Most of the debate about what the Conservative Party needs to do to win an overall majority at future General Elections focuses on policy and message - and rightly so: even without an organisation on the ground, parties with an attractive message can achieve success.
But organisation does matter. In marginal seats, it can make the difference between victory and defeat. Unfortunately, our organisation is not what it used to be.
To a degree this is a problem that all three parties share - fewer and fewer people are choosing to join political parties. However, the way in which we have historically organised ourselves has compounded that problem in two ways.
First, because we still generally organise on a constituency-byconstituency basis (with each constituency having its own Conservative Association which is largely left to get on with things)ather than pooling resources across a wider area, the general decline in membership has been felt most in safe Labour seats and Conservative/Labour marginals, particularly those in parts of the country that are more difficult territory for us. In many Conservative/ Labour marginals, our membership is so small that it is difficult to raise funds for campaigning or find enough people to deliver our literature. Elsewhere in some safe Labour seats, we have simply ceased to exist. Back in 1983, we had parliamentary seats in the big northern cities of Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. By 2010, despite a prolonged period of an incredibly unpopular Labour Government, we didn’t have a single Council seat in any of those cities. What strength we have left tends to be in safe Conservative seats and it is very difficult to motivate activists in these areas to go and campaign elsewhere where their efforts might have some impact on the number of Conservative MPs elected to Parliament.
Second, because the central organisation of the Party is under the control of the Leader of the Party (the Hague reforms of 1998 set up a Board of the Party with significant representation from the voluntary party, but this Board is chaired by the Chairman of the Party who is appointed by the leader so in practice the leadership still has control), our organisational focus is always on the next General Election to the exclusion of all else.
We need to address this. If we aspire to be a genuine ‘One Nation’ party, we cannot be indifferent to there being parts of the country where the Conservative Party has no footprint. The lack of a Conservative presence in northern cities has a knock-on impact on marginal seats in the suburbs - regional and local media tend to be based in city centres and if they don’t see a Conservative presence it affects the coverage they give us.
So what do we need to do?
First, the national party needs to designate some long-term resources to this project. Make sure we have candidates for the seats concerned selected well before the next election. Identify the council wards we are going to start in and try to build up ward by ward.
Second, we need to think about how we organise as a party. This can’t come from the top because the solution will be different in different areas. We should be guided by three principles. First, identity: associations should cover areas that people identify with. Second, scale: associations should cover a large enough area to sustain a viable organisation with a headquarters and some professional support. Third, permanence: if possible, we want to avoid having to re-organise ourselves every time constituency boundaries change.
In Croydon, we’ve merged the three Associations within the borough to form the Croydon Conservative Federation. This passes the identity test: no-one identifies with the constituency boundaries; they’re from a place called Croydon. It passes the scale test: we have an office and can afford to employ several staff. And it passes the permanence test - the constituency boundaries may change, but the boundaries of Croydon haven’t changed for over 50 years.
And strange though it may sound, this organisational shift has led to a change in behaviour. We no longer think of ourselves as ‘Croydon Central’, ‘Croydon North’ and ‘Croydon South’ but as ‘Croydon Conservatives’. When there are Council elections, we go and work in the marginal wards whether they are in ‘our’ constituency or another part of the borough. When there’s a General Election, everyone works in my seat because it is the only one of the three that’s marginal. Supporters attend fundraising events right across the borough, not just those in ‘their’ constituency.
Federation isn’t the only solution, however. In Gloucestershire, the six associations have kept their independence but come together to fund a state-of-the-art county campaign centre. In other parts of the country, associations have kept their own offices but share an agent who works between these offices or a safe Conservative-held seat pays for professional cover in a nearby marginal. What matters is not the detailed structure but the principle that we concentrate the resources - both financial and human - that we have in the seats that will determine whether or not we win elections.
Third, we need to involve more people in what the party is doing without them having to be paid-up members. Why not invite members of the public to political discussion meetings? Why not involve Conservative supporters in the process of selecting our candidates?
These are structural reforms that we need to implement to ensure we are in a position to elect majority Conservative Governments in the future. We can’t afford to ignore the decline in our organisation any longer. Alongside the strategy Lynton Crosby is developing to win the next election, we need to develop a long-term plan to rebuild our party - and grassroots activists have a key role to play in that work.
Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for Croydon Central