18 December 2019

The Conservative Party may have won – but it must be reformed


Relief. That has been the word most frequently used when discussing the nation’s verdict with fellow members of the Conservative tribe. I am old enough to remember the last time we had Conservative landslides, back in the 1980s. After the 1987 results came in, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne, the editor of the Sunday Telegraph, lamented the “bourgeois triumphalism” of the time.

The “bourgeois” reference was rather snobbish and also inaccurate. But I do think there was more triumphalism then than now. The sense of relief is not just about finally settling the dispute over Brexit, but also of averting the alarming prospect of having a Marxist as our Prime Minister. From Boris Johnson to the humblest Party activist, the message has been understood that the circumstances are special. The result will not be “taken for granted” – especially given the startling nature of some of the Conservative gains in constituencies hitherto regarded as Labour “heartlands”.

The priority now is rightly on policy. Will “freeports” be enough to restore depressed areas to their former glory? Can an increase in the housing supply make homeownership a reality, and not merely a dream, for those on average incomes?

But campaigning and Party organisation matter as well, and the Conservatives cannot be complacent. In this election, while much was made of the air war – how parties were getting their message across in the media – it is the ground war the Conservative Party must address, because, put simply, Labour won it. Again. They simply had more boots on the ground.

There was some YouGov polling for the Mile End Institute which asked people in London what campaigning they had encountered. It found that 47% could remember having a leaflet from Labour, 34% from the Lib Dems, and only 28% from the Conservatives. 9% said someone from Labour had called at their home, compared to 5% from the Conservatives, plus another 2% had been contacted by Labour phone callers, with only 1% remembering contact from the Conservatives.

When it comes to Party membership, the gap is even wider. As of July this year, Labour had 485,000 members compared to the Conservatives 180,000 members. A big recruitment drive is needed by the Tories. It needs to be followed up by welcoming and involving those who decide to join, not just by  asking them for more money all the time (a topic I have covered for this site previously).

Does it make that much difference? Do not the Corbynistas, with their extremism and intolerance, alienate the floating voters they encounter? Sometimes perhaps. But the discipline is considerable. Momentum makes considerable efforts to train those new to canvassing and to brief them on which messages are most effective amongst target groups.

In the Conservative Party there is tension between local associations and the high ups at CCHQ. A debate rages about whether power should be localised or centralised. Each side blames the other for an array of frustrating failings. But the awful truth is that, having listened to countless examples over the years, I usually conclude that grievances are valid from both directions.

It follows that the answer is a bit more complicated than shifting power in one direction or another. The membership should be administered nationally – all members should have to pay their subs direct to the main Party coffers, with the details (and perhaps a cut of the proceeds) passed to the local association. There should be also far more contact with and activity for the membership on a regional basis. For instance, I am a member of the Conservatives in London but I have yet to be invited to the annual conference for London Conservatives. Why? Because no such event takes place.

Constituency associations should be given the freedom to succeed. Many were keen to select candidates much earlier. And they should have the chance to at least consider strong candidates not on the centrally “approved list”. Last week saw some narrow defeats for the Conservatives in some seats where a candidate was selected at the last minute – often living many miles away.

But there should also be accountability. Constituency associations should not be allowed to drift on if they fail to perform. A typical example is poor use of property. A constituency association might well own a building, perhaps quite large and valuable, for its office. But there is no money for staff so the building sits empty. Much of the Association’s funds raised from membership subs, donations, and social events goes to pay the Business Rates, utility bills, insurance and so on. Money completely wasted. Much better to sell, or rent out such buildings. Each case will have particular complications and it is understandable that volunteers might sometimes struggle to resolve them. But the upshot is that current asset management is routinely dire. Professional management is needed to ensure effective use of these considerable resources – which at present are often a huge burden.

Another example comes with local government. Too often we have snug little cliques of Conservative councillors who have lost any enthusiasm they may have once had for the role, but drift on in “safe” wards, used to the status and the allowances. Really they should be deselected and new people brought forward. All too often it is felt less awkward not to bother. Where a constituency has a new Conservative MP this may help. After all, the MP has a vested interest in building up a network of volunteers. There is a conflict though. A new MP may not wish to pick a fight with those already running the local association – who may lack the energy and inclination for a bold advance but be reluctant to stand aside for others with greater vigour.

That is why CCHQ and the Party’s “National Convention” need to strengthen the Party’s rules. Local associations need to have stronger rights but also clearer responsibilities. CCHQ should be far less squeamish about putting a dysfunctional association into “special measures” and then restarting it under new management. It might be embarrassing. But far better to deal with problems than to ignore them.

A good analogy is with the way the Conservatives have reformed schools. Academy status allows greater independence for those schools that choose to convert to it. But failing schools can also have change imposed on them. If their standards fall below a basic level they become “sponsored academies” – with a new head and governing body.

We have had some bold reform on public services. What an irony it is then, that the Conservative Party organisation itself has the mentality of a 1970s nationalised industry. The principles that it has applied to others should now be applied to itself.

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Harry Phibbs is a freelance journalist