If the Party wants more members, we must avoid ‘Tory takfirism’


Aaron Ellis

For nine months now, I have been chairman of City of Liverpool Conservative Future. I first became involved three years ago when I moved back to my hometown after university; I didn’t know anyone there anymore and the local CF branch was an opportunity to meet people. Thankfully, its members were all nice, smart, and laidback and I developed many strong friendships. When the opportunity came to give something back and help develop the branch, I took it, as I was emotionally invested in its success.

Unfortunately, a proportion of my time has been spent dealing with extremists. ‘Extremist’ is a better descriptor than, say, ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘right-wing’ because all Conservatives are, to a greater or lesser extent, Thatcherite and right-wing. Instead, these people hold an extreme point-of-view – typically a combination of hard, unfeeling libertarianism at home and chauvinism abroad – and who accuse anyone that disagrees with them of not being truly conservative. There is also only one way to show one’s commitment to the Tory Party: leafleting. If you aren’t willing to spend your evenings and weekends out leafleting, then you are pointless.

Though not exclusively Thatcherite, the ‘Iron Lady’ has a prominent place in their thinking – at least, their understanding of her does. Rather than appreciating that Lady Thatcher was a politician who (like any other) had to compromise, dissemble, and court popular opinion in order to achieve her objectives, extremists think of her solely as a ‘conviction politician’ who did none of these things. Thus one of the lessons they draw is that in order to be like Lady Thatcher, they should be intolerant of others’ views and be downright rude about them in the process.

Another lesson they draw is that being isolated from the mainstream is a prerequisite for gaining power. Lady Thatcher was an ‘outsider’, yet she won the leadership from the Establishment ‘apostate’ Ted Heath. In this way, as with their takfirism, extremists resemble militant Islamists. They also believe isolation is a prerequisite for power; after all, the Prophet went into isolation before the people of Mecca realised the error of their ways and embraced him. That Lady Thatcher spent only approximately four years on the backbenches during her decades-long parliamentary career and that Muhammad adapted his teachings to try to win over Jewish merchants in Medina is forgotten. No compromise; no dissembling; and no courting of popular opinion.

One extremist who ran for the Liverpool chairmanship described herself, without irony, as “the Iron Lady of the North” – a pitch that would obviously go down well with voters in this city. Months later, when I said she should try to win friends in the branch if she was going to run again, she dismissed the suggestion. She would not lower herself by participating in a ‘popularity contest’; it ought to be obvious that she is the best person for the job. In a democracy, elections are popularity contests.

The same intolerance is shown over leafleting. Given the membership crises affecting all the main parties, we need to be thankful that anyone is interested in us at all - particularly in the urban north such as Liverpool - and must try to persuade them to care enough to actively campaign. Those who join who think they might be Tories and think they like David Cameron, but aren’t entirely sure, do not want to be press-ganged into leafleting in obscure council boroughs they’ve never heard of, let alone will never live in.

And in Liverpool our problem is not that activists aren’t pushing enough leaflets through letterboxes, it’s that we’re hated. I work in a bar on weekends; when one of the previously friendly customers found out I was a Conservative, he started referring to me as “Tory c**t”. Our party brand is toxic in cities like Liverpool; we could fell entire rainforests and turn them into leaflets and it would not impact this basic political fact.

Yet whenever I have tried to argue that there are many ways members can contribute to the Party and none more or less Conservative than the other, my commitment has been questioned.

For many extremists, their inspirational text is The Road to Serfdom or Atlas Shrugged; for me, it was The Conservative Party from Peel to Major. In it Lord Blake, the great historian of our party, wrote that “[s]tern, unbending [ideology] has never paid dividends” to us.

Conservatism is a diverse political ideology, like any other; we all pick different strands from within it, and even some from outside it, and weave them together to form our own personal ideology. That’s how our Party has evolved and survived for so long.

If we become both intolerant and doctrinaire, then we will die.

Follow Aaron on Twitter.

Mid Staffs: Whither 38 Degrees?

Nik Darlington 3.16pm

In September 2011, I cavilled about the “rise of the clickocracy”, that multi-headed hydra of modern political ‘engagement’. The internet has spawned several campaigning movements, 38 Degrees being pre-eminent, who exist to put the democratic process within reach of a mere click. Click, click, clickety click - and the job is done. Your voice is heard.

The well-funded 38 Degrees made its name by opposing the Coalition’s healthcare reforms. There were just “24 hours to save the NHS”, we were told. Millions of emails made their way to MPs’ inboxes. All, of course, to no avail, but the point was made, not least by that moronic Mirror headstone.

The Health & Social Care Act has of course not killed the NHS. Yet the revelations within the Francis Report threaten to kill public trust in an institution that Nigel Lawson called “the closest thing the English have to a religion”.

Paul Abbott, sometimes of this parish, has a good little piece over at ConHome today, asking what campaigners such as 38 Degrees think about the grotesque conditions at Mid Staffordshire and allegedly sundry other hospitals around the country.

"Now that the Mid Staffs report has been published and debated in Parliament, it makes difficult and upsetting reading - wherever you fall on the political spectrum. Thousands died. The truth was covered up. Problems were endemic and not just because of a few rogue individuals. But, where is the 38 Degrees campaign for NHS reform? Where is the e-petition on their website, saying, “24 hours to save the NHS”? In the past, they have moved quickly to jump on a topical news agenda. So why not now, on their central issue of defending the National Health Service?

38 Degrees will have no credibility on NHS reform in the future, if they don’t step up to the plate now. I’ve met the CEO of 38 Degrees - David Babbs - a few times, and like him. He’s a nice guy, and seems sincere in his intentions. He has told me more than once that he’s not a front for the Labour Party, and I believe him.

But why the silence on Mid Staffs, David? What’s going on?”

Now we shouldn’t expect the likes of 38 Degrees to take a stance on everything (heaven help us all if they did). Though it would be interesting to know what an organisation so vehemently against structural tinkering thinks about endemic cultural and managerial misanthropy.

As Paul suggests, where is the deluge of emails under the subject of “adopt the Francis Report recommendations in full”, or similar?

Typically, big and successful public campaigns rely on catchy, straightforward messages. The nuanced and complex truth cannot compete. Under such conditions do governments often flounder; and organisations like 38 Degrees, conversely, thrive.

Except the entire debate about Andrew Lansley’s NHS Bill was mired in nuance and complexity. 38 Degrees took on the Government with a simple (sometimes just absurd) message, but it still required people to grasp with elaborate change.

The Mid Staffs scandal is, in comparison, really rather straightforward (if frightfully hard to fix overnight). It is simply made for someone like 38 Degrees to take advantage of and put to the people and their clicking mice. Isn’t it?

Craig Barrett’s open letter to Ruth Davidson

Craig Barrett 6.00am

Dear Ruth,
First, congratulations on an excellent campaign and a notable victory.

As you may know, I publicly backed you during the leadership campaign and my reasons for this are set out here.

Yet it is clear that to some extent my support was more based on the opinions of your other supporters, rather than what I knew about you.
That could be your biggest advantage. However, as you now set out to define yourself and our party, I have some thoughts that I hope you will consider:
1. MSPs - Murdo Fraser managed to win the support of more than half of the Holyrood Party. That, combined with being a relative newcomer to Holyrood, means that your first task must be to ensure your MSPs are all on side. The secret weapon of the Conservative party is unity and we are all looking to you to take the fight to Mr Salmond and not to leave any unresolved issues within the grouping. I’m also sorry to say that some of our MSPs appear tired and complacent, relying on the list system to keep them in employment without any apparent desire for electoral success.
2. Councillors - I always view councillors as being front-line soldiers. Not only do they have the most contact with the electorate (thus being a much better barometer than parliamentarians), they are the ones who have the most to win or lose in terms of electoral fortunes without the ability to control national perceptions. It is no coincidence that poor parliamentary electoral performances for parties tend to come shortly after disasters at the local level. Next year’s council campaign is central to regenerating the party at both Holyrood and Westminster.
3. Party faithful - as the first leader elected by the whole membership, your decision to visit every constituency was a sensible and shrewd one.  If you have the energy, keep doing it.  We have a loyal but dwindling band of activists but they will be galvanised if they feel loved.
4. Party organisation - I genuinely believe that the party machine in Edinburgh is tired, lacks drive and lacks experience. You must appeal directly to CCHQ in London for much-needed funds but also for much-needed talent. Aspiring politicos should be offered the chance to be seconded to Edinburgh to earn their spurs in our campaigns. Whereas in London we are only fighting Labour, you have to fight Labour, the SNP and the LibDems - that is a wholly different type of campaign but my suggestion will ensure that campaigners are “blooded” must faster and harder than they would be south of the border. More campaign experience benefits the whole party so it’s not entirely one-sided. David Cameron is not, as you rightly protest, your “boss”, but don’t be afraid of asking London for help or for seeming to be dependant - we are all in this together, to coin a phrase, and sensibly remaining a united party means that we can share skills and support.  
5. Westminster - use the fact that we are in Government to your advantage. Highlight success. Insist that Ministers visit Scotland to ensure that the Scottish people are reminded that not everything flows from Mr Salmond. I don’t just mean those ministers who happen to be Scottish - it should be all of them, to emphasise the Union. It will also cut Mr Salmond down to size as, for too long, politicians appear to have been afraid of coming to Scotland. This has allowed him to stress divisions. If I were you, my first invitation would be to Eric Pickles, to talk campaign tactics, and my second would be to the Prime Minister, to make him agree to regular visits. He is the Prime Minister of Scotland too, after all.
6. Party Chairman - this is a key appointment because it needs to combine the skills of a Chief Executive with the verbal dexterity of a TV interviewer. The Chairman needs to be able to electrify Scottish HQ as well as to sell our position to the media. Nominate a unifying, heavyweight figure that the public can identify with. Do so, and create a formidable pairing.
It is trite (and arrogant) to suggest that Scotland is full of areas which should really have voted Tory; but it’s very clear that Scotland is full of people who are instinctively ‘conservative’.  That being said, you must re-affirm the idea that there are no untouchable areas for us in Scotland.  As a Glasgow MSP, you have a unique platform in this regard.
It is depressing to think that without Scotland there would have been a Conservative party majority at Westminster.  Much of Scotland simply doesn’t seem to understand the advantages that Conservative government can bring.  Partly this is a result of Gordon Brown’s epic expansion of welfare spending in Scotland; partly it is a result of a perception that we as a party don’t care about Scotland. That perhaps the Tories are merely a party for the English.
The irony that ours is the only party proud enough of its Unionist credentials to include the word in its name ought not to be lost on you.  Perhaps it is time to start reminding Scotland that patriotism doesn’t mean that you have to vote for the SNP.
I wish you every success in the months and years to come and I will be watching with interest, as well as trying to do my best to assist.
Yours sincerely,

Craig Barrett

Twitter @MrSteedUK

It’s official: Conservative local associations must be forced to modernise

Craig Barrett 4.55pm

I suspect that many Conservative party members were as concerned as I was to read the story that leaked over the weekend about the poor response rates of a majority of local associations.

I can declare something of an interest in this tale. In March 2009, I moved into a new area and, having been a party member since some point in the last century, I performed my duty and signed up anew.

Subscription fees left my bank account, but I heard nothing. I volunteered to assist during the election, but I heard nothing.

One Sunday, last April, after seeing a party leaflet land on my doormat, I charged outside to proffer my name and number to the chap doing the delivering, and say that I would like to help too. He clearly thought that I was crazy as I never heard anything afterwards, though he may just have been relieved that I was not an angry Brownite.

After an election during which I played no local part, I finally found out from my association that, whilst I was a paying member, my details had never been entered on to the database for mailings etc. All this after a lengthy letter of complaint to the association chairman.

Join through the party’s main website and indubitably an immaculately dressed handmaiden or footman will process the paperwork with lightning efficiency. Yet it is important to remember that most local associationa are run by volunteers, working evenings or weekends, demands of work, social life, children, grandchildren, animals notwithstanding. The days of an army of professional agents do seem to be over, with many associations having to dispense with them or share them. Let us reflect on this before complaining too shrilly and instead let us think of constructive ideas for improvement. For what it is worth, here are mine:

1. Websites

The Conservative party’s main website is pretty good. It is colourful, with plenty pictures, all the key information is there and updated and it even has a blog. Given that it is the primary portal, professionalism is vital and expected. Problems arise when you venture to a local website, which often look amateurish, contain limited information, notification of events with shadow ministers from 2009 or, worst of all, cheap graphics of fluttering Union flags and comedy fonts.

  1. CCHQ should enforce usage of straightforward templates (this has been rolled out to an extent but it is not widely adhered to). Uniform branding will give local associations a fresh look and ensure a professional appearance.
  2. Someone at CCHQ should be tasked with the periodical auditing of all websites to check for errors. They should have the power to switch off anything ridiculously out-of-date, leaving a holding page with contact details. Old information makes associations look like they aren’t functioning.
  3. Central hosting will also save on association costs.

2. Email

Presentation is everything and I am afraid that email addresses like: muchbindinginthemarshconservativeassociation@btinternet.com don’t wash. Each local association should have an address ending in @conservatives.com. This comes back, again, to professional branding.

3. Enquiries

Membership enquiries should be copied automatically to the membership department at CCHQ, which can monitor response rates, ensuring nothing falls between the cracks, and permitting accurate data profiling and ensuring a consistent approach.

I realise some people will decry these suggestions as allowing too much central control over local associations. My suspicion is that such people are also the sorts who think that the internet is a passing phase, eventually to be eschewed in favour of a return to chalk and slate.

We no longer have the luxury of such Luddism. We have to be a modern campaigning force using all the tools available. Is not some lost independence a price worth paying for survival? Associations will retain their distinctive local character but support will be given in areas where the mystery shopper exercise showed it was most needed.

After the 1832 Reform Act, many Tories apocalyptically predicted that they might never hold power again. In reality, the Conservative party of Sir Robert Peel, far from being banished to perpetual opposition, won a landslide election victory within a decade. How? It fashioned a political party of professional agents and vibrant local associations, where none had existed before. The party modernised, driven from the centre by headquarters at the Carlton Club.

Too many parts of the country have lost this competitive, modernising drive (for any number of reasons including ageing memberships, apathy and time). They need to modernise again, with CCHQ in a professional co-ordinating role.

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