Let’s not deny it, the Conservative Party is in a bad state: membership is falling and has been for years; the party lacks fresh, vigorous leadership and the long term membership is battered and demoralised by the disastrous 2017 general election campaign.
This sorry state of affairs, however, is not a new phenomenon. The concerted effort by the Conservative Party through the Cameron years (particularly with the Feldman review) to isolate the local branches is of particular significance. Local branches are at the core of the party’s enthusiasm, expertise and local knowledge. Their combined wisdom and experience of campaigning (in my branch dating from the Macmillan landslide of 1959 to now) ensures that their campaigns remain committed, energised and highly effective. It is essential that a campaign is comprehensive, deeply rooted in its local area and carrying a clear and appealing message. Unfortunately, the 2017 general election campaign failed to meet a single one of these criterion.
A once-in-a-generation opportunity to radically reinvigorate the party’s message and to achieve a significant Conservative landslide in Parliament was thrown away due to misguided policies, Theresa May’s inability to engage with ordinary people and the arrogance of the Timothy-Hill clique’s refusal to listen to advice.
Local wisdom counselled against the tone of the Conservative campaign. After the manifesto launch, the campaign tanked on the doorstep. Hollow platitudes about Brexit failed to meet the genuine concerns of voters from across the spectrum (including definite Conservatives) about the government’s plans. Even May’s initial statement on the steps of Downing Street announcing the election struck the wrong tone. May’s insistence that an anti-Brexit cabal sought to derail, even reverse, Brexit was implausible at best, considering the party’s decent working majority in the House. The government’s inability to pin down its demands for Brexit and its misreading of the mood regarding EU citizens rights muddied the waters before the election had even been announced.
The local parties and their concerns were put aside in favour of CCHQ’s belief in the power of ‘Theresa May’s team’. Nauseating campaign literature declaring candidates, including my own MP (a long-term Thatcherite Brexiteer), as ‘Theresa May’s candidate’ created a delocalized campaign lacking authenticity.
Activate UK, the so-called Tory Momentum, is threatening to fall into the same trap. The party’s desperate attempts to find a way to engage with young voters has led to a ‘Tory Glastonbury’ and an attempt to emulate Jeremy Corbyn’s success in achieving unprecedented levels of new engagement with politics.
The increasingly tenuous local connections of Conservative MPs has already substantially weakened the connection between associations and the local area in some constituencies. Activate UK threatens to exacerbate this problem.
The RoadTrip project sought to bypass local associations and create a centralized campaigning machine, designed to maximise mass leafleting rather than engineering the more effective face-to-face doorstep contact with voters. The Zac Goldsmith campaign for the London Mayoralty was a case in point. Whilst the RoadTrip bus managed to achieve a decent turnout of party members with masses of literature delivered, the lack of local knowledge and local connections made for a pretty poor performance when members met voters with campaigners voicing well-rehearsed slogans but making little ground on the doorstep.
Activate’s collection of values and poorly made memes has little grasp on the real cost of the Conservative Party’s time in office. What the party should be addressing is the reasons for Jeremy Corbyn’s success: the growing public perception of increasing inequality in society and in the economy, the fatigue in public services and the increasingly hollow statements such as this one - ‘a true meritocracy – enhanced social mobility in a country where anyone can achieve their aspirations.’
The best way to do this is by crafting a genuinely one-nation government combining free market capitalism, by far the best way of creating economic growth, with social democracy, the best method of ensuring an equitable solution. However, as a shameless consensus man, I thoroughly doubt that this will happen.
A step in the right direction would be to reinvigorate the network of local parties. The party needs to be rooted in its constituencies. Local campaigners understand the problems facing their local area and are likely to be familiar with potential solutions. This needs to be at the heart of the Conservative Party’s mission. A Momentum-esque movement for campaigning would dilute the character of local branches and would weaken the authenticity of the party.
Activate does get one thing right: ‘Conservatism is a broad church made up of many different strands.’ Conservatism remains a broad church. The party itself is a dictatorship which goes in for occasional regicide with all factions publicly bound behind its leader until the party starts losing substantially.
May’s premiership is already limited. Her impact on Britain is dependent on the success of Brexit. Her hold over the party is fairly tenuous and entirely reliant on maintaining the party in government. Despite this, her lasting contribution to British politics could be the reinvigoration of the Conservative Party. By rebuilding the network of local branches, giving greater autonomy to members and allowing for localised election campaigns, May would hand a fighting-fit party on to her successor. The election of the Chairman of the Party by members, a nationwide speaking tour visiting local branches by the PM, the recreation of local policy forums and a new forum for consulting branches on national election campaigns would solve many of the problems that Activate et al are attempting to solve.
Perhaps Mrs Thatcher can teach us something about how to treat local parties. At conferences, Thatcher would welcome secretaries of constituency branches with donations. Famously, when handed a modest £50 cheque from the secretary of the Ebbw Vale Conservatives, Mrs Thatcher made a point by reminding the audience of the importance of this cheque: the £50 had been raised by Conservatives in one Michael Foot’s constituency. For Mrs Thatcher £50 from a small branch in the Welsh valleys was as important as a £10,000 donation from the Home Counties. Surely a lesson we can all learn.