Sunday, 31 July 2016

The Party should fix it's own roof whilst the sun is shining on Theresa May

If we agree that the primary, if not the sole, objective of the Conservative Party is to win elections then we can have no complaints about the Party’s relentless focus on those very seats which deliver victory. 

Our 40:40 strategy played a major role in achieving that in 2015, and should be celebrated.

But, we must also accept that there are unhelpful consequences of allowing the Party’s organisation to decline in those constituencies the wrong side of 40:40 and also in allowing our traditional “majority” seats to stumble on without a serious strategy to grow and develop.

I entered politics in Merseyside in the late 1970s. The climate then was very different to what we have now. The Conservative Party held two seats in the city of Liverpool (Wavertree and Garston) and was competitive in two others. We also held Crosby and Wirral West with majorities of 20,000. We held Southport and Wirral South by almost 10,000 and in Wallasey Lynda Chalker had a majority of 2,000 in a seat which had been Conservative since its creation. In Local Government the Conservative Party controlled Merseyside County Council, held a third of the seats on Liverpool City Council, comfortably controlled Wirral and Sefton Councils and had representation throughout the County.

All that has now gone.

There are now no Conservative MPs in Merseyside, no Conservative councillors in Liverpool or Knowsley, three in St Helens, and in Sefton (which is home to some of the county’s wealthiest and most exclusive neighbourhoods) we are down to just six out of 66. Only in Wirral do we remain competitive, even though we have not had a majority on the Borough Council for 30 years.

This story isn’t unique to Merseyside. A similar tale of decline could be told of Manchester (with the honourable exception of Trafford), Leeds, Sheffield, Newcastle ... in fact, any major industrial city or region. 

Does this matter? After all, we can win a Parliamentary majority without them. In my view, yes it does, for two, very important, reasons.

Firstly, if we are to be a truly national Party we must have in place a structure which enables us to hear, absorb and reflect the views of the entire United Kingdom (and that includes Northern Ireland). This cannot be achieved if the Conservative Party does not meaningfully exist in a third of the country.

Secondly we have a duty to give Conservative supporters both candidates to vote for, and an organisation to be a part of, in every constituency. And this can only be achieved by having no no-go areas for the blue rosette.

I am not so starry-eyed as to believe that “one big push” will deliver new Conservative MPs in areas that haven’t had them for a generation. However, in every town, city and borough there are sufficient Conservative voters who, if properly motivated and organised, could gain council seats and start a nascent organisation where none has existed for decades.

None of this will happen by chance. It will require dedicated effort from CCHQ, investment (in terms of infrastructure and staffing) and, just as importantly, the goodwill and co-operation of what few activists we still have in these areas, many of whom feel so abandoned that they may be understandably suspicious of “outside” interference. The prize, however, is one worth striving for.

One or two Conservative council victories in Liverpool, Manchester or Newcastle would do more for morale than gaining another 20 council seats in Kent, and the very fact that the Conservative Party can “come back” in areas where we have been written-off would, in itself, breed further success as thousands of Conservative voters “cam home”, realising that we were no longer a lost cause. With those returning voters would come returning members, donors and activists – and so we would slowly begin the process of renewal.

In 1987 Lynda Chalker faced the battle of her political life. “Militant Tendency” were in the ascendant in Merseyside. In Wallasey demographic changes made her seat vulnerable and a Militant-backed Labour candidate was well-financed and attracted committed activists from across the region. Had Wallasey Conservatives had to face this battle alone, they would have lost. I know, I was there and was part of the team running Lynda’s campaign. But we were bolstered by 100 activists “on loan” from Wirral West (the Conservative MP accepting he wasn’t going to lose), and 100 further activists from the City of Liverpool (our candidates there accepting that they probably weren’t going to win, but wanting to ensure that Lynda did). This flood of local support from people who knew the area, understood the issues and implications, and cared about the outcome, enabled the Conservative Party to hold Wallasey by just 279 votes.

Last year the situation had reversed. The atrophy of our organisation in Merseyside took its toll in the harshest way. In a city which in the early 1980s boasted over 3,000 Conservative members there are now just 80, and of these (according to my friend Tony Caldeira, our Liverpool Mayoral candidate) there are probably no more than 10 activists. As the Conservative Party has died in Liverpool, so Labour has felt sufficiently confident to release en masse their activists to fight elsewhere.  It was the flood of Labour activists which enabled Labour to win Wirral West and Chester, a complete reversal of a generation ago.

And this is why we must rebuild and renew.

Small victories at council level will rebuild morale and knock the confidence of the opposition. Councillors and activists in all our major towns and cities will improve the narrative we have with the whole country – but, equally important is having a local resource to draw on to help defend or gain our nearby target seats. This is infinitely preferable to the cost and effort of bussing activists around the country into areas they do not know, and with which they have no emotional connection.

There are some simple procedures that the Party can put in place to help this happen.
  • The early selection of Parliamentary candidates (either through individual constituency selections or the City Seats Initiative) would be a catalyst for activity and campaigning.
  • The appointment of a series of high profile Ministers with specific city/region responsibilities and overseeing our revival, would ensure our local people had access to media coverage and that our arguments were at least heard.
  • But the above, whilst being helpful, would probably only provide a short-term focus on the next Parliamentary campaign. What we really need are a dedicated team of paid organisers in each area, whose sole focus is the long-term and painstaking task of rebuilding our organisation from the grass-roots up. And given the lack of members and money in so many of these areas, this can probably only be achieved if the Party pursues Lord Feldman’s goals of ‘grouping’ to ensure the project doesn’t fail.

I wish our new Party Chairman, Patrick McLoughlin, every success. He takes the reins at an exciting time for our Party. New members, a new Prime Minister, an Opposition in disarray, and a 16% lead in the polls musty not lead to complacency.  These factors provide an opportunity to do something truly radical which will benefit us for generations to come.

We rightfully criticised Gordon Brown for “failing to fix the roof while the sun was shining” on the economy, let’s hope future generations of activists don’t make similar criticisms for failing to fix the problems of the Voluntary Party while the sun is shining on Theresa May. 

Saturday, 30 July 2016

The Things You Hear at a Local Government Selection Meeting...

I have just returned from the Chatham & Aylesford Local Government Committee where Members were interviewing three new applicants and one incumbent councillor for the Approved List. 

Interview Number Two:
LGC Member: "Have we met before...?"
Applicant: "Yes, last year you apologised when you overcooked my sausage."

Interview Number Four:
LGC Member: "It must be quite a struggle being so vast...?"
Applicant: "Yes, as you might know I have the largest one this end of Kent."

I am pleased to set the record straight. Applicant Two was talking about last year's Association Barbecue and Applicant Four was referring the the size of his Division. 

Thursday, 28 July 2016

West Kent's New Members examined in yesterday's Times

A very good article in yesterday's Times by their Political Editor Francis Elliott on the Conservative Party's surge in membership in which he quotes our West Kent New Members' Survey, and compares our new members with Labour's £3 'entryists' who brought Jeremy Corbyn to power. It's a good read. 


Thursday, 21 July 2016

Membership Recruitment Campaign

With the Labour Party in disarray, Theresa May riding a crest of popular support and with nationwide interest in political engagement at an all time high, Conservatives should be pushing home our advantage by embarking on an ambitious recruitment campaign. 

In West Kent we have just dispatched 2,000 recruitment letters to "test the market".  We have carefully selected:
  • 500 pledges in socio-economic groups heavily inclined to Leave
  • 500 pledges in socio-economic groups heavily inclined to Remain
  • 500 brand new pledges identified as Conservative during this year's local elections
  • 500 former members whose membership lapsed between 2005 - 2015
The letter basically carried the same core messages:
  • There has never been a more exciting time to be involved in politics
  • Theresa May has hit the ground running / strong support for new cabinet and government
  • Need for experience in challenging times ahead
  • Time for people who share our views to help shape the future of the Conservative Party
Here is a sample of our of the letters sent:

And here is our revamped recruitment leaflet

Above - front of leaflet (folded to DL)

Above - reverse of leaflet (folded to DL)

And, of course, here is today's great team of volunteers who braved the heat and humidity at West Kent Towers to pack 2,000 envelopes:

Today's star packers (from bottom left): Chris Baldock, David Adams, Joan Tree, David Elliott, Catherine Adams, Sue Nuttall, Joe Mamo, Jeff Tree - with Owen Baldock out of range on the franking machine.

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

New Members' Survey

Following my article on ConHome regarding our influx of new members, I have been contacted by several Associations enquiring about the mechanics of how we conducted this research, and the questions we asked. As always, happy to share. 

In West Kent we use two online tools:

(a) MailChimp: there is a limited free to use service or an enhanced service with payment. We pay to use the professional service as we manage multiple mailing lists, and we benefit from the increased analytics which are not available on the free service. MailChimp allows users to upload and maintain databases and send personalised mailings to specific target groups.  

(b) Survey Monkey: again, there is a free and a paid-for service. We use their free service as we have found this meets our needs, though there is a lot of advertising which can sometimes put people off or cause confusion. 

To survey our new members we simply uploaded the membership list, ensuring the respondents first name and email address were in different columns. We then sent each a personalised email with a link to the online survey. 

Here is a copy of the email. As always, I am happy for other Associations to copy and use anything they like:

Please note that we put the link to complete the survey at the top and bottom of the letter. Many people do not read to the end of an email, so if the link is only at the end of the letter it is often overlooked or never reached. By placing an invitation at the top of the page, even those who have no time or patience to read the whole letter have an option to click and participate. 

And here is a copy of the survey CLICK HERE  

Please feel free to click the link and copy any of our questions, but please refrain from completing the survey as this will simply corrupt the quality of the data. 

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Is the mood music changing for Grammar Schools?

I am absolutely delighted that the Government (and party's) attitude towards selective education appears to be changing.

I attended a comprehensive school, but I was fortunate insofar as it had been a grammar a few years earlier. The ethos was still there: respect for the teachers, morning assembly, discipline, focus on learning with zero tolerance towards disruptive pupils.

At the last Olympic Games our entire country celebrated the success of our athletes.They achieved success because their skill was identified, they were removed from the pack and given the specialist training and support to ensure they fulfilled their potential. No-one said this was wrong. No-one said that the sprinters and runners and rowers left behind felt snubbed. As far as I can tell, their success was celebrated by their former colleagues and the nation cheered their success.

If we accept that our top athletes benefit for specialist training and focused support, how on earth can we deny the same potential to our top students? Britain needs excellence and we should be prepared to identify and develop it in every aspect of our national life. And this includes our education system.

West Kent's Survey of our 500 New Members

An unexpected consequence of the recent EU Referendum has been a remarkable surge in membership. In the first three days we were being notified of around 100 new members a day between the five Associations in the West Kent Group, and even though the rate soon slowed we have had a steady trickle ever since. Our count is now 500+ new members; the most intense period of recruitment I have ever witnessed.

At first many of us were suspicious. Was this influx something organised by one of the left-wing pressure groups protesting about the EU vote?  Or perhaps an exercise by jubilant UKIP supporters riding a post-referendum tidal wave and landing on our shore?

Our priority was to process the applications, record them on VoteSource, and send the new members a welcome letter. In that letter I also had to deal gently with the fact that they would not have a vote in the leadership election, an issue which I knew would cause anger from many who clearly had enrolled for that reason. I am pleased that CCHQ put a note to this effect on the enrolment page, thus managing expectations.

My next task was to try to understand who our new members actually were. Why did they join? What was their background? Why did they join now and not in response to our previous invitations to do so? What did they expect from their membership? And, what might they be willing to do to help us win future elections?

Last week we sent each new member an online survey asking these very questions, and it was satisfying that by Saturday over 50% had responded. Admittedly the sample has not been “weighted” by age, gender or social group, but a sample of 250 from a pool of 500 is probably sufficiently large to be meaningful. It is also worth noting is the responses do not significantly vary from one Association to the others, so it is fair to assume that they will not differ significantly nationwide.

First of all I was interested in whether these were brand new people, or if they had been politically active previously. So we asked, “Have you ever been a member of a political party previously?”

I then asked,
“If you have been a member of a political party previously, which one was it?”

NB The figures do not add up to 100% as several respondents selected more than one party. What is interesting to note, however, is that none identified as being previous members of UKIP.

I was then keen to explore in some detail the factors that motivated them to join. Rather than a simple quantitative yes/no, I provided a sliding scale resulting in a “score” of between 0 and 100 for each of the options presented. These may not have been exhaustive but hopefully covered the main areas. Obviously, the higher the score indicates the stronger the factor for joining.

Concern about leaving the EU was a bigger motivational factor than those celebrating our departure from it, and only 7.8% had identified as previously supporting UKIP.

From these figures I see no evidence of any form of entryism, though our main concern must be managing the disappointment of the biggest group (75.8%) who cited the opportunity to vote for the new party leader as being a motivational factor.

ComRes and YouGov have already published polling on how Conservative supporters and Party Members voted on 23 June. I thought it would be interesting to see how our new members compared, so I then asked, “Out of interest, which way did you vote in the EU Referendum?”

Suspecting many members would be extremely disappointed at not being allowed to vote in the leadership ballot, I thought it was worth measuring this factor and their likely response to being excluded.  “If you had been aware at the time of joining that members were only allowed to vote after 3 months’ membership, would you still have joined the Conservative Party?”

Clearly we have some disappointed people, and several have already emailed to say that they have resigned in protest, but the overwhelming majority have accepted our explanation of the ‘three month rule’ and, with a bit of TLC, there is no reason to assume they will not become long-term participants in our activities. 

Finally, I asked if our new members were willing to do more than pay an annual subscription to help the Conservative Party succeed in the years ahead. 76% answered “yes”, and 24% said “no” (those answering negatively were almost identical to the group who said they wouldn’t have joined the Party if they had known that they wouldn’t get a leadership vote).  Of the 76% willing to do more ...

From our survey it is obvious that our new members are moderate, politically engaged and (with encouragement) could reinvigorate our Associations and replenish our pool of potential Local Government candidates.

It would be a tragedy if lack of communication or poor organisational ability resulted in our new army to drift away. In West Kent we have already developed a plan to engage and encourage; each of our MPs will be hosting a New Members’ drinks party, and each Association will have a designated person to phone and welcome them to the Party.

There was one final question not dealt with above. I asked, “If there had been a leadership ballot and you had been able to participate, which of the candidates would you have been most likely to support?” Interestingly, over 70% said Theresa May.

There is clearly huge goodwill, both for our new leader and for what she is planning to do. It is our duty to seize this opportunity to rebuild our grassroots in the constituencies. It might be decades before we get an opportunity like this again. 

Saturday, 9 July 2016

Drawing ahead!

With the EU Referendum on the horizon we anticipated this would have a detrimental affect in our fundraising, and in particular the Summer Draw which would be running at the same time as the EU vote. 

We decided to put back the "end date" for our Summer Draw tickets from July to August, to allow the dust to settle, with good results as a consequence. 

In the three weeks since the 23 June referendum we have taken as much money as the four weeks before it. As of yesterday the five West Kent Associations had reached 90% of the 2015 total, with one Association (Chatham and Aylesford) reaching 112%.  We also contacted pledges in several target wards, raising over £1500 and identifying 150 brand new donors.  Given the wider political climate, I am very pleased with this result.

Below is our "reminder" letter, posted to previous buyers who have not yet responded. With four weeks to go before the deadline, I am confident we will easily exceed our 2015 totals. 

For the original letter and information about the prizes, click HERE

New Members' Welcome Letter

Like every other Association in the UK, new membership applications have spiked in the two weeks since the EU Referendum. We have processed over 400 in West Kent with another 100+ waiting to be dealt with.

I thought regular readers might appreciate sight of our "welcome letter" in which we thank and welcome the member, deal with the fact they will not be qualified to vote in the leadership ballot then try to soften any disappointment and ensure they feel welcome by inviting them to a new members reception hosted by the local MP. 

As always, please feel free to borrow the content if you like it.