The following is the speech given by John Strafford at the fringe meeting at the Tory Party conference on 2nd October 2017 organised by the Bruges Group and the Campaign for Conservative Democracy. The meeting was held in the Great Hall of Manchester Town Hall:
Good morning Conservative Party members. Today you are the rocks on which we will start to build a democratic Conservative Party fit for the 21st century.
A party based on Conservative values of Freedom, Liberty, Democracy and Justice.
A party that believes in the rule of law
A party that believes in defence of the realm, sovereignty of the nation and free trade.
A party for the people!
For a political party to win a General Election it has to have the right policies which appeal to the electorate and it has to have the right presentation of those policies.
In the fifty years I have been a member of the Conservative Party I do not recall a more abysmal set of policies put before the electorate.
WHERE was the hope?
WHERE were the opportunities for young people?
WHERE was the vision for the future?
No wonder the result was disappointing.
The manifesto said we would “means test” the winter fuel allowance.
The Manifesto announced a new policy on Social care.
Issues which affected our core voters. Yet no details were given.
This calamity arose because just a few people drew up the manifesto. Even the Cabinet didn’t see it.
Oh for the days of the party conferences when we had motions for debate and a vote at the end of them, when Executive Councils debated those motions before submitting them to the conference. When all motions submitted were printed in the conference hand book. When the media televised the debates in an open way. Where were the joint meetings with the voluntary party and the parliamentary party working together to develop policy? Why was the old CPC emasculated? It is only through discussion and debate that policy can be developed and daft errors eliminated. It involves party members. They feel included in influencing the policies of their party. It is time to bring them back.
Who took the decision to make this a personal campaign as though we were ashamed of the Conservative brand? In my constituency of Beaconsfield I received an official party document which didn’t have the word “Conservative” on it anywhere!
But quite often the great British public cannot decide which party has the most attractive policies and it is in these circumstances that party organisation becomes critical. In my fifty years membership of the Conservative Party I cannot recall a General Election that was so badly organised. The party Chairman is responsible for organisation but where was he in the election? I am told he was side lined. Can you imagine Chris Patten in 1992 being side lined? He probably forfeited his seat because he spent so much time on the National campaign. Can you imagine Cecil Parkinson or Lord Tebbitt or Lord Thorneycroft being side lined? No, the problem we face in this 21st century is that the Party Chairman is unelected and unaccountable to the membership of the Party.
WHO took the decision to spend £4.5 million with an Australian consultant rather than spend it on the training and employment of professional agents in marginal seats?
WHO took the decision to use algorithms to get out the votes out on Election Day which meant we were getting socialists out to vote?
WHO did not stand up for the voluntary Party when the decision was taken by the Party Board to ignore the Party’s constitution and impose candidates on the constituencies using the clause in the constitution which says that they can take any decision if they believe it is in the best interest of the Conservative Party, which incidentally makes the rest of the Party’s constitution not worth the paper it is written on.
And finally WHO took the decision to use a canvass return so long and complicated that most people abandoned it very quickly - a return devised by those with no knowledge of the strength of the Party in the constituencies? At the Spring Forum we were told by these clever clots at Central Office that the traditional way of canvassing was useless. How did we employ such people with so little knowledge of the Party?
Which brings me on to the membership of the Party? When I joined the Party we had 2.5 million members. Today it is about 100,000 and falling. There are 300 constituencies with less than 100 members including some with Conservative MPs. You cannot fight a National Campaign on the ground with that number of members and get out the vote.
The last national membership campaign was in 1988 which was the “Bulldog” campaign under Peter Brooke as Chairman. By 1992 we had approximately half a million members. This was the last General Election at which we were capable of fighting a ground campaign. Every single Party Chairman since 1992 has seen our membership decline and done nothing about it. If only they had been elected by and accountable to party members it is inconceivable that this would not have been a major issue. That is why we have to have an Annual General Meeting of all Party members at which the Party Chairman is elected.
To those that have said over the years that people were no longer interested in joining political parties just look at what the Labour Party has done. Their membership has increased to 600,000. The income they have received from their membership is £14.5 million. Compare that to the Tory Party income from membership of £1.5 million or adding in constituency membership fees perhaps £3 million.
On Election Day volunteers were directed to help out in Slough which was a CCO target seat. It had a Labour majority of 7,000. This went up to 17,000 while in Oxford West and Abingdon a Conservative MP was losing her seat because volunteers were instructed not to go there. North Oxford, a safe conservative seat next door to Oxford West and Abingdon were instructed to send all their volunteers to help in Coventry where you guessed it the Labour majority went up. How can CCO have got it so wrong?
We have to radically change the way the Party is organised. We have to increase our membership. This can only be done by giving the members of the Party some power, a sense of involvement, let their views count, let them have some say in the development of policy, that those who are running the Party are elected by and accountable to the members of the Party.
Party organisation should be the responsibility of the Party Chairman. He or she should control the campaign. All consultants, special advisers etc should report to the Chairman and he or she should be answerable at an Annual General Meeting. The Leader determines policy and priorities. He or she should take responsibility for the political aspects of the campaign.
One final thought. Anything can happen in politics. We could have a General Election within the next couple of months. The Labour Party have spent the summer campaigning. They are putting candidates into all their seats which have not got an MP, so what is the Conservative Party’s position? We have the same Party Chairman who presided over this last debacle. We have no candidates in position. We have not set out a coherent vision of the future. Lord help us if there is an election.
So it is time for us to trust our members. Let us seize this moment. Let the grass roots grow, the swallows soar; let us ride this rainbow of opportunity. Out of the jaws of defeat we can ensure victory at the next General Election. The alternative is oblivion! Join with me and let us change the Conservative Party so that once again we can say that the Conservative Party is the best organised political party in the democratic world.