‘Our membership is a disaster’: Tories seek to ignite the grassroots in fight for ‘survival’
The Conservatives have spent the summer soul-searching for a solution to their young people problem. But is a Tory equivalent of Momentum really the answer to the party’s woes? Sebastian Whale reports
The Conservatives are facing an existential crisis. Not my words, but the effective musings of Robert Halfon, the former education minister, as we sit in his office in Speaker’s Court early one September morning. “We could be at the edge of a precipice unless we have radical change,” he says.
This is not the type of language usually found in Halfon’s lexicon. It’s worth noting then, when the mild-mannered, friendly face of ‘blue collar’ (being from Essex, he prefers ‘white van man’) conservatism speaks in this way. Sipping on an espresso, he continues: “I’m normally an incrementalist, I’m not a confrontational politician. But I actually think we need a radical, counterintuitive revolution in the Conservative party if we are to survive.”
The Harlow MP is not alone in recognising the need for the Tories to redress a deep-rooted problem with young voters and ignite the party's grassroots. He can however count himself as one of the few who spotted early on the threat posed by Labour’s galvanised membership base. Not only was he cognisant of the support that was gathering for Jeremy Corbyn, but also of the holes in the Tories’ operations that would be so viscerally exposed at the election.
His warnings in newspaper columns and speeches weren’t heeded and the Tories were overcome with complacency. Short of a majority, the party, though it won the election, is in trouble, on a downward trajectory. Such is the Tories’ fall from grace that Halfon believes a complete overhaul is needed to bring it back from the brink. “It’s everything. It’s our message, our narrative, our language, our policies, our campaigning, our party machinery, the way we organise our membership,” he continues.
Halfon is well-placed to make such an assertion, having served as deputy chairman of the Conservative party from May 2015 to July 2016. He has seen first-hand the frailties of the Tories’ infrastructure, including the “disaster” of its “ever ageing” membership.
“Wonderful people, but the same people who were involved 20 years ago… We’re not attracting new members. We offer the membership nothing.”
Not long after being sacked from May’s government in June, Halfon called for the Tories to form its own version of Momentum, the grassroots campaign created after Corbyn’s 2015 bid for the Labour leadership. This would operate like a trade union, he says, mooting names including the Conservative Trade Union or Conservative Workers.
“That doesn’t mean they go out and stand outside Labour conference with banners or go on strike. What I’m talking about is a trade union in the way that trade unions are for the most part, which is providing credible services to members,” he says.
To stimulate members, he proposes electing the party’s board and the Tories’ policy forum. Halfon also advocates tiered membership, where those who pay more earn the chance to vote, a new logo (he wants a ladder to symbolise the Tories' core values) and offering rewards including fuel cards and insurance services (“serious stuff that makes a difference to people’s lives”). A Tory Momentum, Halfon adds, would need to unite the “arch, Libertarian free marketeers” and social justice Conservatives around the “best policies” in the Tories’ roster.
Halfon’s call to “democratise the membership” speaks to the effect Corbyn’s leadership has had on British politics. Labour has more than 550,000 members to its name. The Tories, whose party membership stands at around 150,000, do not have the same luxury.
The assumption, up until 8 June, was that a large membership base and huge attendance at rallies does not equate to broader popularity among voters. Young people too were often overlooked under the notion that they would not turn out on polling day. Corbyn’s positive agenda juxtaposed against the Tories’ offer for the under 40s, has changed that, possibly for the foreseeable.
One senior Tory MP says: “I think what the experience of this election shows, and the experience of Momentum as a campaigning organisation shows, is that it was a mistake to think that politics was no longer a mass movement activity.
“I think all of the focus of the last 10, 20 years on centralisation of decision making and directing everything from party HQ, I think now is starting to look old fashioned again.
“The idea of genuine, popular, mass activism is coming back.”
But is there an appetite for conservatism at the grassroots? Tory MPs I’ve spoken to insist there is. The evidence seems thin on the ground though, particularly when we look at young people. According to a YouGov poll carried out after the election, the Tories lag behind Labour until you reach voters over the age of 47.
What frustrated Tory MPs is that nothing was made during the election campaign of the party’s proposals for young people on areas including apprenticeships or the national living wage, which Halfon says “should have been as big for the Conservative party as the creation of the NHS was for Labour”. Nor was enough done to counter the platform outlined by the Labour party. This failure allowed the view to be formed that the Tories either have nothing to say to the under 40s or simply don’t care. Policies on social care, fox hunting and winter fuel allowance meanwhile alienated parts of the Conservative core.
Halfon says the Tories’ young person problem is “massive”. Like his colleagues, however, he also believes the Labour party could be found out over its promises on tuition fees, in the same way the Liberal Democrats were in 2010.
But he cautions: “Having said that, young people are not just voting Labour because of student loans. It isn’t just about money. I think if we make that mistake, we will make a big mistake as a party. I think young people are voting Labour because they believe that it is a noble thing to do.
“Who would not want to vote for a Labour party whose main mission is to help the underdog? I would love to do it, because why would you not want to do that? When the perception of the other main party is that it’s just for those well-off, why would you not want to do it, especially when you’re young and idealistic.”
The Tories of course had a long-established youth movement in place until the end of last year. Conservative Future was suspended by Tory HQ after the suicide of one of its activists, Elliot Johnson, following alleged bullying. The party is reportedly drawing up proposals to reform and restructure the group. Tory MPs – even those who backed Remain - are also full of admiration for the model established by leading Brexit campaign, Vote Leave.
While the Tories clamour for a solution, Momentum is organising events across the country targeting Tory big hitters including Boris Johnson, Amber Rudd and Justine Greening. Among its members include digitally savvy software programmers who have created additional sites such as “My Nearest Marginal” to help pro-Labour voters find out where best to campaign. They are training local activists in canvassing techniques, hiring videographers to harness their digital coverage, and increasing their own membership base. The group has more than 80,000 followers on Twitter and 160,000 likes on Facebook. Some of their videos get millions of hits on the latter, circumnavigating perceived biases in the media. Once viewed as a descendent of Militant, its professional operations have now gained mainstream respect.
Perhaps Momentum’s greatest achievement was the creation of Activate, a new right-wing campaign group for young voters. It’s fair to say Activate didn’t get off to the best start, beginning with poorly constructed memes and tweets swiftly taken apart by the Twitterati, and membership fees reaching up to £500 for over-25s. Things then escalated as a Whatsapp group conversation (leaked to Guido Fawkes), which had Activate members within it, saw people discuss “gassing chavs”. There followed a successful hacking attempt of the campaign’s Twitter account, leaving it unclear what was parody and what was policy.
All this has left Halfon somewhat unimpressed. “Yes, very depressing. You cannot stop hardcore people setting up organisations,” he says.
“What I do think is the Conservative party need to... put a trademark on the name, Conservatives. I think anyone who brings the Conservative into disrepute should not be allowed to call themselves a Conservative.”
“The first rule of creating such an organisation is you don’t tell people you’re doing it until you’ve got an organisation up and running.”
Activate has been at pains to note that it is not affiliated with the Tory party. Its aim is to “actively engage young people in the right of centre politics, make a case for what conservatism can offer and provide a platform to enable their voices to be heard”. Its spokesman, Sam Ratcliffe, recognises that the group has made headlines “not necessarily for the right reasons”. Now back in control of its social media profiles, Activate will launch formally at an event on 14 October in the south west.
Ratcliffe insists that, as opposed to Momentum, Activate “does not want to change what the Tory party is, we want to sell the Conservative party.” As for the negative coverage, Ratcliffe believes no press is bad press.
“I think the amount of effort that went into putting us down shows that actually there is a huge need for something like this,” he says.
Activate is not alone in the market, however. Other groups including Our Conviction, which seeks to “neutralise the fiction and disinformation” coming from Momentum and contribute to the “youth political conversation”, are currently in the works.
The Tories’ problem, as demonstrated by the reaction to Activate, is one of perception. It has never been less cool to be a Conservative, and copying the style of left-wing groups leads to ridicule. Conversely, Corbyn has appropriated the festival-scene, is championed by grime artists to leading actors, and even has his own chant.
Meanwhile, after seven years of austerity and a message centred on fiscal prudence, even diehard Tories are struggling to stir up passions for conservatism.
As Halfon puts it: “The big problem we have is that people won’t vote for us with their hearts. They vote for Labour with their hearts, which is why so many young people are supportive of them… people vote Conservative with gritted teeth, not because they feel passionate about it.”
Halfon is by no means the only senior Conservative reflecting about the future of the Tory party. The 2017 intake of MPs have shown an interest in how to win back young voters. Ben Bradley, the 27-year-old Tory MP for Mansfield, told me in July: “There’s a big influx of young Conservative MPs and I think we need to feed into that. It’s all well and good lots of pensioners talking about what young people want, but actually we’ve been there much more recently – some of us are still there – and I think we need to drive that agenda.”
George Freeman, chair of Theresa May’s policy board and Tory Policy Forum, revealed plans over the summer to hold a Big Ideas Tent Festival. The event, dubbed in the media as the ‘Tory Glastonbury’ (a nickname Freeman is keen to disassociate himself from), will run in Oxfordshire on Friday 22 September, with a view to becoming an annual event. The festival will have three themes: economic, social and political renewal and be “a celebration of the local, of the diverse, both in terms of food and culture but also in terms of heritage and policy”.
Did the election outcome trigger this idea? “Yes, but actually for years I’d come away from conference, struck that it’s become increasingly corporate, expensive actually for candidates and for activists and for councillors, even for MPs. But also, it’s become increasingly detached,” Freeman says.
“This election has highlighted that need to continually seek to renew our connection with grassroots voters. I think every MP has very strong roots in their constituencies. But the party as an entity, I think can look at times like quite a London-centred, big media, machine of government and of power.”
Like Halfon, Freeman is seeking to light the touchpaper for conservatism, defend and explain the party’s “deep rooted, hard fought for and strongly believed in values”, while signalling that the Tories are open to “fresh thinking”. He hopes the festival will feedback into Conservative policy. He too though is not seeking to copy Momentum’s model and insists the festival will be inclusive. “It’s about a less partisan, more open and cultural opportunity to explore the broader undergrowth of conservatism.”
Many people have pointed out that Momentum stemmed from Corbyn’s leadership. A Momentum source says it is effectively a “social movement” based around a “positive vision” for the country, which the Tories cannot emulate. The Tories are unsure who or from what wing of the party their future leader will come from.
A wider challenge for the Tories is seeking to change perceptions while being in power. “That’s affected governments of all hues over the years. Renewal in office is difficult, but this election has demonstrated – to all of us – that it’s urgent,” Freeman says. If they ignore the warnings, the party will be “put out to pasture to refresh”, he adds.
This rebranding will also be taking place while the not inconsiderable task of taking Britain out of the European Union is undertaken. Indeed, the urge with which the Tories are calling for renewal speaks to the severity of the situation. Senior Conservatives are clear that if major change isn’t carried out, if an inspirational message is not found, their party faces a period in the wilderness.
Halfon concludes: “If we don’t radically reform our messaging, our machinery, if we don’t focus on policies that really are there to help the lower paid, which are supported by people in metropolitan areas, I think we’ll face a precipice, Corbyn will be in No10.”