Wondering whether you were, in fact, first pick for the job might not be the best way to start as Chair of the Conservative Party. But it’s not the biggest worry for Brandon Lewis, who after an embarrassing Twaccidnet has just been named as Patrick McLoughlin’s successor .
Of far more concern to Mr Lewis should be the state of the Tory grassroots. The Conservatives, it seems, may well have fewer members not just than Labour but the SNP and the Lib Dems. And, from their responses to a comprehensive survey carried out by the Party members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, it looks like they’re neither particularly happy nor particularly active. They don’t look and sound much like 21st Century Britain either.
These problems might well be related and almost certainly harm the party’s electoral chances. But they also represent an awkward dilemma. And they might not be easily resolved by top-down solutions in reshuffles.
Labour members in our survey were more than twice as likely as Tory members to believe they have a significant say on policy
How are they related? Well, take age and activism. The fact that the average Conservative Party member is, according to our recently released research, in his (over two thirds of the membership is male) late fifties, as well as the fact that getting on for half of all Conservative members are over 65, probably helps explain why, at the last general election, Labour’s rank-and-file did a lot more for their party online than did the Tories’.
Why that harms the party’s electoral chances is pretty obvious. You don’t have to be a digital native to realise that social media is going to play an increasingly important role in campaigning, not least because it’s also a means of encouraging people to get involved in more traditional activities, such as canvassing, which seem to make a measurable difference, especially in close races.
So what’s the dilemma? It’s this: getting Tory members more active may well involve persuading them that they have more of a say in the party’s direction and that the leadership takes them more seriously than currently they think it does; but, if members are given more say, they may push the Conservative Party further away from the voters – especially the younger, relatively moderate, ethnically and sexually diverse voters – it may well need to win in the future.
Labour members in our survey were more than twice as likely as Tory members to believe they have a significant say on policy. They were also much less likely to feel that the leadership didn’t pay much attention to them – a feeling expressed by getting on for a third of Tory members. And while six out of 10 of the latter felt the Conservative Party encouraged them to get involved, for Labour it was more than eight out of 10.
Parties, like businesses, are complex organizations, prone to an inertia that is both cultural and institutional
But if Conservative members’ views had more weight, then what price the fact that four out of 10 of them aren’t happy with gay marriage? Or that only one in 10 thinks austerity has gone too far and only two out of 10 agree that ordinary people don’t get their fair share of the nation’s wealth? Or that fully three-quarters of them think that young people today don’t have enough respect for traditional British values?
Conservative leaders have already bowed to the views of the membership (some 70 per cent of whom voted Leave) on Brexit. Presenting the electorate with a set of policies even more in tune with members’ views in order to encourage them to help out more at election time could prove counterproductive in the long run.
In any case, parties, like businesses, are complex organizations, prone to an inertia that is both cultural and institutional. If anyone hopes that the new Chairman can swiftly turn things around by knocking a few heads together and making a few inspiring speeches is in for a big disappointment. Let’s hope Mr Lewis appreciates just how hard his new job is going to be.