The Tory conference hall is, so far, struggling to replicate the size and excitement of Labour’s gathering last week. This isn’t entirely the party’s fault: the venue itself might be great for listening to an orchestra, but it tends to dampen what atmosphere there is. But the decline in audience enthusiasm has been taking place over a number of years across a number of venues.
The reasons for this are manifold. One is that the Tories simply do not have the grassroots membership that Labour does. Another is the way Conservatives struggle to give rousing speeches about what drives them in the way that Labourites do. Ask a Labour MP or member why they went into politics, and they’ll readily start talking about growing up under Margaret Thatcher, or the leaking roof of their school, or the poverty in their local community. All of these things may well be Tory experiences, too, but there’s a reticence in the Conservative psyche that prevents the same passion.
There is also the reality that too few Conservatives come from working class or black and minority ethnic backgrounds. Too few are women. Today Tory chairman Brandon Lewis tried to argue that his party didn’t need to suffer from the problems listed above. In his speech to the conference, he started with a values-laden section, talking about his own story and the sense of belief that drives Conservatives.
Of course, that backstory still contained a reasonable level of reticence – all Lewis would say is that he had been a volunteer and then a councillor, ‘never for one minute believing I would end up standing before you as the Chairman of our great party’. But it still contained statements of belief and lines like ‘driving purpose’ which normally crop up more at a Labour conference.
But more usefully, the speech included measures to increase the number of BME and female Conservative MPs. Lewis reiterated a pledge made over the summer to endure 50 per cent of those on the candidates’ list are women, and also announced a fund to ‘support those who are under-represented in our party’ as candidates.
On the first, Lewis claimed success by saying that ‘almost 100 women have signed up to take the first step on their journey to Parliament. That’s a great start.’ Of course, he didn’t mention how many men had applied at the same time, which is important given the Tories have, in recent years, only managed to get 30 per cent of their applications for candidacy to be from women.
On the fund, there was no detail on how much the party plans to spend on mentoring people to become MPs. It’s a noble aim, and research from organisations such as the Equality and Human Rights Commission shows that one of the barriers to people from diverse backgrounds entering politics is simply that they’ve never been sought out and asked. But it will make little difference if those people are encouraged to stand for a process that they simply cannot afford.
In my book, Why We Get The Wrong Politicians, I reveal that it costs tens of thousands of pounds of someone’s own money to stand for Parliament – without any guarantee that they’ll get the job at the end of it. I’ve written in more detail about this here, but this price tag excludes many of the people Lewis wants to become MPs. The Conservatives did announce a modest £250,000 bursary fund in 2015, but this would only cover the costs of a handful of candidates, and will not help those who are going for selections, as the cost of these alone can run into the thousands.
But it’s a start, and it would be churlish to complain when the party is starting to realise that it can’t just expect a more diverse cohort of would-be MPs to turn up on its doorstep and reinvigorate it.