22 May 2018

Recruiting new Tories will take more than a poultry discount card

By Harry Phibbs

There are 67 million people in the United Kingdom. But only 124,000 of us are members of the Conservative Party. Current opinion polling — and the last three General Election results — suggest that the Conservatives are more popular than Labour. Yet Labour have four times as many members. That is despite Labour membership costing twice as much (£50 versus £25).

Brandon Lewis, who was made Conservative Party Chairman, in January, is keen to address the challenge. One of his more eccentric ideas is to negotiate discounts that businesses will make available to those producing a Conservative Party membership card. Nando’s was offered as an example, prompting a predictable amount of fuss. The restaurant chain, much favoured by Lewis’s predecessor Grant Shapps, is not keen, pointing out that they have “no political affiliations”.

Perhaps the way forward might be to offer the same deal to Labour, Lib Dem and UKIP members. Free halloumi for all. Each branch of Nando’s could become a political salon — like the coffee houses of London in the 17th century.

Signing up businesses to provide special offers would at least get across the message that members are valued and that more are welcome to join. David Cameron’s leadership was marked by disdain for members. One of his allies was even quoted describing the grassroots as “swivel-eyed loons”. That is different now. Conservative members recognise that whatever her faults Theresa May (and her husband Philip) is from their tribe — comfortable and familiar with the humdrum social events and local campaigning.

Yet the complaints about a lack of “diversity” persist. There is an “image problem” that members are rich, male, white and old. It’s a bit of a caricature. There was a silly claim from the Bow Group that the average age of the Conservative Party member was 72. A study by Queen Mary University of London found the figure was 57 — not that different to the average age of a Labour Party member which is 53.

Anyway the signal picked up by the old is that they are not wanted. Curiously the Conservatives have also managed to get the same point across to the young. Before the 2015 General Election there was evidence of bullying and infighting in the organisation of a “road trip” where groups of Young Conservatives would visit constituencies in coaches to campaign and then socialise.

Concerns were ignored and there was a shocking suicide. But, rather than improve the arrangements, the entire youth wing was closed down. Corbynistas at Freshers’ Fairs were given a clear run to recruit new arrivals. Conservatives attempting to organise faced the discouragement of their own Party. Then last year everyone was suddenly puzzled that the Conservatives failed to win the youth vote.

Mind you, the middle-aged attempting to join can also find the Conservative Party a hostile environment. A “mystery shopping” exercise that was conducted showed that of those applying to join the Conservative Party over half got no reply, 10 per cent were told the Party was closed to new members, and some were told that an interview must first be passed.

The answer is to have a national membership system. Joining (or attempting to join) the Conservatives via the local constituency office is inefficient. To join each person should be required to apply (handing over their £25) to CCHQ, the Conservative Campaign Headquarters in London.

With a single, proper, up-to-date membership list the Party could send each member a magazine, which could probably be funded through advertising anyway. Each member could be sent a membership card (at present the local associations are supposed to send these out but often they don’t bother). These could certainly include discount offers from businesses. The party website should be revamped to become more member-friendly. This will also allow a bit of performance management. Conservative MPs could be encouraged to host evenings for prospective new members in parties in each Ward in their constituencies. Those identified from canvassing as Conservative voters could be invited along.

Regional conferences should be organised. The annual Conservative Party Conference in October is inconvenient for Tory members to attend if they are working. It is expensive to attend if they are not. What about a one-day annual conference on a Saturday for London Conservatives. Another one for Yorkshire Conservatives, another for Cornish Conservatives and so on. The Prime Minister couldn’t be expected to speak at all of them but she could turn out at a few — as could the Chancellor, the Home Secretary, the Foreign Secretary, the Home Secretary, or at least one “big hitter”.

There should be a lot of advertising for new recruits. I suppose ads on websites such as Guido Fawkes might attract younger members. Booking space in the Daily Telegraph might get older ones. Give both a try. The general idea should be to get more members rather than fret endlessly about how old they are.

Some recruitment ideas may prove more practical than others. But the fundamental is the right attitude of mind. The Conservatives need to be a self confident, welcoming party. Current and prospective members need to be clear that they are wanted. The sneers from the media must be overcome. So Brandon Lewis should persevere. But Nando’s is not enough.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist, blogger and Conservative Party member.