About 70 Conservative party members – mainly of a mixture of Association execs, PPCs and the like – yesterday attended the West Midlands ‘Meet the Chairmen Briefing’ with Baroness Warsi and Andrew Feldmen at the Richo Arena in Coventry. I wouldn’t wish to betray any confidences (if there were any) so will just summarise the key points that landed with me for those who may have been unable to attend.
It was a relaxed ‘cosy sofa’ arrangement and started with them each doing a ten minute turn explaining their division of labour and current priorities. Warsi made the point that her luxury over other Cabinet members is that everyone else is slightly constrained by the nature of Coalition but in her role at least she can be fully ‘blue’ in everything she does. Her part of the job is the ‘political side’. Feldman started by acknowledging he was still newish to the Party; “I was mates with Dave at Uni, he asked me to help out with fundraising during his leadership campaign, and it has just sort of grown from there”. His role is “the back office stuff of the professional party”. He gave a confident and refreshingly frank account of the drivers for the recent reshuffle of CCHQ and reassurance that party finances are sound.
The meat of the event was the Q&A session:
- There was a question to the likelihood of the Coalition going the distance – there was some nervousness in the room about Lib Dem stability and Party readiness if things go wrong. Warsi was robust that we’ve signed up for five years and we’re going to do five years. Things can and do change in Politics but there is every expectation that we will go the distance. Party plans, whilst still flexible to sudden change, assume we will. There are a stream of near term milestones ahead of the next General Election (local elections, referendum etc.) and, to paraphrase slightly, locally we shouldn’t let hypothetical events distract our focus from the visible and certain horizon.
- There was a discussion about Membership. For this newish member it was refreshing to hear the Chairmen both acknowledge that joining the Conservatives can be a variable experience depending on local Association. I have described my feeling of trying to get involved as less like pushing on an open door, more having to shoulder-barge it. Yet when I changed associations I could hardly have been made more welcome. They understand this variance is a real problem and are looking at it. Overall membership numbers remains OK but the average age of members is higher than we would like which is something else they wish to address. Warsi was clearly frustrated at reports that a small number of local associations were still showing quite an exclusive mindset – she summed this up: “The Conservative Party is a political party. It is not a dining club.” The subtext to the answer was that the Parliamentary Party and the Professional Party have made huge strides in looking and feeling like modern Britain in their make-up without any compromise to core values but some local associations within the voluntary party have not kept up. This got Warsi onto the topic of diversity and after stating her long-standing rejection of quotas or gender/ethnic shortlists she launched into a familiar but always enjoyable rant about taking no hypocritical lessons from Labour about party diversity when at a time their leadership contest is realistically a battle between white Oxford grads she as a Muslim woman from a city and this ‘Jewish business chap’ sit together at the top table of our Party on their merits.
- There is a full review of the way candidates are appointed underway. The A-List has gone. Open primaries, whilst attractive, are prohibitively expensive and a device best reserved for very specific circumstances. Whilst it is clear there is advantage in getting candidates in early, we have time to get the new process right as there is no point in beginning selections until the boundary changes have been announced in two years time. It is likely that the candidates list (which will also be reviewed) will be re-opened ahead of those next selections. The principal of local associations picking their candidates is one Warsi supports, and Feldman sees as a real hook for getting new people to join the party.
- We can and will get more from our investment in the Merlin system at the next election.
The event hit the right note. It felt like genuine two-way engagement with the grass-roots. They will have walked away having heard some genuine frustrations about candidate selections whilst the Associations will have walked away with some real food for thought about how to make new members welcome and get them involved. I was encouraged by everything I heard. I take heart they remain committed to continue making the Conservative Party more attractive to that large part of a generation who grew up believing it was anything but. This absolutely can be achieved without any sacrifice to core principals. Only if we continue to crack that one we will have a chance to push-on for a full majority in 2015.