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Thomas Haynes: Britain needs a coherent conservative movement

Picture 18 Thomas Haynes is founder and editor of Blue Youth, a blog written by and for young conservatives.

I had a look at David Miliband's campaign website the other day. It has a large banner encouraging people to "Join the Movement for Change" and "Sign up now for training to be future leaders".

It isn't just rhetoric. His campaign aims to train a thousand "Future Leaders" in basic community organising techniques; an attempt to emulate the success of Barack Obama's grassroots campaign in America's 2008 presidential election.

I have no idea whether it will work, but it got me thinking about political movements. We hear a lot about the "Labour movement" - there were frequent complaints on the Left that Blair ignored and marginalised it, and all the leadership candidates now want to rebuild it.

But how much do we hear about a "conservative movement" in the UK? Not much.

We have just had an election that focused a lot (too much, in my opinion) on the party leaders. The TV debates made it almost inevitable, although the party itself didn't help - I seem to recall "Cameron 2010" placards at some Tory campaign events.

We hear a lot about "Team Cameron", the "modernisers", the opponents of Cameron on "the Tory Right", but very little about the UK conservative movement beyond the Cameron himself and the Conservative Party in parliament.

Of course, there are exceptions. There are many influential and high profile conservative think-tanks and campaign groups - such as Policy Exchange, the TaxPayers' Alliance, the Centre for Social Justice and the Countryside Alliance. There are numerous others.

But there doesn't seem to be a coherent movement. There is probably a historical difference between the parties here. Labour - whether or not it has nurtured its movement - has always been part of one. It was founded as a coalition of different interest groups and, for the first few years of its existence, was dominated by extra-parliamentary groups.

For all the changes to the party, it still hasn't completely shed that. Compass and the Fabians (to name just two groups) are very influential within it, as are the trade unions. And they all look set to get more powerful in opposition.

The Conservative Party, on the other hand, evolved from the top down. There was no election of a leader until 1965, and there is still no formal process for members to have input into policy formation. Even some influential think-tanks (like the Centre for Policy Studies) were founded by allies of party leaders.

I'm not saying that there have been no instances of non-party conservative activism; of course there have. The Primrose League, for example, had more members that the trade unions in 1900 and was a core support for the Tory Party. And throughout the so-called "post-war consensus" period there were groups arguing for market liberalisation and lower taxes.

But, in my opinion, the Conservative Party has not succeeded in developing a wider conservative movement. There is still a perception that the party at a local level is dominated by older, often ex-military figures, who are all members of the Rotary Club. It isn't exactly a stereotype that is appealing to new blood.

There is also the fact that, for decades now, political party membership has been on the decline. People are becoming less interested in party politics - but not in policy.

Think about the activism about the foxhunting ban, or the Iraq War, or tuition fees, or the environment, or international aid. People - old and young - are hugely interested in specific issues, whether or not they formally identify with a party.

The same is true in the USA, where both parties are part of wider movements. The Democrats rely on unions, civil rights groups, environmental groups and many more; the Republicans on evangelical groups, pro-gun groups and low tax advocates like the Tea Party (to name just a few).

In American elections candidates go to great pains to get endorsements from these groups. That is a crucial difference between the USA and UK political systems. Over here, candidates are defined by their party label and the central manifesto. In America candidates are defined as much by who supports them as by their party establishments.

I believe that the Conservative Party needs to accept that people are becoming less attached to parties, and to learn from Labour over here - and both main parties in the USA.

Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldman should work to position the Conservative Party at the centre of a UK conservative movement. Local associations should be given complete freedom to work with any local groups that have conservative aims, and candidates free to pursue their endorsements.

Of course, that may lead to different candidates expressing different views on some issues. But we have had too many political puppets, and too few real people in parliament for too long. Why not weaken the whips a little, and let candidates stray from the script if their voters want them to do so?

The Conservative Party should also - as recommended by Tim Montgomerie - establish an External Relations unit to help develop a national conservative movement.

At this election the Tories faced a tired, discredited government led by the most unpopular prime minister since before World War Two. Yet David Cameron failed to win a majority and polled just 36.1% of the vote. The Conservative Party is not succeeding at engaging with like-minded people and bringing them together.

The party needs to reach out beyond itself, to co-operate with think-tanks, campaign groups, religious groups, community organisations and anyone else who is conservative.

It may fracture party discipline a little, and it may make the party establishment nervous. However, it would reach out to people who are conservative but not Conservative, and make the party relevant to far more people.

The coming spending cuts will make this government bitterly unpopular. To survive, the Conservative Party cannot just look inwards at itself. By positioning itself as the beating heart of a vibrant conservative movement, the Tories may yet make themselves durable enough to weather the coming storm.


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