Saturday, 6 October 2012

After 37 years membership some sad thoughts on the state of the Conservative Party


I'm not off to Birmingham today. Or indeed on any day in the immediate future. Not because I've anything against Brum but because I really can't see the point in spending best part of a grand on a trip to the Conservative Party Conference.

And Graeme Archer, writing in the Telegraph this morning, says what I would say (if I could write as well as he does):

It’s very different from those old days in Blackpool or Brighton, when you queued politely in the tea-room, swapping canvassing stories with members of different associations. And when real policies were debated by real members in the hall, and put to the vote. I wish conference would return to the seaside, but more importantly, that it would allow its members to engage with the party again.

Perhaps there's a modicum of rose tint to Graeme's (and my) memory but he's right about the way in which members - the ordinary foot soldiers of the Party - are treated as extras in a grand show by the leaders and lobbyists. And this is a reflection of how the Party has atrophied - back in 1995 my ward had four branches now we struggle by with just the one.  Looking further back into time's mists - to 1976, I joined the Young Conservatives (none of this 'Conservative Future' dribble) and a Party with over a million members. Today the Party would be happy if it could claim 150,000 paid up supporters.

But the leadership - political, professional and (saddest of all) voluntary - don't care about this problem. So long as a few wealthy folk can be persuaded to part with a million or so each then the game carries on. And it's a game of charming the national media - getting the winning headline - not a game of securing the support of committed people across the nation. Those millions will be spent on smart young people in London offices each polishing their own careers while giving no thought about the ordinary folk they want to turn out and vote for the Conservatives come an election.

There won't be any money - part of those millions from grand benefactors - to spend on a retired colonel or two to rebuild the party in Birmingham or a team of organisers to recruit new members, open new branches and give us a fighting chance in Leeds. But the smart young things in London will point to a smattering of MPs in these places and the slightly grizzled bunch of Councillors saying; "they must do that job, build the Party in the North and Midlands - we have a strategy." And a few slightly less shiny youngsters are recruited and thrown at "target constituencies" with hardly any training and no idea about how to manage volunteers. Worse still, come 2015 those (by then more battle-hardened) campaigners will vanish as the money sucks back to London and those shiny offices manned by the latest bunch of the ambitious.

If the Party wants to be what it used to be - a mass movement of ordinary people - then it needs to rethink its offer. Not simply the policy offer - though some changes there might help - but its social and cultural offer. Above all the Party needs to make its members important - cherished even - rather than seeing them as a squabbling mob necessary only to fill up some places as Council candidates and shove a few leaflets through some doors.

Getting a vote electing the leader is great but only happens periodically - in any given year of membership we're more likely not to have a leadership election. Perhaps electing the Party Chairman might be a welcome step and would break the ghastly habit of that position being seen as another Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet roles for an ambitious MP.  But there are softer things too.

Right now, the only things I get from the National Party as an ordinary member are financial appeals. There is no acknowledgement of what I do already, no thanks, no information and no offer. I give and the bright young things in London offices get to buff up their careers in PR, media or as future MPs. Nothing comes back to the member. When my Dad stood down from Bromley Council after 36 years as a Conservative Councillor, the National Party offered no thanks for his service. Not a letter of appreciation. Not a phone call. Nothing.

And the Party is worse now than it was then. Not the local Constituency folk, they're still ordinary men and women doing their best to keep the candle lit. It's those bright young things in London offices. Most of all it's a Leadership (and not just the current one but every one since the 1980s) that cares more for sucking up to rich grandees so as to pay for the grand offices. And it's the industry of Westminster - the researchers, the special advisors, the PR men and women, the media advisors. A vast self-serving morass of London-centred ambition that simply didn't exist when I joined up.

It depresses me as I approach 40 years as a Conservative member that it is such a shadow of what is was as an organisation. It angers me that the National Party so quickly denies - even casts out - ordinary members when they get a phrase wrong or tiptoe beyond the politically correct. And it saddens me that there is no voice in the Party HQ telling them that the organisation is dying, haemorraging members and losing activists. Not because those people aren't Tories any more but because the Party refuses them a real role - makes no offer showing then they are valued and fails to thanks them for their efforts.

I will struggle on. The Party will still get my donations. We'll still use my house to raise funds for local campaigning. But my son's generation will not join up. They will see no point or purpose. In just three or four decades the greed and selfishness of the industry that is Westminster will have destroyed what was once the world's largest and most successful centre-right political party.



Anonymous said...

David Cameron out,Boris Johnson in.

Anonymous said...

That's what happened to Labour too. The disease that kills democracy and grass roots seems to come as you say to the advantage and attention given to professional lobbyists over the little man on the street who is only of value when his X is needed at elections.

I blame Bliar for ruining our democracy, taking all power away from the people in thnis country and giving it to unelected lobbyists. People voted Topry because they wanted chnage. Cameron has provbed to be more ,like Bliar than Bliar and he has let everyone down by picking up Bliar's mantle and running with it.

Trying to be too much like Labour and Labour trying to be one nation Tories means the poor traditional party supporter can no longer recognise what he's supporting other than immature career politicians who don't care about the voter but how far they go during their time in office and I guess that depends on keeping the community in Westminster ha;ppier than the people they want votes from.

For all of that - and not just the bloody EU - people afre turning to a new party because they desperately need new hope that someone at least speaks with their voice.

From Pat Nurse

Anonymous said...

I realise that you have largely covered this point but I thought the most appalling and depressing thing was the following paragraph from the Telegraph article:
For the activist, conference is an increasingly depressing experience. The seaside resorts are long banished: now we ricochet between Birmingham and Manchester because their urban chic is more attractive to the professional lobbyists, who outnumber party members at conference by a huge margin.
I imagine the same is true of the Labour and Libdem conferences. No wonder that in recent times, every time a new minister is appointed or a new government gets elected, very little changes. As Roger Daltry sang: 'Meet the new boss, same as the old boss'