The Conservative party is a bit like HMV, the bankrupt music business. For years, just like HMV, we were market leaders. We won 44 per cent of the vote in 1979, 42 per cent in 1983 and 44 per cent again in 1987.
But like the old music retailer, we have been losing touch with our customer base. HMV sold music the wrong way, via a costly chain of shop outlets. We, too, have been retailing politics the wrong way.
We last won a Parliamentary majority over 20 years ago. When we gained office after the 2010 election, we did so having got 36 percent of the vote. A pinnacle of success? Thirty-six per cent would have once been regarded as a disastrous trough.
The stark truth we must confront is that the Tory party has wasted away across many parts of the country. In much of Scotland, we are a remote memory. In towns and cities across the north of England, there are not only no Tory councillors, but there have not been any for over twenty years. Even more alarming, perhaps, many constituency associations in southern England exist more on paper than in practice.
A mass membership organisation, with over two million members a generation ago, has become a shadow of its former self. As late as the 1990s, we still had over 400,000 members. We have lost half our members since 2005.
Some party strategists fear that we may never be able to win an outright majority again. Will we, they muse privately, forever have to depend on a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?
My fear is that without change, we might become a kind of English version of Italy’s Northern League. A rump party confined to one region of the country, neither able nor willing to try to galvanise the whole country.
For all the Cameroon talk of modernisation, when it comes to reforming the party, we have had remarkably little of it. We continue to try to mobilise electoral support by running what are, in effect, a series of dinning clubs scattered across the south east of England. No wonder we continue to fight the long retreat.
‘But,’ you interrupt, ‘it was all that Cameroon modernisation talk that was the problem. If only the party leadership had not focused on wind turbines and hugging hoodies, all would be well.’
Really? Party membership was in serious decline long before anyone started to pepper the landscape with wind farms. Our share of the vote was in sharp decline long before anyone tried to get down with the hoodies.
Modernisation has not been the problem. Our problem rather has been an almost complete absence of serious effort to change the way that we run our party and seek to mobilise mass support.
The digital revolution
What is a political party for? First and foremost, to aggregate votes and opinion.
In a democracy, where lots of people have a vote, parties ensure that voters have some sense of what it is that they might be voting for. The existence of parties allows them some idea of how different representatives might work together once in office.
But along comes the internet, and suddenly it is possible to aggregate votes – and ideas – without having an established political party.
We have seen this most dramatically with the emergence of the Five Star Movement in Italy. It came from obscurity to win one in four votes in the recent Italian elections. Of course, the Five Star Movement might not last more than a few months. But the forces that allow votes to aggregate online the way the Five Star has are now with us forever.
From book selling to music retail, every market that the internet touches it changes. The barriers to entry come tumbling down. New niche competitors are able to take on established players on equal terms. So too in politics.
The brands insurgent movements like Five Star build do not operate only at the national level. Here in Britain, we are starting to see insurgents building successful local brands.
As George Galloway, victor of the Bradford West by-election, put it:-
Our media was social media … Twitter, Facebook and YouTube … at the touch of a button, I can speak to thousands of people … Our election campaign was built entirely outside the Westminster bubble.
The internet, in short, is made for political insurgency. So we need a new kind of insurgent Conservatism.
The Conservative party can either harness the new forces that the internet is unleashing. Or it can be defeated by them. We can continue to sell ourselves politically the way that HMV sold music. Or we can become the political equivalent of Spotify.
iMembership: In the age of the internet, it has never been easier to build mass membership organisations. Yet Conservative party membership is falling. We are doing something wrong.
Today, being a member of the Tory party to often means paying £25 for the privilege of then being sent invitations to costly dinners. Not a great retail proposition, is it? So we need to change.
There are over a quarter of a million folk living in Britain who describe themselves as conservative on facebook and twitter. Why don’t we adapt our membership structure to get as many of them as possible to join?
Why not let anyone – literally anyone – have ‘supporter status’ provided they register online giving us just their name, email and postcode. Why not let anyone become an ‘iMember’ for £1 a year? If they are only joining online, why bill them for the offline overheads?
Here is a really radical idea. Why not allow iMembers to vote to determine aspects of party policy, or elect members of the Party Board?
Why not let iMembers and supporters vote online to select candidate shortlists? Or to facilitate primary candidate selections?
Candidate selection: The Cameroon diagnosis was spot on. In far too many seats, a diminished membership was selecting candidates that appealed to them – not necessarily those best placed to win over swing voters.
The trouble was with the remedy. Drawing up an A-list of candidates did not solve the problem. Party officials in London charged with drawing up the A-list might have ensured a broader range of candidates were selected in terms of gender, background and heritage. It did little to ensure a broader range of candidates in terms of outlook and attitude.
The Conservatives need to adopt proper open primary candidate selection. In the two seats, Totnes and Gosport, where the Conservatives did hold proper open primaries (as opposed to caucuses), they gained not only two remarkable results on polling day, but two exceptional MPs, Sarah Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage.
Costly to run as postal ballots, open primaries candidate selection could either be ‘piggy backed’ on to pre existing local elections, or alternatively run online. Once voters are allowed to register as supporters online, large numbers of local people could be invited to take part in online polls to pick candidates.
If you select candidates that are well rooted in their local communities, they probably won’t then need to be prepped on how to reach out to the electorate.
A different style: A freshly adopted parliamentary candidate, I once received some sage advice from my predecessor, Sir Julian Ridsdale. An Essex MP for 38 years, he gave me his top tip: ‘Go to the places where the people gather.’ He might have had in mind the morning markets or bring-and-buy sales. But ‘the places where the people gather’ today are on Twitter and Facebook, too. Applying Sir Julian’s advice in the age of the internet means parties and their candidates need to be online. Not a ‘look-at-me’ boast site, but proper engagement.
But engaging online demands a very different style. Back in the days when a candidate’s main opportunity to speak to the voters was via a TV studio, he or she would stick to the carefully rehearsed ‘lines to take’, prepared by party HQ.
Try tweeting sound bites, and – unless you are being ironic – you soon look ridiculous.
Social media create a ‘long tail’ in communication. Uniformity becomes impossible as candidates have to create authentic responses to the niche audience they are communicating with.
The generic party brand and message might be important, but not as important as in the days when media was broadcast, not social. You will almost necessarily have to go beyond any generic messages if you want to have any kind of authentic online interaction.
Insurgent policy: The internet is a collective endeavour, without any central directing authority. If you are going to harness the internet to mobilise the Conservative party, you need to appreciate that it will no longer be possible to have a central directing authority control the party the way it has in the past.
With a broader, looser membership base, the party base will be less deferential.
With open primary selection, candidates will answer outward to their constituents, not merely inward to the hierarchy and whips.
The party must become insurgent in not only style, but in outlook.
To a certain kind of Westminster grandee, that alone would put them off the idea of change. But maybe that is the problem. Perhaps the Tory party has been run for too long as though it belongs to a certain kind of grandee in SW1, the property of those who are a little bit too comfortable with the way things are.
Contemporary Conservatism is too at ease with a failed elite in Whitehall; with central bankers that ran the economy into the ground; with Europhile mandarins keen to sign us up to more Brussels; with an inept, self-regarding administrative class that thought it could control the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, but, it turns out, could not even control our own borders.
Insurgent Conservatism means that we would become the party of change. From Disraeli, to Thatcher and – yes, even to Cameron – the Tories have been at their greatest not when they merely seek to conserve things, but when they look to overturn the way things are.