We all know that the two big UK political parties are, in terms of membership, shadows of what they were in times past. At its peak the Conservative Party had over 3 million members and the Young Conservatives were perhaps the biggest political youth movement in the democratic world.
When I joined the YCs in 1976 the cracks were already showing, the membership was declining year on year, and the national party seemed uninterested in anything but the next general election (although that election did elect Margaret Thatcher so perhaps I shouldn't complain too much). However, back then the Beckenham constituency had three separate YC branches. The main Party branch that my mum was active in was called Lawrie Park 'A' - just one polling district of a larger ward.
So when we talk about the Party's grassroots, this should be what we are thinking about. Not self-appointed campaign groups that adopt the word Grassroots to make out that somehow they're in touch with the soul of the Party. Or even groups that use words like 'Mainstream' or 'Way Forward' to try and suggest their particular faction is somehow representative of the real Party.
In truth the grassroots of the Party are no longer the membership. When I talk to Conservative voters (something I do try to do as often as possible) I get no sense that they feel part of a movement, that they belong to something. Yet these people will troop out in election after election and put their cross next to the Conservative candidate. Their motivation is less tribal than was the case when the Party had those millions of members and more self-interested: they believe that the Conservatives represent them better.
The Bow Group has become the latest in a long line of folk that have had their four-pennorth on how to restore the fortunes of the Party organisation. Thankfully, the Bow Group start with absolutely rejecting state funding for political parties, and state in stark terms the scale of the problem:
...the Conservative Party should not go down the road of state-funding for political parties, but instead should take urgent measures to reconnect with its electoral base and grassroots members.
The Group set out '11 Steps' that the Party needs to take ranging from more dialogue through rejecting 'open primaries' and electing the Party Chairman to more tactical matters such as ending the Coalition sooner rather than later. There is, from the perspective of someone with nearly 40 years active membership, much to commend in the proposals.
However, the bit that the Bow Group miss is that, to turn round the Party as an organisation, there has to be two further things done:
1. The Party needs to invest in the long term, to have people whose job it is to think about what the organisation will look like in 20 years time and to set resources aside to put professional organisers on the ground in places where the Party needs to develop.
2. The Party should announce its intention (unilaterally if agreement with Labour can't be achieved) to stop taking donations above a certain size (say £5,000) - this would provide the incentive for the leadership to look for lots of smaller donations rather than finding a couple of billionaires to hand over a few million.
I believe that these two actions would break the grip of London on the Party, would make us pay attention outside election time to the ordinary men and women who actually plod down to the polling station to vote Conservative.