On Wednesday 19th March, Lord Tebbit spoke to the Bow Group on how to revive the grass roots of the party and put members back at the heart of their party. Head of Social Media, Sarah-Jane Sewell, offers her thoughs on what he said.
As Conservatives, we often talk about the party as our “family”, a respected institution, a place where we all come together in the good and bad times, as well as the serious and the fun times. It’s a place where it should – if it is to be described as a family – be somewhere that we are nurtured, nourished and encouraged to reach our full potential and contribute to the direction of the family. However, many are increasingly of the view that this family now more closely resembles a group of bickering siblings with over protective and stifling parents who are not letting their inheritors have the space to learn and to lead. All too often, we see restrictions placed on the grassroots in terms of the benefits from being a party member. Be it the end of proper members speeches in the hall at conference or genuine freedom to choose the candidates they want to represent their local area in Parliament, members have seen the ‘bang for their buck’ from paying to be a party member diminished.
What we are now seeing is that when the grassroots are stifled, the grass won’t grow properly and eventually it will die, blade by blade. This is evidenced by the fact membership now stands at a worryingly low c.130,000- a figure so low in a country of 60 million that it should be of concern to us all. This represents just 0.3% of a registered electorate of 46 million.
On Wednesday evening, I attended the annual “State of the Party” address hosted by the Bow Group and delivered by Lord Tebbit, and I took great heed of what he said. The coalition is like a broken marriage with both parties trying to hold it together, but it is ultimately for the best if a divorce is made now. As with our political coalition, the whole family is affected, no one can prosper, if the coalition is broken up, then both parties can start afresh and begin to rebuild their ‘lives’. This is especially important for our own party. With the most significant parts of the Parliamentary agenda now cleared, we should continue as a minority administration and showcase our Conservative credentials and flush out Labour & Liberal Democrats in to the open to oppose us- if they dare. This will not only draw clear light between us and our opponents in the run up to 2015, but will also show the voters who have left us that the leadership is indeed conservative, and demonstrate that they need to come back to the fold to in order to give us a clear majority in 2015.
The coalition has taken the Conservative party down the wrong path, and as Lord Tebbit said, “the middle ground is where accidents happen”, while “the common ground is where great victories are won.” He added that “there really were no excuses for David Cameron’s failure to win enough support from the electorate (in the last election). His attempt to win Lib Dem support by moving across towards the Lib Dems ideologically meant that he reinforced the conviction of Lib Dem voters that the Lib Dems were right, but left many of our own voters feeling lost.” If the leader can’t look after his own party, and hold them together in a functional unit, then what hope will the rest of the electorate see in joining our family, our party, or voting us to lead the country?
It’s time real freedom was given back to associations and members, as well as a more convivial relationship of trust and transparency from the top. As Lord Tebbit reminded us, his role was Chairman of the National Union of Conservative Associations and not a centralised party machine- nor did he try and run it as such. This is an ethos that needs to be replicated today.
By remembering that the party is built from the bottom up and it is the grassroots that keep the party ticking as well as where the new generations of politicians and activists come from, by remembering our values lie in meritocracy and not “ticking-a-box-ocracy”, we can flourish and become a real fighting force. By doing so, we can once again be a force to be reckoned with that harnesses our members multitude of talents and enthusiasm, and in turn the Conservative Party can, and will, win the 2015 general election and increase the number of voters as Margaret Thatcher did in 1987, and not lose voters (all three million of them) as Tony Blair did when people got to know him in 2001. This is what he meant when the leader must showcase himself as a son of Thatcher, and not a son of Blair.