A journey into the Conservative grassroots, to find out what they really want.
“I dont think you get bluer than Beaconsfield.” Thats what the local Tory chairman Jackson Ng tells me when I visit the partys office in the South Buckinghamshire market town.
A bright blue door marks Disraeli House out from the other entrances into its arched building, lined with sash windows and climbing plants. Nestled in the old town, its surrounded by pretty houses of Victorian red brick and Tudor timber, and theres a parish church over the square that dates back to 900AD.
Driving me around for a quick tour in his electric BMW hatchback, we pass one of the towns best-known attractions: a mini model village, which is only slightly more postcard-perfect than its real-life home.
Beaconsfield has one of the biggest and most active Conservative associations in the country, boasting thousands of the 160,000 members nationally, and all three layers of local government here are run by Conservative councillors. But lately, its been more Tory heartache than heartland.
On 29 March, when the UK was originally supposed to leave the European Union, the association voted no confidence in its MP Dominic Grieve, who has been fighting for MPs influence over Brexit in parliament, calling for a second referendum and opposing no deal.
Wrangling over their MPs future continues. Though they cannot force him to stand down, their battle is a symptom of the angst afflicting Tory associations throughout the country.
“I think people are very emotional, and rightly so, about Brexit,” says Ng, a barrister who was elected chairman the same evening Grieve lost the confidence vote, having previously served as deputy for two years. “I dont think theres anything different [here] from whats happening nationally across both parties, or most of the parties.”
Now, for the first time, those disgruntled masses – well, hundreds of thousands – will be electing the next prime minister. After rounds of MPs voting, the final two Tory leadership candidates will be put to the members – if neither drops out of the contest.
“We expect Tory leadership candidates to come and visit, get to know our members”
“Were very excited,” grins Ng, who is wearing a smart grey suit and white shirt with silver cufflinks. “As one of the largest associations, we will expect Tory leadership candidates to come and visit us, to have hustings here, or to get to know our members, because every member carries a vote in the final two.”
Vintage campaign posters and photos of prime ministers past, and soon to be past – John Major, David Cameron and Theresa May – stare down at us. Douglas Hurd, the elder statesman and EU enthusiast who served as foreign secretary under Major and Margaret Thatcher, is also up there – he opened this office in 1993. The coaster for my drink bears an illustration of a bowling green.
Although we are in a “flagship” Conservatives association, Ng doesnt fit the stereotype of your average Tory member. Hes 36 this year, and ethnic Chinese, born to a Dutch-Indonesian Chinese mother and Singaporean Chinese father. Hes lived in Australia, Singapore, the Netherlands and the UK, settling in Beaconsfield in the EU referendum year of 2016, when he voted Remain.
Yet 44 per cent of Tory members are 65 and over (compared with Labours 29 per cent), with an average age of 57; 97 per cent are white (one percentage point above Labour); and 72 per cent of grassroots Tory members voted Leave in 2016, according to research by the Economic and Social Research Council-funded Party Members Project (PMP) conducted by Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.
Although Ng says “the Tory Party Im a member of is very diverse – case-in-point”, hes aware that the vast majority represent pro-Brexit views. A whopping 66 per cent of Tory members put no deal as their top option in a recent poll by The Times, and PMP research released in January found 79 per cent of Conservative Party members think voters made the right decision to Leave, and 75 per cent think its the countrys most important issue.
Ng believes the referendum result should be “respected”, and says of his Brexit-sceptic MP Dominic Grieve: “What I think and what I think members feel about it is that he ought to play a constructive role in delivering Brexit.”
His preferred leader would be the Brexiteer and former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab. “As a fellow lawyer, I believe in his stance that you cant take no deal off the table, it weakens our negotiating hand”.
“Boris Johnson would be hopeless as prime minister”
One of the 13 per cent of Tory members who would give their first preference to Raab, according The Times polling, Ng is also keen on what he has to say about a “a fairer Britain, regardless of whatever background you come from”, wanting good opportunities for his five-year-old twin girls “regardless of what school they go to”.
Yet its Raabs Brexiteer credentials that have made him such a prominent player in the Tory leadership race, second in popularity to Boris Johnson, who ranks first at 39 per cent among members.
Candidates who campaigned for Brexit, and are willing to countenance no deal, are thought to have the best chance with the grassroots. Some pro-European members fear this aspect of the leadership election, and the prospect of members deciding has compounded some Conservative MPs wariness of grassroots influence.
Before Theresa May announced her departure, one Remain-minded Tory minister complained to me about the need to change the leadership election rules, so small and unrepresentative was the membership, which was at one point a little over a year ago thought to have dipped to 70,000. Although it has since risen again due to Brexit and the prospect of voting for the next leader, nearly three-quarters of the membership are men and almost 90 per cent are ABC1s – the highest socioeconomic groups.
Yet the now infamous dismissal of local activists as “mad, swivel-eyed loons” by a close ally of David Cameron six years ago remains poignant, with the Conservatives central office and Westminster remaining disconnected from the grassroots.
“Perhaps Id better not say that Boris Johnson is dangerous,” says Caroline Strafford, when I ask what she thinks of the potential next prime minister. “But he is flamboyant – so you dont know what hell do next. Do we want such an unpredictable prime minister?”
The Beaconsfield resident, who has been a Conservative Party member for 63 years since the age of 17, and her husband John, 77, meet me for a pot of tea and some coffees at their favourite café on Beaconsfields high street.
The couple, whose initials are engraved on the gold signet ring John wears on his left-hand little finger, first met through the Chelsea Young Conservatives. They celebrated their golden wedding anniversary last year, and are excited about their upcoming boating holiday on Frances Canal du Midi.
Shire Tory veterans, theyve lived in Beaconsfield for 13 years, after 35 in nearby Gerrards Cross. John, in aviator-framed specs and a navy blue gilet, was chair of the Beaconsfield Conservative Association in 1985-90. After that, Caroline, smart in a quilted brown jacket, coral shirt, cords and pearl earrings, was deputy for five years, and ran the Bucks Supper Club for 15 years. She shows me a delicate gold watch they gave her when she stood down in 2003.
Neither, despite the Tory member stereotype, would like to see Johnson win. “Hed be hopeless as prime minister,” says John, who admires his campaigning skills but cant see him in No 10. Yet he does admit his popularity: “If MPs exclude Boris from the ballot paper therell be a disaster [among the members],” he warns, predicting an exodus.
Both prefer Raab, who theyve known since he was a little boy growing up in Gerrards Cross, and see as more serious about empowering the grassroots. John also admires the way Priti Patel has championed Tory members, and would have liked to see her run.
“Boris is clearly a flawed human being in all sorts of ways”
John chairs a group called the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, which he started up in 1994 to campaign for grassroots influence in the partys structures. “Tony Benn got it right,” he says of the left-wing firebrand who fought for similar recognition of ordinary members in the Labour Party.
He is also the Beaconsfield party member who proposed the original motion of no confidence in Dominic Grieve. He has since been suspended from the party for three months, apparently over a blogpost about “Nazisraelis” he wrote in 2006, which was dredged up in 2011 during the AV referendum when he chaired the Conservative Yes campaign. Yet he accuses the central party of “dirty tricks” – punishment for the no-confidence motion. (Ive asked CCHQ to comment, but havent heard back.)
Johns big battle is for local party members to choose their parliamentary candidates, party officials, and a bigger pool of leadership contenders than just the final two – a contest he sees as fixed by MPs.
“We were quite proud to be part of the swivel-eyed loons club!”
In his time fighting for Tory member rights, he now feels the grassroots are more emboldened – galvanised by Brexit, less “deferential” towards their MPs, and helped along by WhatsApp.
“Its pulled everyone together,” he says, lighting a cigarillo. “Someone said to me have you tried using WhatsApp? And I didnt even know what it was, showing my age!” he chuckles. “Now a number of constituencies have come to me for advice [on holding their MP or the central party to account].”
Indeed, the percentage of Conservative members who want more influence over policy jumped from 32.3 to 54.6 per cent from 2015-17. Their belief that the leadership respects members fell from 81.5 per cent in 2015 to 66.7 per cent in 2017, according to research seen by the New Statesman for a forthcoming book on Britains party members called Footsoldiers, by Professor Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London and his colleagues, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti.
Yet John is less optimistic about the partys future, arguing that low membership numbers could lead to a “wipeout” in a future general election without a recruitment drive.
As of 2016, 290 constituency associations had fewer than 100 members, and only 50 had over 500. John calculates that approximately 10-15 per cent of the membership are “activists” (ie. go out campaigning), and you need minimum 500,000 members fight a general election. He warns of an “existential crisis”.
Activism is dropping among Tory members; only 19.8 per cent attended a public meeting or hustings during the last general election campaign, down from 31.3 per cent in 2015, and only 21.3 per cent canvassed face to face or by phone (down from 36.5 per cent, with leaflet delivers falling from 43.5 per cent to 30.5 per cent), according to the exclusive Footsoldiers research.
Although Johnson is the frontrunner, he divides Tory activists. Even the self-professed original “swivel-eyed loon”, who says the insult was directed at him and a few colleagues – “We were quite proud to be part of the swivel-eyed loons club!” – is unenthusiastic.
“Lets be quite honest, Boris is clearly a flawed human being in all sorts of ways and he wasnt a terribly good foreign minister,” says Ed Costelloe, 72, who was chairman of Somerton and Frome Conservative Association in Somerset, until he resigned under David Cameron five years ago. He joined the party when he was 18.
“But equally the other question is who can win an election? And he probably could, all other things being equal. Whereas the other contenders, Raab, Hunt and Gove, I dont quite see having that curb appeal for the masses,” he says. “But I recognise he has serious flaws, so Ill perhaps wait to see who is number two on the list.”
Chair of the Grassroots Conservatives, a group set up in the Cameron era to give voice to “grassroots conservative values”, for over two years, Costelloe has a cartoon in his loo of Cameron riding into battle with a vast army behind him, telling the general beside him: “Oh theyre my loyal sRead More – Source