leader, CCHQ and money suggests the same old, same old.
It follows from all the above that being genial will not be enough. Lewis could do worse than look backwards in order to move forwards – to the achievement of the Party’s most effective post-war Conservative Chairman, Lord Woolton. Woolton overhauled and galvanised the Conservative machine in the wake of Churchill’s crushing defeat in 1945. His reforms set the scene for a decade, the 1950s, during which Tory government became the norm. The new Party Chairman needs to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor.
Which means pressing internally for structural reform. In its absence, he must fight for resources for the long-term, for the programme implied by the Pickles Review, and for his new team of Vice-Chairmen. (Will they meet as a collective?) The media narrative about CCHQ is currently a story of a symptom, not a cause: the Party’s inferior though improving social media game. He could do a lot worse than search out the scattered members of the Vote Leave team, and try to recruit some of those with digital expertise.
Lewis has made a solid start in his first interviews. He is shrewd enough to grasp that the policy of not declaring membership numbers is unsustainable, and hinted over the weekend that he will follow in the footsteps of Grant Shapps, who wisely made them public during his term as Party Chairman. It is within his scope to free up Party Conference more, so that real debate no longer takes place only on the fringe. With Kemi Badenoch, he also has an opportunity to prise open the secretive world of Tory candidate selection. But there is only so much he can do against the background of a Government with no majority and resources that he doesn’t control.