An interview with David Davis MP, by Luke Springthorpe
It was against a backdrop of declining membership numbers and an increasingly disenfranchised membership base that I went to meet David Davis MP, former contender for the leadership of the party.
His background stands in stark contrast to that of the current party leadership. Raised by a single mother on a Tooting council estate and educated at grammar school, Mr Davis went on to have a successful career in the private sector, having been a Director of Tate & Lyle. Here are his thoughts on the party’s membership crisis.
LS: With party membership down to 134,000 from a peak of 3 million, what do you think has caused this?
DD: Currently, the Coalition is the most obvious cause for dissatisfaction in the party. Although I believed at the time - and still believe - that the Coalition Agreement was absolutely necessary, it is clear that the Conservative Party must do better at forging its own identity outside of the coalition with the Liberal Democrats.
Ultimately, however, the problem of decreasing membership is not a new one. Indeed, it’s something I researched during my time as a Bow grouper during Ted Heath’s government, when we were concerned about the same problem. There are now, however, challenges that are either unique or have become more acute at the present time.
For one, the party needs to get far better at retaining and engaging an active membership. This means actually understanding and defining the role of a membership based party in the twenty-first century. Whilst this still means getting out and knocking on doors, we need to do better as a party at having a two way conversation between the grassroots membership on the one hand and the leadership and professional management of the party on the other.
The party conference shows just how much this conversation has broken down. Members no longer have the opportunity to interact and make speeches in the main conference hall. Whereas conference used to be an exciting occasion that brought us together and reinforced that sense of the Conservative family, it is now a much more tame affair with few genuine opportunities for engagement beyond the fringe meetings.
The success of pressure groups like 38 Degrees and Avaaz show just how important it is to reverse this trend. These highly effective campaign groups offer us a compelling case for developing a ‘two tier’ membership which would allow a predominantly online based membership to have their views heard and to engage with the party in more modern ways.
LS: How can we stop losing members to UKIP?
DD: We shouldn’t forget that UKIP’s rise is largely down to people being alienated from politics, a well-established trend which has been worsening for some time. That is why UKIP’s success isn’t only a problem for the Conservatives, something which has been borne out the by-election in Eastleigh and the recent local elections.
Ultimately, the Conservative Party needs to pick up the voters that used to be ours under Thatcher but who are now being spoken for by UKIP on issues that matter to them, and who feel that UKIP offers ‘common sense’ policies. It’s a question of having appeal on the council estates - the voters who UKIP are increasingly effective at appealing to. These voters are typically aspirational Conservatives who seek class mobility and want to get out and better themselves. It is this group that the Conservative party simply must to do better with if we are to re-build our base of supporters.
LS: How will we win in 2015?
DD: I am a right wing, One Nation Conservative. I know that the ideal of a small state which encourages the creation and dispersion of wealth still has huge appeal and I believe it is a mix of policies shaped in this way that can win in 2015.
The key policies that we need to sharpen and hammer home in the run up to the election are broadly as follows:
• Offer a strong mix of free market policies that deliver lower taxes, less regulation and more free trade to convince the electorate that we are the party of economic growth. Needless to say, evidence of our pro-growth credentials will need to be felt by 2015.
• We need to have a robust policy on immigration, which is essential to alleviate pressure on our public services and communities in those parts of the UK which are dis-proportionately affected.
• Maintain our emphasis on steering all aspects of welfare policy towards getting people back in to work wherever possible.
• Our base also wants to hear more about law & order, whilst ensuring that the police are respectable once again.
• Beyond this, restoring the place of grammar schools as a central tenet of our education system and reviving our stock of council housing will be popular policies as well as good policies.
All of this is underpinned by a long standing attitude that is part of the mind-set of almost every Tory voter: self-reliance and a willingness to ‘do your bit’.
Furthermore, winning in 2015 will come down to drawing very clear dividing lines between us and the Liberal Democrats. That is a process that must begin now. We must reemphasise our traditional conservative values to an electorate which understands that the future of the West, not just the UK, is problematic. Voters are largely convinced by the argument that lower taxes, less regulation and free trade are crucial in maintain living standards and having a competitive economy. It’s our job to convince them that those are Conservative values.
We need to be bold in meeting that challenge. In the end, this may require us to withdraw from the European Union whilst seeking to remain as a member of the European Economic Area and as signatory to other bilateral deals where it is in our interest. This should be a decision driven by the desire to make Britain more competitive, however, and not simply carried out as a knee jerk plan it will kill off UKIP, which it would not achieve.
I do believe that victory in 2015 is possible, but only if we stand as Conservatives on a truly conservative platform.