Musings on a Week in Politics

The opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect the views of others, or of Parliament Street.

Last week played host to a set of events for those in the Conservative community, and I had the opportunity to attend a couple of them – the Spectator organised a panel discussion on the future of the Conservative Party, Conservative Young Professionals was relaunched, and the Bow Group ran an event entitled ‘Brexit – Red Lines’. A few musings follow, drawing on last week’s discussions, primarily concerning Brexit, and party engagement.

Brexit

The Bow Group’s recent event sought to determine panellists’ ‘red lines’ on Brexit – non-negotiable matters where a line in the sand had to be drawn. It should come as no surprise that there was a diversity of opinion on display, both amongst the panel and within the audience. The Party’s views on the European Union have always been varied, and it is an issue that has divided the Party since the EU was established.

I’m an investment banker (I know, a banker discussing politics, what a trusted combination!) Part of the job of M&A bankers involves process management – companies hire us because management should get on with the job of, well, management. Of running the company day-to-day, not becoming caught up in matters transactional. Likewise, governments should get on with the job of government – of running a country, day-to-day. I feel that the Conservative Party has become all-consumed with Brexit. Yes, it’s important to get it ‘right’ (whatever that may mean); yes, it’s not an easy challenge. However, the diversity of opinion on the EU has lead to paralysis of action, both in dealing with Brexit, but more crucially, on dealing with the longer-term future of this country. The average citizen wants government to get on with their day-to-day job, and that’s what government need to do. Indeed, as I’ve been writing this piece, the entire Board of the Social Mobility Commission have stood down in protest at the lack of progress with the Prime Minister’s pronouncements at the threshold of No. 10, Brexit having become an all-consuming idea with which ministers are being completely preoccupied!

It mightn’t be surprising, though, that we’re focussing so much on Brexit. The Conservative Party has become too much of an issuedriven party, as opposed to one focussed on the battle of ideas and on values. And this isn’t a recent development – the New Statesman wrote an article back in 2009, on the death of ideas and ideology. Issues, such as views on the EU, will continue to divide the Party. The longer that a party stays in power, the harder it needs to work on staying relevant, and on having a healthy dose of introspection, as to its own condition. As was noted on Monday by several panellists, we need to carefully consider what we stand for, and we need to rearticulate our values clearly, moving away from issues and re-engaging with the language of genuine political ideology.

Party Engagement/Grassroots

The Conservatives undoubtedly have a problem with youth engagement – indeed, the Labour/Conservative crossover occurred at 47, according to YouGov analysis! However, following the collapse of Conservative Future and other Party youth institutions in the wake of the 2015 scandal, it may come as no surprise that the Party has failed adequately to engage. It was great to attend the relaunch of Conservative Young Professionals, but this is merely a starting-point.

The Party has also failed to engage fully with its wider membership. Grassroots conservatism has been damaged. One looks at the Party Conference, and it’s not, first and foremost, an opportunity for Party members to be heard. It’s become a forum for lobbyists and corporates to further their agendas. Tickets are too expensive for general Party membership. And whilst McLoughlin reintroduced Contributions from the Floor, allowing members to take to the Podium and discuss their views, these contributions were vetted, with topics needing to be submitted in advance of the Conference. So seeking to respond directly to an issue that arose during the Conference wasn’t necessarily possible. A Chatham House Rule portion of the Conference could enable members to challenge and critique policy, without undermining the message delivered during keynote speeches.

However, lack of member engagement and influence isn’t a new problem for the Party. Unfortunately, some of the failings within grassroots and youth engagement (certainly within the Party) stem from excessive centralisation at CCHQ. I’m increasingly a proponent of the virtues of decentralisation (certainly within the sphere of disruptive technologies such as blockchain), and passionately believe in the opportunities that greater decentralised governance can provide. Furthermore, the speed of communication and information propagation now, via social media and the internet, travels much faster and more efficiently than centralised decision structures can handle. The collapse of Conservative Future left a vacuum that hasn’t yet been adequately filled. And it certainly shouldn’t come back, as it was constituted previously. Nevertheless, we need to have an open conversation about what should replace the institution, and the prominent role that further decentralisation needs to take. The Party needs to focus on persuading members that their opinions matter, and that they are respected by its leaders. It is people, and not governments who make great nations, and the members of the Party should have a clearer say on the direction of both policy and leadership.

(As an aside, I fully acknowledge that even if the Party fixes the ‘mouthpiece’, there are deeper issues of intergenerational unfairness that need to be addressed in strengthening the Party’s younger appeal, such as the broken housing market, which in my experience has been the greatest hot-button topic for my generation, and one on which I empathise substantially with the concerns of my peers.)

Some Concluding Thoughts

We each have our own reasons for voting Conservative. The Party is a broad church, and centralisation can never hope to capture totally the full expression of members’ nuanced opinions and views. We should each hold conviction and pride in what we stand for (across the entire political spectrum), and should regularly reflect on why we believe what we each believe, and the Party should thus trust its members to defend their opinions. I’m a Conservative because I believe in a local, civil society of ‘little platoons’. In a society that values freedom and hard work, and that values the earned fruits of that hard work. I’m a Conservative because I was brought up as a third-generation Polish immigrant, whose family witnessed first-hand the scourge of the radical left take over their country. Whose family, I will always be proud to say, helped undermine Communism and fought to bring about the return of the Polish Republic. (And it seems that even some in the Labour Party are now wary of dangers of the hard left, breeding a “poisonous…toxic and uncomradely environment”!)

Sir Anthony Seldon made the contention on Monday that the United Kingdom is a fundamentally conservative country. The Conservative Party is regarded by some as one of the world’s most successful political parties. It was in power for 57 years in the 20th Century, and has been in power for the majority of its existence from 1834. However, to have any hope of succeeding at the next General Election, the Party needs to provide a clear, inclusive, positive vision for the future – in the long-term, beyond Brexit –  decentralise, and work on rearticulating its values, and winning the battle of ideas, not issues.

Joachim is the Operations Director at Parliament Street.

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