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Matthew Elliott: What kind of machine do political parties need to win elections in the present age?

Matthew Elliott is Founder of the TaxPayers' Alliance and Big Brother Watch, former Campaign Director of NOtoAV, and Chief Executive of Business for Britain, which will launch shortly. This is the text of the talk he gave to ConHome's Victory 2015 Conference on 9th March. Follow Matthew on Twitter.


At ConservativeHome's Victory 2015 conference earlier this month,Grant Shapps explained how he was elected as MP for Welwyn Hatfield in 2005 through effective on the ground campaigning. This was a useful reminder that however much we marvel at the technical wizardry of digital campaigning or the sophistication of Big Data, the most effective way to win someone's vote is for the candidate or someone known to the voter to ask for it in person. Since it is practically impossible for a candidate to speak to every constituent ahead of Election Day, an effective party machine is necessary to win elections. But with the decline of mass membership political parties in the UK, where are the volunteers? Who will deliver the leaflets?

How can canvassing be done? The party that addresses this problem most effectively will be the one that wins a close election.

I remember William Hague saying in 1997 that he wanted the Conservatives to have a million members by the Millennium. At that point, Party membership was about 400,000. Today, some estimates put it as low as 130,000. The fact that the other parties have faced a similar collapse in membership is of little comfort, particularly since the Labour Party can also draw on Union support. The good news is that, whilst the Party might not have the millions of members it had in the immediate post war period, millions of people are involved in third party groups which share aspects of the Party's agenda.

Whilst attention should always be given to attracting new members to the Party, equal attention should be given to harnessing the Conservative alliance into an election winning machine.

Based on this premise, a number of things should be done to put the Conservative alliance in pole position ahead of the next election. The first thing is not to go out of our way to fund and head hunt for Labour's alliance. The public funding of 3,000+ Trade Unionists through the excessive subsidy of facility time, gives the Labour Party the boots on the ground it needs to organise protests against the Government and campaign at election time. It also allows the Union Movement to channel millions of pounds into Labour's war chest.

The Labour alliance's intellectual wing also receives funding from the public purse. Last year the New Economics Foundation got roughly £300,000 from the UK taxpayer, the European Commission gave the Institute for Public Policy Research £800,000 and the Foreign Office gave £190,000 to Bruegel, a fervently pro-European think tank in Brussels. Why is the Government funding Labour's intellectual foot soldiers?

We also need to take care not to act as a head hunter for Labour. Under the last Labour Government, the proportion of politically active public appointees aligned to the Labour Party increased from 32%, to almost 75%, according to the Cabinet Office. Yet despite the change of Government in 2010, that figure was still 77% in 2011/12. The proportion of Conservatives appointed was 14%. Recruiting more Labour folk to jobs in quangos does not help the long term strength of the Conservative alliance, because these are the quango bosses of the future. The appointment of William Shawcross to the Charity Commission and Sir Peter Bazalgette to the Arts Council were very good, and Michael Gove has also made some excellent top appointments at the Department for Education, but lower level appointments are also important.

On a more positive note, third party groups can also be used to assist the Party with policy formation and implementation.  It’s no coincidence that the two policy areas widely recognised as being the Government’s most successful – education and welfare – are the two which involved the most input from think tanks and campaign groups, particularly the New Schools Network and the Centre for Social Justice. But these groups should also be harnessed to campaign for government policies (which often originated from the groups themselves).

Tony Blair apparently concluded that the game was up in 2010 when he saw the multi-signatory letters from businessmen supporting George Osborne’s plan to cut National Insurance. This operation was incredibly effective – hats off to CCHQ, particularly Andrew Feldman and Kate Rock. But where was the letter in 2011 from doctors and nurses supporting the Government’s NHS reforms? How did elected Mayors become a flagship policy, without a plan to build a coalition of support for them ahead of the local referendums in Spring 2012? And why wasn’t a coalition build ahead of the Police Commissioner elections in Autumn last year, which had derisory turnouts? When third party support has been organised in the past, it has worked extremely effectively.

Perhaps the most useful role though for third party groups in the Conservative alliance is to reach voters. In an age when mass membership parties are being surpassed in size and reach by single issue groups, it’s absolutely vital for the Party to campaign for votes not just street by street, but also group by group. Not only can third party groups provide a conduit to voters, they can also provide an army of volunteers. Many MPs were elected in 2010 thanks to volunteers from Vote OK, which has strong links with the hunting lobby and the Countryside Alliance. With fewer party members, an election winning machine clearly needs to be built on strategic alliances such as this.

The creation of a Conservative alliance is no longer an optional extra for the Conservative Party.  It’s not even a bolt on to the existing strategy. It should be central to the strategy and attention needs to be paid to it sooner rather than later, because relationship building is a long, slow process and building such a machine takes years rather than months.


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