A new year, refreshed cabinet and plenty of priorities for the new Party Chairman

by | Jan 8, 2018

It’s the new year. A special moment in any Prime Minister’s diary. The chance to turn the page. Make a fresh start. Get out there and seize the agenda.

So, this week Downing Street set up photo-calls for the PM to meet first-time buyers and visit patients in hospital. The message is clear – 2018 will be about more than just Brexit.

To add to this sense of direction, speculation flourishes that Theresa May will soon reshuffle her Cabinet. With an expected increase in the number of women and ethnic minorities, No10 hopes that these fresh faces will lead to a renewed sense of vigour. A team that can take on and defeat Corbynista socialism.

Yet, a reality-check is required if we think that a busy PM diary and re-arranging the chairs around the Cabinet table will be sufficient to defeat the current populism of the left.

For the immediate threat is not just one of Venezuelan-style socialism, but that of our own poor party organisation; an ageing membership and insufficient activity amongst our activists. And, unless we grapple this challenge, nothing else will matter.

I entered David Cameron’s Cabinet at a reshuffle in September 2012. As Chairman, my job was to get us match-fit for the next election. Yet, the signs were less than promising. Our membership had halved since Cameron became leader, Conservative HQ wasn’t primed for campaigning and we were languishing a massive 13 percent behind Labour in the polls. Everyone told me an outright majority was implausible.

All of which makes me think that the problems we face today –the poll gap is much smaller – are not insurmountable. Nevertheless, fixing things will require urgent and radical Prime Ministerial action.

First and foremost, the 2017 general election showed that to win we actually need activists on the ground. And there is no better place to start than by rebuilding our membership.

The party has traditionally been rather coy about publishing its membership numbers. Indeed, David Cameron flatly refused when I first approached him on the subject; convinced it would only generate negative headlines. I persisted, sending the PM various memos saying that openness would help focus the party on campaigning. Eventually Cameron acquiesced, and we established the principle of publishing membership on the eve of each annual conference.

And, the gamble paid off. Showing the party that the leadership actually cared about members created a virtuous circle. The numbers began to recover. What is more, it presented the opportunity to provide broader detail about our supporters. It turned out that we had many thousand small-time donors, were on our way to 2million recipients of our email messages and dominated on social media.

So being open about our membership is a start, but we need to do more.

The truth is that being a Conservative member gives you just one great power – a vote in electing the next leader. Yet, some leadership elections – Theresa May in 2016, for example – never reach the membership. And, the last time members actually got a vote on their leader was over twelve years ago.

So how about beefing up other membership privileges? More input on policy, for example. There is a Conservative Policy Forum, established after the War, which claims to ensure ‘that party members‎ have the opportunity to help shape government policy.’ It’s run by the excellent George Freeman MP, but as his own experience chairing the Prime Minister’s Policy Board demonstrated, it is easy for sound ideas to be overlooked.

Perhaps membership should include getting a direct say on who should be the next Chairman? We are the only party that does not directly elect their Party Chairman or President. Doing so would not only provide our members with a compelling reason to belong, but would potentially boost the power of the Party Chairman. With an elected Chairman being more focussed on ensuring the organisation was permanently match-fit, we would be in a better position to win an unexpected snap-election.

No matter how we select our Chairman, the next task is rebuilding our activist base.

We claimed an outright victory in the 2015 election thanks in part to 100,000 new Tory activists. These were individuals of all ages, from all parts of the country, bound together in a winning group – called Team2015.

The idea was born out of the 2012 London Olympics where volunteers pitched in as ‘Games Makers’. Tens-of-thousands carried out a wide variety of roles across the Olympic Venues. And the more they did, the more they were recognised and rewarded.

Was this a model that could be applied to politics? I chatted it through with Olympics Secretary Jeremy Hunt, and the Obama’s re-election team in Washington, DC. I was convinced. Teams of well-organised activists knocking on doors, getting on social media and being incentivised to donate more of their time, really could be a game-changer.

But although Tories won in 2015, it was Labour that actually learnt the lessons.

An activist base, prepared to campaign and go anywhere, is precisely what Momentum delivered for Labour in 2017. With the spin-off benefit of these activists helping Labour to dominate social media. Something Conservatives had monopolised just two years earlier.

It was Cecil Parkinson who once pointed out to me that, in the long-run, everyone else’s Cabinet jobs depend on winning the next election. This, he would argue, makes appointing a Party Chairman amongst the most critical roles for any Conservative leader.

Building the activist base, extending membership benefits and restarting the youth section, should therefore be urgent priorities. It matters to the whole of the Tory party. But it also matters to the country at large because, if Corbyn wins, Britons will find out what the population of Caracas already know; socialism in action is nothing but the equal sharing of misery.

Today, a combination of reasonable mid-Brexit negotiations, lack of obvious alternative and May’s dogged determination, has given this Prime Minister the opportunity to make a fresh start in 2018. Regardless of who leads us into the next election, it is very much the duty of today’s leader to pay attention to fixing our rusty party machine. Just one more priority for a busy start to 2018.