Coffee House

iDemocracy and a new model party

15 July 2013

The Conservative party is a bit like HMV, the bankrupt music business. For years, just like HMV, we were market leaders. We won 44 per cent of the vote in 1979, 42 per cent in 1983 and 44 per cent again in 1987.

But like the old music retailer, we have been losing touch with our customer base.  HMV sold music the wrong way, via a costly chain of shop outlets. We, too, have been retailing politics the wrong way.

We last won a Parliamentary majority over 20 years ago. When we gained office after the 2010 election, we did so having got 36 percent of the vote. A pinnacle of success? Thirty-six per cent would have once been regarded as a disastrous trough.

The stark truth we must confront is that the Tory party has wasted away across many parts of the country. In much of Scotland, we are a remote memory. In towns and cities across the north of England, there are not only no Tory councillors, but there have not been any for over twenty years. Even more alarming, perhaps, many constituency associations in southern England exist more on paper than in practice.

A mass membership organisation, with over two million members a generation ago, has become a shadow of its former self. As late as the 1990s, we still had over 400,000 members. We have lost half our members since 2005.

Some party strategists fear that we may never be able to win an outright majority again. Will we, they muse privately, forever have to depend on a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?

My fear is that without change, we might become a kind of English version of Italy’s Northern League. A rump party confined to one region of the country, neither able nor willing to try to galvanise the whole country.

For all the Cameroon talk of modernisation, when it comes to reforming the party, we have had remarkably little of it. We continue to try to mobilise electoral support by running what are, in effect, a series of dinning clubs scattered across the south east of England. No wonder we continue to fight the long retreat.

‘But,’ you interrupt, ‘it was all that Cameroon modernisation talk that was the problem. If only the party leadership had not focused on wind turbines and hugging hoodies, all would be well.’

Really?  Party membership was in serious decline long before anyone started to pepper the landscape with wind farms. Our share of the vote was in sharp decline long before anyone tried to get down with the hoodies.

Modernisation has not been the problem. Our problem rather has been an almost complete absence of serious effort to change the way that we run our party and seek to mobilise mass support.

The digital revolution

What is a political party for? First and foremost, to aggregate votes and opinion.
In a democracy, where lots of people have a vote, parties ensure that voters have some sense of what it is that they might be voting for. The existence of parties allows them some idea of how different representatives might work together once in office.

But along comes the internet, and suddenly it is possible to aggregate votes – and ideas – without having an established political party.

We have seen this most dramatically with the emergence of the Five Star Movement in Italy. It came from obscurity to win one in four votes in the recent Italian elections. Of course, the Five Star Movement might not last more than a few months.  But the forces that allow votes to aggregate online the way the Five Star has are now with us forever.

From book selling to music retail, every market that the internet touches it changes. The barriers to entry come tumbling down. New niche competitors are able to take on established players on equal terms. So too in politics.

The brands insurgent movements like Five Star build do not operate only at the national level. Here in Britain, we are starting to see insurgents building successful local brands.

As George Galloway, victor of the Bradford West by-election, put it:-

Our media was social media … Twitter, Facebook and YouTube … at the touch of a button, I can speak to thousands of people … Our election campaign was built entirely outside the Westminster bubble.

The internet, in short, is made for political insurgency. So we need a new kind of insurgent Conservatism.

Insurgent Conservatism

The Conservative party can either harness the new forces that the internet is unleashing. Or it can be defeated by them. We can continue to sell ourselves politically the way that HMV sold music. Or we can become the political equivalent of Spotify.

iMembership: In the age of the internet, it has never been easier to build mass membership organisations. Yet Conservative party membership is falling. We are doing something wrong.

Today, being a member of the Tory party to often means paying £25 for the privilege of then being sent invitations to costly dinners. Not a great retail proposition, is it? So we need to change.

There are over a quarter of a million folk living in Britain who describe themselves as conservative on facebook and twitter. Why don’t we adapt our membership structure to get as many of them as possible to join?

Why not let anyone – literally anyone – have ‘supporter status’ provided they register online giving us just their name, email and postcode. Why not let anyone become an ‘iMember’ for £1 a year? If they are only joining online, why bill them for the offline overheads?

Here is a really radical idea. Why not allow iMembers to vote to determine aspects of party policy, or elect members of the Party Board?

Why not let iMembers and supporters vote online to select candidate shortlists?  Or to facilitate primary candidate selections?

Candidate selection: The Cameroon diagnosis was spot on. In far too many seats, a diminished membership was selecting candidates that appealed to them – not necessarily those best placed to win over swing voters.

The trouble was with the remedy. Drawing up an A-list of candidates did not solve the problem. Party officials in London charged with drawing up the A-list might have ensured a broader range of candidates were selected in terms of gender, background and heritage. It did little to ensure a broader range of candidates in terms of outlook and attitude.

The Conservatives need to adopt proper open primary candidate selection. In the two seats, Totnes and Gosport, where the Conservatives did hold proper open primaries (as opposed to caucuses), they gained not only two remarkable results on polling day, but two exceptional MPs, Sarah Wollaston and Caroline Dinenage.

Costly to run as postal ballots, open primaries candidate selection could either be ‘piggy backed’ on to pre existing local elections, or alternatively run online.  Once voters are allowed to register as supporters online, large numbers of local people could be invited to take part in online polls to pick candidates.

If you select candidates that are well rooted in their local communities, they probably won’t then need to be prepped on how to reach out to the electorate.

A different style: A freshly adopted parliamentary candidate, I once received some sage advice from my predecessor, Sir Julian Ridsdale. An Essex MP for 38 years, he gave me his top tip: ‘Go to the places where the people gather.’ He might have had in mind the morning markets or bring-and-buy sales. But ‘the places where the people gather’ today are on Twitter and Facebook, too. Applying Sir Julian’s advice in the age of the internet means parties and their candidates need to be online. Not a ‘look-at-me’ boast site, but proper engagement.

But engaging online demands a very different style. Back in the days when a candidate’s main opportunity to speak to the voters was via a TV studio, he or she would stick to the carefully rehearsed ‘lines to take’, prepared by party HQ.

Try tweeting sound bites, and – unless you are being ironic – you soon look ridiculous.

Social media create a ‘long tail’ in communication. Uniformity becomes impossible as candidates have to create authentic responses to the niche audience they are communicating with.

The generic party brand and message might be important, but not as important as in the days when media was broadcast, not social. You will almost necessarily have to go beyond any generic messages if you want to have any kind of authentic online interaction.

Insurgent policy: The internet is a collective endeavour, without any central directing authority. If you are going to harness the internet to mobilise the Conservative party, you need to appreciate that it will no longer be possible to have a central directing authority control the party the way it has in the past.

With a broader, looser membership base, the party base will be less deferential.

With open primary selection, candidates will answer outward to their constituents, not merely inward to the hierarchy and whips.

The party must become insurgent in not only style, but in outlook.

To a certain kind of Westminster grandee, that alone would put them off the idea of change. But maybe that is the problem. Perhaps the Tory party has been run for too long as though it belongs to a certain kind of grandee in SW1, the property of those who are a little bit too comfortable with the way things are.

Contemporary Conservatism is too at ease with a failed elite in Whitehall; with central bankers that ran the economy into the ground; with Europhile mandarins keen to sign us up to more Brussels; with an inept, self-regarding administrative class that thought it could control the level of CO2 in the atmosphere, but, it turns out, could not even control our own borders.

Insurgent Conservatism means that we would become the party of change.  From Disraeli, to Thatcher and – yes, even to Cameron – the Tories have been at their greatest not when they merely seek to conserve things, but when they look to overturn the way things are.

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Show comments
  • ManOfKent

    If the Tories are like HMV do tell who has bought out the Tories because HMV was bought out by what EMI many decades ago.

  • Brian Corbett

    What’s a ‘dinning club’? Somewhere where loud-mouthed politicians do their best to stimulate Global Warming by creating large volumes of hot air – and no enlightenment?

    Carswell is the future of the conservative Party in that he recognises the mess his party and the country’s politicians and politicians at large are in…..

    A complete disconnect between Them and Us, caused by a far too narrow gap between the parties and their ideologies (all Big State Social Democrats) and the recruitment of Whitehall staffers and MPs from an absurdly small social and educational background.

    We need many, many more biologists in all areas of Government and Whitehall, since we understand both evolution, competition and Natural Selection on the one hand, and statistics on the other.

    PPE/Arts Oxford graduates know absolutely nothing about how The Real World Works – as the UK’s government since WW2 so well illustrates.

  • Ben Kelly

    I’d much rather the Tory party just died an ignominious death please. Just die. Then perhaps it could be replaced with a real conservative party. The Tory party has no principles except a vague passion for ‘the market’, other than that they are happy to be political chameleons as long as they get in power. In the last fifty years what has the so called Conservative Party actually managed to conserve!? Talking about the Tories being great and referring to Thatcher, who destroyed the Tory party base in much of the country for a long time to come, surrendered much sovereignty to the EU, did nothing to reverse the degeneration of education, and really conserved nothing and had little principle beyond free market economics, and Cameron… well, the head of Blu-Labour, a slippery charlatan, an oily salesman, the words ‘greatest’ and Cameron shouldn’t be anywhere near each other in any context.

    No, no thank you, the Tory Party, born to rule, aristocrat, weak, roll over and tickle my belly, pathetic party is no conservative party at all. They had a great hand in the victory of Cultural Marxism, egalitarianism, political correctness, the bloated state, the cradle to grave nanny welfare culture, the sad decline of the armed forces, the loss of independence to the EU empire of politicians and bureaucrats, the crumbling of our institutions- you really cannot blame all this on Labour, the Tory Party did MORE than there fair share to contribute to all this and more. Whenever they did make a stand they eventually surrendered and capitulated, they soon adopted opposition policies when they thought it would bring a snifter of power. The Tory Party have failed this country in an utterly unforgiveable way.

    No, no; please just collapse, implode, fall apart, die, crumble, wither, FUCK OFF. Only then can a real conservative party stand up and actually conserve what is still good, right and cherished in British culture and society.

  • Cambridge Blogger

    A refreshingly smart and sensible think-piece, although over-playing the transformative impact of social media on political dialogue, i.e. candidates and parliamentarians undoubtedly closer to easy interaction with many potential voters than in broadcast era, but the content of (especially tweet-mediated) social media communication is unlikely to lead to a new depth of relationship between voter and politician.

  • ArchiePonsonby

    I thought that this bloke was the Coming New Tory Man? Load of centralist, half-baked claptrap. Tony Blair, anyone? The Tories are done for, face it!

  • Smithersjones2013

    Oh dear not Carswell peddling his delusional gimmick that will allow Labour and the Unions to infiltrate, ideologically corrupt and then hijack the Tory Party (a la Falkirk).

    Oh wait a minute Cameron has pretty much done that.

    Even if it were not hijacked by further diluting the Conservative Party message on a remote and anonymous medium surely the Tories would further lose what little identity they have left and given their real problem is that no one knows or trusts what they stand for anymore surely all that would achieve is their further decline.

  • CraigStrachan

    “Why not let anyone become an ‘iMember’ for £1 a year?”

    Um, because you’d never sign up enough iMembers to cover the lawsuit with Apple?

  • thanksdellingpole

    Vote UKIP!

  • andagain

    With open primary selection, candidates will answer outward to their constituents, not merely inward to the hierarchy and whips.

    I’m not sure I see why destroying Party discipline is supposed to benefit the Party. People are supposed to be electing a government, after all. This suggests to me that open primary selection makes most sense for the people who do not have to be bound by party dicipline, and do need to appeal to a wide section of the electorate. That would mean mayoral candidates, and the Party’s candidate for Prime Minister.

  • Makroon

    Fascination with gadgetry, in middle age, is just a sign of immaturity and lack of bottom. Bore off Carswell !

  • Wessex Man

    It never ceases to amaze me just where these Tory MPs get their ideas from, do they not meet real people? how do people like this get elected?

    A few years ago I was worried about the direction of the Tory Party, now I don’t give a monkey’s, fools like this merely send droves after droves of decent people over to UKip.

  • MirthaTidville

    Or you could just bring in some proper Conservative Policies and underline your Conservative values to appeal to the voters……Oh silly me you cant…you`ve still got `Dave`

  • Boo80

    My big worry about the more direct forms of iDemocracy is the same problem with polling.

    If you pick the right question, you can get the desired answer.

    Primaries are not a bad idea. I would suggest teaming up with Labour on this. They are inching towards primaries, and you could transfer the running costs of candidate selection to the public and get some economy of scale.

    I don’t think public funding will work for the bulk of political campaigning, but it might be palitable if it was sold as paying for the basic running of a party. Reduce this overhead, and perhaps we can start reducing reliance on big donors.

    • Wessex Man

      prehaps the Labour Lib/Dems and Tories should all amalgamate and allow UKip a free run at Governing!

  • Mike Barnes

    You could send me a free iPad and I still wouldn’t vote for Dave sorry.

    Although to be fair you should be allowed to vote online in elections. If you can do postal voting for some people, there’s no reason not to let me do it online.

    Send me an election card, I enter a code into a website and vote. Easy.

    • Daniel Maris

      And then someone in Beijiung hacks into the system and manipulates the vote…er no thanks.

      Scanning of votes might work I suppose.

      • Jorge Orwell

        Scanning of votes was tried approx 8 years ago, I was involved in the pilot conducted by Liverpool Council

    • Wessex Man

      We have a democracy of sorts, online voting should never be allowed nor postal voting both so open to abuse. If people can’t be bothered to get off their backsides they should lose the right to vote.

  • Tom Tom

    This is bunkum from the Gay Marriage and Windmill Party. How can you expect to recruit Pirate Party believers in personal freedom and data protection to the Party of Willie Hague with his contemptuous disdain and sycophantic apologia for US Espionage ? The Party of Hedgies and City Fundies and the likes of Lord Freud who think foodbanks are really buffet lunches…..? It is beyond parody that Carswell thinks those who use the Internet to escape politicians really want it turned into another BBC with licence and registration and ID card by the likes of Theresa May. This Ruling Elite is determined to extinguish Freedom and Individualism

  • HookesLaw

    ‘then along came the internet’ which propagates an endless load of garbage. The internet is the death-knell of sanity and Carswell want to bank his future on it.

    People used to join the Conservative party to play snooker

  • Bluesman_1

    “Some party strategists fear that we may never be able to win
    an outright majority again. Will we, they muse privately, forever have to
    depend on a coalition with the Liberal Democrats?”

    “Our problem rather has been an almost complete absence of serious effort to change the way that we run our party and seek to mobilise mass support.”

    Citizen Carswell, you may be right; but it is so much easier to misappropriate public funds (we could call it State Funding) than engage with the “little people”. Much more pragmatic, don’t you think?

    Which of the two options will your pal, who you would vote for again, favour?

  • EM

    Does that make UKIP the independent record store? Doing things ‘the old way’ yet experiencing huge popularity of late.

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