The Conservative Party: Property of the State?

Home Affairs
Saturday, May 3, 2014
Ben Harris-Quinney

This week saw the launch of the progressive pressure group Bright Blue's "Moderniser's Manifesto", it detailed the necessity for the Conservative Party to return to the modernisation project that has all but been abandoned. Nothing particularly newsworthy about that, but what is interesting about "modernisation", and this attempt to further the project is that it makes no attempt to address the issue of rapidly declining party membership and the disconnect between the members and central party.

The main pitch behind modernisation was that the Conservative Party had to adopt centrist liberal policies otherwise future electoral victory would be impossible, and it was the interests of even old-school Tories because unless they could win elections they would be stuck with the even worse option of endless Labour government.

Since then we have learned, with a recent YouGov poll showing an increasingly right-wing Conservative Party and UKIP at 50%, that right-wing policies are popular and electable, but also with UKIP taking a 38% of that 50%, that committed activists and members are as crucial to winning elections as policy and leadership.

There is a limit to what polls can teach us remote from real experience, but the correlation between the relationship between the central party and the membership and the confidence in their electoral performance in the below LGC Polljavascript:mctmp(0); yesterday is striking, and underlines a growing consensus on the problem within the Conservative Party.

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Cameron has been a decent enough Prime Minister, compared to the alternative, but a truly terrible leader of his party. Yet there is no indication, at least until UKIP started to severely eat into the Tory vote, that his deleterious leadership of the Conservative Party itself is of any concern to Cameron.

It could be intimated from the work of Bright Blue and the attitude of the Conservative Party executive that they are not only unconcerned by the loss of connection to the members, but they actually want them to leave.

Outside of the Westminster bubble there is unlikely to be any support among party members for Liberal Democrat policies, and so there is a reticence to leave the bubble for "progressive conservatives" because it is there, and not among the membership of the party, that their ideas find succour.

They face the same problem that they pitched to solve with modernisation however  - under the current system political parties need members up and down the country, so you can't win elections without leaving Westminster (physically and ideologically), and if you don't win elections none of your policies can ever be implemented.

Conservative Central Office have shown a stubborn refusal to acknowledge this reality, and have tried to marshal the remainder of their disaffected membership by busing in young members from London to the constituencies,  recording all those who turn up,  centralising candidate selection and dangling the offer of a future role or parliamentary candidacy to members who do the most bidding. As one would expect however the members, who hold the true ownership of the Party, don't much like being treated like unskilled labour in the Soviet Union.

The only way to continue the operation of centralisation, Westminster group think and shedding members is therefore to adopt another source of funding, both to make up for the loss in membership fees but also to pay professional campaigners to do the job volunteer activists in the constituencies once did.

The culture of the kind of major political donations you see in the US is not alive in the UK, and tight donor and advertising regulation means that the only way to secure the necessary level of funding to operate as a political party is to adopt state funding of political parties nationally.

There is understood to be strong support for state funding from Labour, who are rapidly losing the Union funds they once relied upon, and the Lib Dems who want to anchor their position in the establishment before they disappear altogether.

The hardcopy of the Bow Group's  Crossbow magazine is published on Monday, in it the Bow Group, Conservative Grassroots and Conservative Voice argue for 11 urgent reforms to the Conservative Party (listed below) to give the Party back to its members, to reform the party back into a membership organisation and re-capture the helm of the popular conservative movement. One of the most important is to raise the issue of state funding now, and demand that the Conservative Party executive make a pledge to say no to any state funding of political parties today, or at any time in the future.

As the party goes so the nation goes with it, if the Conservative Party itself adopts state funding and runs the like a stasi, that is how it will come to govern the country. Centralisation of control and state funding of the Conservative Party should terrify any genuine conservative, within or without the party. It would not only be  a major step back for the Conservative Party, but for our democracy as a whole, entrenching a stale political class against the fury of a frustrated nation.



The Bow Group, Conservative Grassroots & Conservative Voice recommend the following 11 practical measures that the Conservative Party can quickly take in order to increase its membership, energise the grassroots and re-engage activists.

In addition to the above, the actions to be taken with immediate effect in a bid to revive the party and turnaround our fortunes:

1. More dialogue between MPs and senior volunteers

There needs to be real and regular dialogue between senior volunteers and Conservative Members of Parliament. We passionately believe in the concept of ‘one party’ – volunteers and parliamentarians working together for electoral success. During his time as Chairman of the Conservative National Convention, Don Porter was delighted to pioneer the election of three additional MPs to the Party Board. This simple change, overwhelmingly endorsed by both senior volunteers and MPs, allowed those with different roles within the Party to work together more closely to deliver a single vision and such initiatives could be rolled out in other more localised structures.

2. Party Board Chairman – let volunteers decide

The Chairman of the Party Board should not be appointed by the Party leader. The Conservative Party website states that the Chairman’s role is to “bring the Conservative family together” and to “connect” the Voluntary and Parliamentary branches of the Party. To achieve this, the Chairman of the Board should be elected by Party members.

3. Empower the National Convention

The National Convention is the Parliament of the Voluntary Party. It comprises all Association Chairmen and Regional Offcers, along with representatives from the Conservative Women’s Organisation and Conservative Future. This body, whose members bring with them so much campaigning, experience and understanding of the Conservative grassroots should be given real powers and authority.

For example, National Convention members should have a real say about how the money they raise for the Party is spent. Volunteers raise over £28 million annually – more than even the most generous individual or corporate donors. They keep the blue fag fying at the local level by campaigning in local elections, fundraising and producing literature. Locally, they decide how to spend the money they raise. It is only right that they should have a say in how the money they raise for the national Party is spent by CCHQ.

4. Hold a Conservative AGM

There should be a Conservative Party AGM which is open to all members. In addition, biannual regional meetings of the Party, to which all members in the region are invited, should also be resurrected nationwide. All MPs and MEPs should play a role in these sessions.

5. Let Volunteers Choose Candidates

Every Party Board committee should be led by an elected and experienced volunteer. Similarly, there must be no dilution of the involvement of members in the selection of their local and national candidates. This is an essential component in the fabric of our party. To that end, open primaries should be scrapped in favour of closed primaries. They de- motivate Conservative activists and members. Loyal activists should not be overlooked by people with no history of commitment to the Party in favour of candidates who may feel that they owe no loyalty to the Party.

Closed primaries offer a better alternative, and CCHQ should have no involvement in pushing forward an ‘approved list’ that has been centrally picked. The role should be reduced to one of very basic background checks.

6. Build a Broader Base of Support

The days of vast membership politics may be over. Therefore, we need an enlightened approach which allows the Conservative Party to reach out to groups which share our values, and to mobilise their support for the Conservative cause. We need to learn lessons not just from the American political parties but also from major charities, and to become more professional in our retention of members and supporters.

Both the Republican and Democrat Parties seek support from other like-minded organisations, political or otherwise, as a core part of their engagement activities. They use these ‘affnity groups’ to build up the level of trust in their party; they fundraise or gain volunteers for specifc issues that voters relate to and then ‘grow’ them into regular activists over a period of time. In an age where voters are more likely to support a single issue campaign than to join a political party, it makes sense for the Conservative Party to seek support amongst members of other groups which share our values.

7. Let Volunteers Drive the Conference Agenda

Volunteers should be given more chances to choose motions for debate at the annual Party Conference. These debates should be held away from television cameras and the media.

By allowing members to speak in the main hall once again and vote on party policy as well as election manifestos, the conference can be reformed into a democratic, open and less stage-managed occasion.

8. Recognise and Reward Volunteers

There should be a real emphasis on recognising and rewarding loyal volunteers across the Party. Volunteers do not give up their time because they expect fnancial reward. However, some form of recognition – even a simple letter showing that the Party is aware of and appreciates a volunteer’s efforts – would be hugely appreciated and could raise grassroots morale.

Trusting the electorate to make decisions about local issues must be matched by trusting our local activists and members to have a greater say in the organisation of our Party and in the development of policies based on our values and principles. The time is now ripe for a real engagement of volunteers and parliamentarians in the running of our Party.

9. Revolutionising online communications

Digital has opened a whole array of options to interact with a politically curious but disaffected population. This requires a less centrally managed approach based on the delivery of a static message, and greater interaction by being open to petitions and motions to be debated. This is done successfully by pressure groups such as Avaaz and 38 degrees but needs to be mimicked by political parties in order to remain relevant.

10. The break-up of the Coalition Government

The Coalition should dissolve in the lead up to the 2015 general election, followed by a commitment not to enter into coalitions with non-conservative parties going forward. With the Coalition’s reason for coming in to existence – namely, the stabilising of the economy – now achieved, there is little reason to justify its existence. The normal shelf life of a government is four years, and the most signifcant aspects of the legislative agenda have been delivered. By seeing out the rest of this parliament as a minority, the Conservatives can put clear night and day between themselves and their opponents and showcase themselves as the only choice for right wing voters in 2015. With a recent ComRes poll suggesting support for right wing parties (UKIP & Conservatives) is at over 50%, the notion that chasing this vote is a road to nowhere is a fallacy.

11. Say No To State Funding

No public money should be given to political parties. This would further damage levels of engagement among activists and reduce the incentives for the leadership to engage with them and place the beat traditions of British democracy under threat.