The following is an edited version of an article which appeared on the Conservativehome web site on May 22nd 2018 with comments and questions on the article in red.
Interview: Lewis -“At conference this year, I and the Prime Minister are determined that the members feel it is their conference.”
ConHome: “What’s the latest news about the membership figure? In March, it was 124,000.”
Lewis I’d read all the stories about 40,000, 70,000 and what have you, that some journalists were writing about, and as we are starting to get the centralised administration of membership, for the first time we can genuinely say, ‘This is what the membership is.’
“Previously there’s always been an element of estimation because it wasn’t centrally administered.”
Note: Under Part II Clause 9 of the Party Constitution it says “The names of Members shall be entered on the Party’s National Membership List which shall be kept, administered and up dated from day to day by the Committee on Membership of the Board”. So what have the Committee on Membership been doing for the last twenty years? Of course all the Committee are appointed so unaccountable to the members.
ConHome: “So how did you manage to get the 124,000?”
Lewis: “That’s how many names I know who are paid members, who I can literally print off and count the names. That project, central administration of membership, I think is a really important project. I’m determined that we will complete that work before party conference.
We agree that in view of the state of the Party membership, central administration of membership has become essential. However the figure of 124,000 was given at the Spring Forum on March 16th. Many members if not most have a January-December membership year and then have three months to renew so the 124,000 figure includes those who paid on 1st January 2017 even if they have not renewed. A more accurate figure should be given after 1st April. If Central administration of membership is introduced as from 1st August we should have an accurate figure by say the end of August. Will the Party publish the figure then?
“Sometimes in the past members have understandably complained they’ve got four or five emails in the space of about ten days, often asking for money. And part of the reason for that is they’ll be on several different data bases. So by getting central administration of membership we end up with one clear data base.
“It also means we can free up the associations, where you’ve got an office or even a member of staff focused on doing the membership, they can restructure their time so they’re more focused on recruiting new members and campaigning, which to be blunt, as Chairman of the party, I want more people campaigning.
In freeing up the Associations by having central membership their income is being reduced at the same time, for under the new scheme the Associations will have to pay £10.00 per member instead of £5.00 per member. This might put a strain on their finances.
“We can start helping with the renewals, and making sure that people are renewed. And if we want to do a membership drive, we know we’re not asking people who already think they’re members.”
ConHome: “So how much does having a large and indeed growing membership matter in your view?”
Lewis: “For me it’s one of the key priorities. For me as Chairman of the party expanding and strengthening our comms and digital comms is obviously important; our campaigning machine is obviously hugely important; and I want to see more diversity, including women, representing the Conservative Party at all levels.
“But absolutely key to delivering all of that is remember we are a membership-based organisation. I was a member of the Conservative Party before I was elected.”
Every Party Chairman talks about increasing Party membership and yet the last National membership drive was in 1988. The last time the Party was able to fight a National ground campaign was in 1992 when we had approx. half a million members. Every Chairman since then, all 20 of them has presided over falling membership and done nothing about it. Will the current Chairman be any different?
Increasing membership for me is really important, for two reasons. One is obviously we are a membership-based organisation and we are better and stronger and bigger that membership is, and we are a broad church and always have been, and to be a broad church, the more people involved the better.
“But secondly, if associations feel there are people who really can’t afford to join but they want them to be involved, they can, they can leaflet, they can go to their cheese and wine events. You go to any association event and I guarantee there’ll be a fair chunk of people there who are supporters but are not paid-up members.”
ConHome: “It would still be good to have them as members.”
Lewis: “I would like to convert them to members. For me the way to do that, and we do discounts for young people and the military, veterans, but for me the way to do that is to make sure the membership gives them something they value.
How about giving Party members some democratic rights such as an Annual General Meeting to which all are invited and at which they can vote on who they want as Party Chairman, Chairman of the Candidates Committee and Chairman of the Conservative Policy Forum. That is what they would value!
“Now I think that involves, we’ve just started last week, instead of just getting emails asking for more money, they will now get a monthly e-newsletter that doesn’t ask for money, but actually gives them information.”
ConHome: “Who’s editing that?”
Lewis: “We do. It’s from the Chairman. And I’m looking at how we expand that and do more.”
Strange, why haven’t I had an email newsletter from the Chairman?. Has any ordinary member received one other than say a Constituency Chairman?
ConHome: “Will members be gaining or regaining any democratic powers under your chairmanship?”
Lewis: “In what ways?”
ConHome: “At the conference, for example, a generation ago you did feel the Home Secretary or someone might get a really rough ride if the members were angry about something. Now you feel there’s less excitement in the actual hall.”
Lewis: “If you look at what we did at Spring Forum this year, we changed the format so it was much more interactive. That worked really well at Spring Forum. Party conference is different because
Spring Forum was without doubt the worse Spring Forum I have ever been to. There was no question and answer session with the Leader of the Party. The whole Forum was truncated to Friday afternoon and Saturday morning. Although the Friday went well the Saturday session was a disaster.
Lewis: “At conference this year, I and the Prime Minister are determined that the members feel it is their conference. Things will be different at conference this year. But I’m going to resist the temptation to outline the full details of conference just yet.”
Lewis: “I would like to think that when the conference agenda comes out, and at the end of conference, your readers and our members will say that they had a really enjoyable conference and felt more involved than before.”
So will we get motions at the Party Conference with votes on them?
ConHome: Now the Pickles Review proposal, which was to select candidates in target seats by June 2018, slipped in order to allow the use of local election data in picking targets.
Lewis: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So one of the things I wanted to have a look at this year is to make sure people on the candidates’ list get the right support and understand what campaigning means.
“And the only way you really understand what campaigning means is to go out there and campaign. So in the first week or ten days in the job, I wrote to everyone on the candidates’ list and said ‘Look, I expect you to campaign in the local elections. And after the local elections, I’m going to review what you’ve done.’
“I’ll be doing that next week. So we’re compiling everything at the moment from the field agents’ reports and all the reports. And if there are people who have not done their fair bit of campaigning, and have no good reason for not having done their campaigning, I will be doing something about that.
“Because I’m not prepared to have candidates out there who are not going to go out and do their work.”
“So I want to make sure we get people selected early. We will be starting selections this summer. We will make the June target in terms of starting selections but we won’t finish them in June.”
Isn’t it up to the members of the Party to determine who they want to interview rather than a hierarchy at CCHQ who create a tick box list of what they want to see in a candidate? After all Party members are perfectly capable of asking a candidate how much campaigning they have done.