It doesn’t matter if he (or, unlikely, she) said it. What matters is how believable it immediately was. Whether or not anyone close to the Prime Minister did tell reporters that Tory activists are “swivel-eyed loons,” many members already suspect that this is what the party elite thinks of them.
This isn’t the result of some singular split—a big issue like Europe or gay marriage—but of a wider, more dangerous disconnect. It’s the product of party conferences where the membership feel increasingly priced out and pushed to one side. It follows the “detoxification” process that, to many, looked and felt like a rejection of decades of tradition and many hours of their hard work. David Cameron knew that the Conservatives wouldn’t win an election with more of the same. For lots of dedicated activists, he seemed to think he couldn’t win an election with their help.
In many ways, their suspicions were correct. Cameron and his immediate allies are not naturally comfortable with the enthused and eccentric that make up much of the membership of my party (or any other British party). And while “modernisers” were correct that we couldn’t win with just the same policies and people, they also forgot that we couldn’t win without them either. Too often, rather than seeking to forge alliances between the Conservative base and the centre, we have jettisoned our own in order to pursue the fresh and the new.
The outcome has been apathy, the rise of Ukip and delight in rebellion. With Ukip just two points behind the Conservative party in the polls, the bankruptcy of this approach is now clear. But it would be wrong to blame just the Cameron clique for the decay of Conservatives in the community. The truth is more complicated and more structural, and requires action much more dramatic than a mass email of contrition.
Conservative Associations often resemble an hourglass. At the top are members in their sixties and seventies. And there are younger members: students, ambitious would-be politicos in their twenties. I was briefly (and pretty disastrously) Vice-Chair of the Conservative Association in my university town. Almost all the members were either studying or retired. This is not uncommon. It is a problem. The combination of callow youth and “seen it all” wisdom can skew the focus and feel of Conservatism. The absence of young families buying their first house and people in full-time work, juggling mortgage repayments—these are weaknesses in the fabric of grassroots Conservatism that can leave us as out-of-touch at the local level as we’re accused of being at the top.
It is this strange demographic mix that can make the Conservative party look so obsessive and so distant to many voters. Young members are often bombastic and given to a Manichaean worldview—I certainly was in my early twenties. Older members are often, understandably, nostalgic for a Britain and a Conservative party that they fear is lost. Both groups are united in a fascination with Europe and a longing for a conservatism that is more radical and less nuanced. They fall out over issues such as gay marriage—the young, broadly, embracing it with enthusiasm while their older colleagues tend to be suspicious of such a big change benefitting so few people.
There are, of course, plenty of individual members who don’t fall into the types described above. And I don’t want to get rid of the wonderful and colourful membership that the Conservative party has retained. We need to find a way to keep our committed, experienced older members and our active, enthusiastic younger members while also reaching out to fill the gaping hole in the middle. Otherwise, relations between the grassroots and any leadership are likely to remain strained.
How to do it? The Conservative party suffers from a lack of routes in. Labour has the union movement, which sucks members closer to the party fold via self-interest and workplace solidarity. We have no such mechanisms. Robert Halfon has argued that we must reinvigorate the Conservative Trade Unionists (now Conservatives at Work). I agree, but we should go further.
We need a new Primrose League (the group founded by Disraeli which, at one point, had a membership of 2 million) to bring families into the fold. It should become something akin to a trade union for middle-income parents and it should sit in parallel to the party structure—independent but affiliated so that members get to participate in the big moments for local parties (such as candidate selection). Above all it should be cheaper than party membership, currently £25 a year.
This or any attempt to broaden our membership requires good faith from the leadership. The trade-off for having a bigger and more diverse movement is that it will be harder to control. The benefits are clear but so, too, are the opportunities for awkward conversations and difficult disagreements. Yet the alternative is to watch the Conservative party become ever less like the bulk of the country’s workers and voters. That won’t, in the long run, make the lives of those in David Cameron’s “close social and professional” circle any easier.
If we want a party that looks like Britain then we need a party that feels listened to and appreciated, that has many routes in and many layers of membership. As an act of contrition for what may or may not have been said, CCHQ would do well to concentrate on delivering that party.