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Gavin Barwell MP: We need a long-term plan to modernise the Party on the ground. Here it is.

Gavin Barwell is Member of Parliament for Croydon Central. Follow Gavin on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-07-08 at 17.06.08Most of the debate about what the Conservative Party needs to do to win overall majorities at future General Elections focuses on policy and message – and rightly so. Even without an organisation on the ground, parties with an attractive message can achieve success.

But organisation does matter.  In marginal seats, it can make the difference between victory and defeat.  And our organisation is not what it used to be.

The way in which we have historically organised ourselves now compounds that problem in two ways.

First, because we still generally organise on a constituency-by-constituency basis (with each constituency having its own Conservative Association which is largely left to get on with things) rather than pooling resources across a wider area, the general decline in membership has been felt most in safe Labour seats and Conservative/Labour marginals, particularly those in parts of the country that are more difficult territory for us.  In some safe Labour seats, we have simply ceased to exist.  And in many Conservative/Labour marginals, our membership is so small that it is difficult to raise funds for campaigning or find enough people to deliver our literature.  What strength we have left tends to be in safe Conservative seats and it is very difficult to motivate activists in these areas to go and campaign elsewhere where their efforts might have some impact on the number of Conservative MPs elected to Parliament.

Second, because the central organisation of the Party is under the control of the Leader of the Party, our organisational focus is always on the next general election to the exclusion of all else.  When I worked at Conservative Campaign Headquarters, we would agree after each General Election defeat that we needed to rebuild a Conservative presence in places like Manchester, Liverpool, Sheffield and Newcastle.  We would start to invest a bit of resource in this, but as soon as a General Election approached everything would be focused on winning that Election.

Now you may ask whether it really matters that we have no presence in these areas.  I would argue that it does for two reasons.  First, there is an issue of principle: I believe that at our best we are a ‘One Nation’ party.  We do not seek to pit one section of society against another as Labour does, but to unite people of all backgrounds from all parts of the country who share a set of values.  We can’t do that if we don’t aspire to represent all parts of the country.  But there’s also a practical reason why our lack of organisation in our major cities matters: it affects our prospects of winning suburban marginals.  The media tends to be based in cities.  If they don’t see Conservative activity in their area, it affects their coverage - which is read, watched and listened to by many people in suburbs as well as in the cities themselves.

So we face three problems: the decline in the number of people willing to join a political party; the particular impact this has had in safe Labour seats and some marginals because we organise on a constituency-by-constituency basis; and the way in which our organisation focuses on the next Election to the exclusion of all else.  What should we do about these problems?

Getting more people involved in the Party

We have to accept that the days when over a million people were prepared to join the Party have gone for good, so we need to find other ways of engaging people with the Party, whether that’s by registering as a ‘friend’ online, supporting a particular campaign, getting involved in a social action project or attending a public meeting organised by their local MP or councillor.  By way of example, in Croydon I’ve started advertising the Conservative Policy Forum meetings that I speak at to all the electors for whom I have an email address, and as a result we’ve increased attendance at these meetings five-fold.  The lesson is clear: there are far more people who will attend a public meeting, help out clearing up the local park, support a campaign to save the local library from closure or even help to deliver our literature than are willing to pay a membership subscription.

One big opportunity to engage more people is when we select candidates, whether for council elections or for Parliament – and doing so is likely to boost the electoral prospects of those candidates too.  In Totnes in south Devon in the run-up to the last General Election, the local Association sent all 69,000 electors a postal ballot paper.  16,639 people returned their ballot paper, 20 or 30 times as many as would have taken party in a traditional process.  They chose Dr Sarah Wollaston, who was duly elected Member of Parliament with 3,000 more votes than her predecessor.

If we are selecting a candidate, holding a discussion meeting or running a campaign, our aim should be to get the maximum number of people involved, regardless of whether or not they have paid a membership subscription.

Some people argue that this will make matters worse: if there aren’t significant benefits to being a member even fewer people will join, they say.  I think this is mistaken on several levels.  First, some things will be still reserved to members (when it comes to selecting candidates for example, members should still control the initial sift, otherwise there is a danger of our opponents controlling the process and selecting someone unsuitable).  Second, most people don’t join the Party because of the benefits attached to being a member, but to make a contribution to the Conservative cause.  But third and most importantly, people are more likely to join a vibrant organisation.

Organising on a wider-than-constituency basis

When deciding what our organisational structure should be in a particular part of the country, we should be guided by three principles.  First, identity: Associations should cover areas that people identify with.  Second, scale: Associations should cover a large enough area to sustain a viable organisation with a headquarters and some professional support.  Third, permanence: if possible we want to avoid having to re-organise ourselves every time constituency boundaries change.

In Croydon, we’ve merged the three Associations within the borough to form the Croydon Conservative Federation.  This passes the identity test: no-one identifies with the constituency boundaries; they identify with the borough.  It passes the scale test: we have an office and can afford to employ several staff.  And it passes the permanence test – the borough of Croydon isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

And strange though it may sound, this organisational shift has changed our culture.  We think of ourselves as ‘Croydon Conservatives’.  When there are Council elections, we go and work in the marginal wards, whether they are in ‘our’ constituency or another part of the borough.  When there’s a General Election, everyone works in Croydon Central.  People attend branch fundraising events right across the borough, not just those in ‘their’ constituency.

There are other solutions short of federation.  In Gloucestershire, the six Associations have kept their independence but come together to fund a state-of-the-art county campaign centre.  In other parts of the country, Associations have kept their own offices but share an agent who works between these offices or a safe Conservative-held seat pays for professional cover in a nearby marginal.  What matters is not the detailed structure, but the principle that we concentrate the resources – both financial and human – that we have in the seats that will determine whether or not we win elections.

Organisational strength matters.  We can’t afford to ignore the decline in our organisation any longer.  Alongside the strategy Lynton Crosby is developing to win the next Election, we need to think about a long-term plan to rebuild our Party.

This is an extract from a book of essays to mark the launch next Monday of a new campaign group looking at ways to broaden the appeal of the party


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