One of the things that I have found surprising since the General Election is how successful “the left” (accepting what a poor descriptive terms “the left” and “the right” are) have been. I know that the Labour Party is broke, I know that their leadership and media machine is shoddy, I know that they are lacking serious policy development – all things essential if they to become a Government-in-waiting.
But the resilience of “the left” as a group of individuals bound by a common purpose and committed to a cause is certainly worth admiring. They were heavily beaten in the election, but driven by a loathing (hatred in some cases) of the Conservative Party and a commitment to a more “progressive” Britain (however ruinous and contradictory their policy ideas for achieving such a Britain are) and through their myriad of organisations – 38 Degrees, campaigning organisations, charities, unions, blogs and forums – they are doing a fine job of opposing the Government and holding up reform. Creating narratives that pervade the media and muddy the intellectual waters. All this despite the fact that the electorate overwhelmingly rejected their vision for Britain in the last election.
The truth is that the Conservative Party lacks the ability either to dig in to cement changes or oppose ideas. Wherever “the left” goes it leaves structures, organisations, and machines in place which can trip up and slow down the advance of a reforming government (be it Labour or Tory). Through these organs, it is able to spread misinformation, rally supporters, create powerful media narratives and win over hearts and minds – despite the fact that it often lacks of a party to articulate its views convincingly.
Despite the lamentations of the right wing blogs about these organisations seeking to attack them for receiving state funding or not serving their members effectively – we shouldn’t just moan, we should be learning.
With traditional parties declining in membership, if concepts and ideas are going to survive post-Government (or be successfully implemented at all) they need foot soldiers – organisations and associations which are prepared to fight the intellectual and political battles which are required to achieve victory. Tim Montgomerie has written about this extensively on Conservative Home.
The ‘Big Society’ was an attempt to do that to some extent. Seeking to co-opt the voluntary and community sectors into the centrist Conservative project – using their energy to burst open the public sector, detoxify the brand and become the vanguard of a reviving of Britain.
But unlike the Labour Party which was always careful to protect and support the development of organisations it thought would be friendly or helpful, typically, the Conservative Party has abandoned these potential allies once the election was over.
Instead of using the levers of Government to protect, support and grow the voluntary groups, community organisations, charities and social enterprises – it has allowed them to suffer (disproportionately in many cases) at the ends of forces friendly to “the left”.
This is why in five years time, if the Conservatives do not win the election, they will a) find many of their policies overturned b) find that they have lost a lot of credibility with potential supporters and thus c) find rebuilding a coalition to defeat the Labour Party or Lab-Lib Coalition even harder than it was leading up to 2010.
The fact is that the Conservative Party needs to stop thinking of itself as an organisation, with the aim of attaining Government and start thinking of itself as a movement to deliver change.
A movement is not organised solely to get people elected or to vote for certain candidates. It is the coming together of various social groups around shared concerns to realise change in politics, in our economy and our culture.
“The right” does have some groups that do this. The Taxpayer’s Alliance for example, has been very successful in the media (if not achieving much awareness in the public’s mind). The Countryside Alliance (traditionally associated with the Conservatives) is a mass member organisation which can bring out scores of volunteers. But these are too loose and the Conservative Party doesn’t pay them enough attention when in Government.
This is an error. Although it will take decades to see whether this assumption is true, the 2010 election may be a turning point in politics. Thatcher managed to change the country because she was in power for a decade, Blair the same – time is a powerful weapon in politics particularly when you have the machinery of government and working majorities. But with a stiffening third party system and people’s weakening allegiance to political parties, this may not happen again for a long time.
Politics should perhaps be seen a bit more like trench warfare in the First World War – “bite and hold”. You advance (bite), then seek to hold what you have won against retaliation from your opponents, then prepare another offensive once you have secured what you previously won. The “blitzkrieg” that many political commentators on “the right” are looking for – where we sweep away the Labour years and advance on all fronts true “Tory” policies, will probably never come.
What is worst, by not preparing anything to defend the gains that we do make in the next five years, we might see it all swept away – like so many advances by the British before 1918.
However there are steps that can be taken to create a movement around the Conservative Party which will add it not only in elections, but also in securing its policies and driving change through the country.
The Conservative Party should start at the youth level.
The Labour Party is particular is very good at mobilising and keeping young supporters engaged – both through national structures and also at a local level. This is important not only as it gives freshness to their party but also because it often binds these people too them for decades to come.
Too often, people are interested in Conservative politics in their youth, but drift away for decades because there are simply too few routes for them within party structure. Quotas for association officers should be considered, with at least 2 people under the age of 30 and preferably one under the age of 25 being given full roles. Instead of just throwing young people into unwinnable council seats, we should be trying to get more young people elected onto council seats that they can win.
The bait of greater say in local issues and potential advancement in terms of council positions will keep young people engaged and offer a strong incentive to keep involved in the party.
Secondly, the Conservative Party needs to consider the way it interacts with local community organisations.
More fundraising should be done by associations for the benefit of local charities. Painting community halls, supporting fetes and street parties, shouldn’t just be done at election time – it should be done all year around. Members should be actively encouraged to become trustees of local charities, to donate money to local voluntary organisations (rather than just handing it over to the party) and seeking to create long term dialogue with these groups.
Closed party events often used to raise money to be wasted on ineffectual literature is not the way forward – it could be better used to support good causes in communities and build vital alliances there. To show that the Conservative Party and its supporters really are a movement for change, not just a bunch of individuals trying to win seats. Some already recognise this and are moving towards this kind of approach, but particularly in our cities, we need to see Associations thinking more innovatively.
Thirdly, we need to support the think tanks that can win us the intellectual battles.
More support needs to be given to them so that they can furnish the political debate with the intellectual ammunition we need to fight “the left”. As we have seen with the Health Bill debate, the charities, unions and other bodies which opposed the Government’s reforming agenda were far better at saturating the political debate with facts and figures.
With Mark Wallace reporting that think tanks like Res Publica are allegedly on the edge of financial ruin, we cannot allow important intellectual allies to be lost. Although I do not agree with all that the Centre for Policy Studies or Policy Exchange or Res Publica publish for example, they are vital for the energy and vitality of the Conservative Party and were a very important part in the recovery we experienced post-2005.
Donors should be encouraged to give to these organisations, and members should also be encouraged to join up to them. Moreover, we should be trying to create more of these organisations so that when battles over policy need to be fought, that we have the information and the energy to win.
Finally, the Government needs to seriously address the damage that is being done to “third” sector – not only to ensure that we can change our country for the better, but also to ensure that important political alliances of the future are not irrevocably damaged.
My discussions with those in the sector has showed that the Big Society rhetoric pre-2010 did make many change their view of the Party and they were eager to help reforming the state. Now they feel betrayed – not only due to cuts, but also because we haven’t kept our promises in opening up public sector contracts etc.
If action isn’t take quickly to protect the sector from those on in the public sector who want to hang the “third” sector out to dry to save “in house” services which they view as threat to their monopolies – then not only will these critical organisation disappear but they will spread a sense of bitterness against the Conservatives across our communities.
This must be avoided for the long term prospects of the Party.
I have written this as a piece about the Conservative Party as a whole, but I think there are lessons for centrist Conservatives in particular also. Again, often within our own party we are outgunned by the “right” of the Party – in intellectual and organisational terms. We need to be cleverer in the way that we approach winning battles within our own internal coalition if we are to see the Conservative Party continue to move forward as we would want it to.
But as Party we need to learn the lessons of “the left” – we need to build together a movement which can drive through change and withstand assault. Otherwise despite all the good work that is going on across Government, we may have to stand back and watch it all swept away in the future.