During the Birmingham leadership hustings, leading candidate Liz Truss set out her ambition to reform the office of the Conservative party’s chairman. She stated that she planned on merging the two co-chairs with the office of the chief executive. Such a decision is long overdue for the Conservative Party – whose political infrastructure has been neglected outside of elections.
Since the Conservatives first returned to power in 2010, the party has been through ten party chairmen and women. The longest lasting six years (Lord Feldman) and the shortest lasting less than one (Oliver Dowden). From an institutional point of view – this is far from ideal.
Such frequent changes of leadership don’t just mean a rotation in the figure at the top, but a complete change of culture, work environment, and at times senior personnel. Had any private company gone through so many chief executives in such a short period of time, questions might be rightly asked.
The fact is, that for better or worse, the office of party chairman has become a training ground for future cabinet ministers. One need only look at the relative success of previous office holders to see that it is in many ways an effective strategy. Grant Shapps, Patrick McLoughlin, Brandon Lewis, James Cleverly, and Amanda Milling have all gone on to hold higher offices with great success in a diverse range of ministries.
Whilst this might be good for the personal career prospects of those who have had the chance to lead from the chairman’s office in Conservative Central Headquarters (CCHQ), it does little for the long-term strategy of the party. What is now needed is a strong, empowered, and continuous party chair – someone who doesn’t have to worry about their own constituency, but instead can focus on the job full time of getting the party ready for the next elections.
The simple fact is that the role of party chairman is too important to be a part time job. It is a role that covers such a broad range of issues, from the recruitment and training of candidates, to the management of an activist network, to the raising of funds for fight elections, and of course the organisation of the annual party conference. With so many areas underneath their purview, it is difficult to see what to prioritise – creating a permanent office away from the MPs would help to create a greater sense of focus.
Top of the agenda should be boosting the party membership – and thus the battle chest available for fighting the next election. In 2019, the Party won nearly 14 million votes – it is therefore not unreasonable to suggest that the party should be able to find at least 1000 new members from those people who voted for the Party in each parliamentary constituency up and down the country. Or to put it another way, the party shouldn’t settle for fewer than 650,000 members.
On top of that, the party should revitalise its youth wing. On the continent, and in the United States, youth politics plays an important role in bringing up the next generations of activists and candidates. Perhaps something for the next chair to consider, is how to set up youth academies and training days – that teach the next generation of activists about the principles of conservatism and the tactics needed to ensure continued Conservative government. Similar programmes are run across the political spectrum around the world – especially in Scandinavian countries.
Equally, the selection of candidates should be reviewed. Local associations have been expressing their frustration for a long time when it comes to the selection of candidates – with accusations of favouritism and lack of transparency. Major failings in the vetting and selection of candidates have in recent years led to by-elections, or the whip being withdrawn.
What might help to build confidence is a return to dedicated local agents, with strong links to CCHQ and officially recognised agents qualifications. This could help to restore a feeling of connection between the central Party and the constituency branches – alleviating the growing feeling amongst members that there’s too much centralisation.
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Finally, the next party chairman must be willing to reconnect the Conservatives with the wider conservative family abroad. Utilising the strength of the party’s strong international reputation to make contacts with those like-minded party’s that either govern, or hope to govern soon. Sharing best practices and building strong bridges between those party’s that share a common purpose with us in Europe and around the World. Perhaps, by setting up a foundation that can carry out the function of the Party’s diplomatic outreach, on the model of the successful International Republic Institute or the Konrad Adenauer Foundation.
Ideal candidates for such an empowered role as Conservative Party Chair could include Daniel Hannan or Ruth Davidson. Both entered the House of Lords this Parliament, both after success in their respective campaigns – and both are seasoned veterans at the doorstep with broad appeal inside the Party. In the case of Lord Hannan, he already understands how the internal politics of CCHQ works, as he has spent the last few years as International Secretary. In the case of Baroness Davidson, she had demonstrated her strength in taking the Scottish Conservatives from the fringes to the mainstream, by building broad coalitions and modernising the way they did politics.
Conservatism is about the creation of stability in institutions, so perhaps the next leader should start by creating a greater degree of stability in CCHQ.
Robert Tyler is a senior policy adviser at New Direction, a Brussels-based think tank.
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