The last time I heard Baroness Warsi speak her big thing was to make sure the Conservative party was “a political party, not a dining club”. The sentiment was spot on. New members (like myself), will have realised the party is good at getting money out of you, good at getting you to post leaflets, good at organising social events – but not so good at giving you any sense of voice or influence. It’s not unreasonable to suppose that many people who might feel motivated to join a political party may have as much or more of an interest in policy as they do in giving money, stuffing leaflets or attending BBQs.
Today Warsi took a step to address this by re-launching the Conservative Policy Forum. 100+ activists from across the UK gathered at the old Custard Factory in Birmingham. The event got off to a bit of a stilted start, the morning session was a succession of speakers (Warsi, Jeremey Middleton, Fiona Hodgson and Natalie Elphick) who were individually good, but unfortunately had very repetitive content. The gist was:
- they were encouraging local associations to set up groups to discuss policy (all under the framework of ‘The Conservative Policy Forum’. )
- This is intended to mirror the history of member involvement in the old CPC/CPF. It is recognised the forerunner got broken somewhere over the last couple of decades and this initiative is about putting that right.
- To help facilitate these new groups they would share discussion papers each month
- they had agreed clear channels to receive feedback on the discussion papers from the local groups .
- They then have a process to consolidate all feedback and get it to the relevant Ministers
- They’re also looking at launching a website to solicit similar input for those who cannot attend the meetings..
It needn’t have taken more than 10 minutes to tell us all that: It took an hour and half. The irony in launching something to enable members to talk, rather than be talked to, by lecturing the same message four times wasn’t lost. It contributed to a little frustration in the audience which bubbled over into the first question and answer session. I actually quite felt for Baroness Warsi – here she was launching a sincerely positive initiative yet was getting criticised for the ‘lack of democratic involvement’ – as a flavour she was asked: “who elected the regional co-ordinators? Who elected the forum council? Who elected you Madam Chairman? Why is this kick-off the first I’ve heard about it?”. Leadership in a voluntary organisation is an exercise in herding cats and I don’t envy anyone who has to perform that role. Warsi handled the more direct comments with self-deprecating aplomb and just about managed to stop the moaning minnies from sapping the energy out of the room.
Oliver Letwin came after lunch and did a sterling job in properly positioning the intended focus of the CPF. He was crystal clear that the CPF must not become a forum to critique current policy implementation – that’s the opposition’s job. Current policy is current policy and it is the Government’s job to properly implement it. The CPF is there to inform the 2015 manifesto and respond to the needs of Britain as it will be then. Letwin comes across as a bit of a policy wonk on TV and his manner on the box is not everyone’s cup of tea. In the flesh he was very convincing in his narrative. He talked about the eyes-wide-open choices the current government has made, the strategic reasoning for doing the more ambitious stuff early in the Parliament and why there will be no respite in this current pace of policy implementation until mid 2012 (“After 13 years preparation, I don’t know why people find it surprising that we actually had a well prepared plan we’re putting into play”). For me, the gold of the day came when he put up a straw-man of the possible priorities for the 2015 government – the CPF is expected input to a manifesto that will help:
- Rise to the challenge of an ageing population and other demographic changes,
- Keep our nation and citizens safe amidst the new security challenges at home and overseas,
- Make the most of changes in technology and innovation, and support enterprise
- Ensure we have an adequate skills base to meet the future demands of the market
- >Respond to increasing pressures on our natural resources and changes to our global climate
- Meet the economic challenges and opportunities of emerging economies
- Ensure policy takes account of geographical differences in our nation
- Strengthen the family, help the vulnerable and poor in our society, and tackle the causes of poverty; and,
- Support ‘big citizens’ and the ‘big society’
I found it reassuring in the age of the 24-hour-news cycle that at least some politicians still do some forward thinking. It’s not a bad first stab at what challenges we will face in 2015– he was also at pains to express this list was not exhaustive, and the CPF could well add to it.
Launching something is not the same as delivering on it – but I have high hopes for the CPF. It is absolutely a step in the right direction for letting ‘membership’ of the party mean more than the right to be mugged for more cash. The instinct that solutions and great ideas need not come from smoke-filled rooms in Whitehall, but can come from the collective wisdom of the huge pool of motivated, bright people outside the Westminster bubble is something that could really differentiate Conservatives from the heavily centralised Labour Party. We’ve always claimed to be different in that way – if we can make this work – then we can make that claim demonstrable.