Tag Archives: Sayeda Warsi

Conservative Policy Forum Launch

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.

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Conservative Party Chairmen’s Briefing to West Midlands Associations

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.

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