By Jack Elsom
We want to hear your ideas, Jack! What Conservative policies would you like to see in our election manifesto?
If I had a quid for every time I’ve received a central office dispatched email of this kind – one which urges me to send in policy proposals – I’d have about six pounds. Granted, you can’t buy much with six pounds (you can just about get to zone 6, although heaven knows why you’d want to) but it’s still quite a substantial amount. Six whole times the Conservative Party, the party of government, has asked me, Jack, a humble student, for manifesto contributions! They certainly do seem keen, don’t they?
If I were a moron, I’d be flattered.
But alas, us sensible folk recognise that this is just a routine ‘you’re a vital cog in the party machine and we’re listening to you’ call, which we know really translates as ‘you know we don’t give a toss what you think but we have to appear interested so you renew your membership’. We get it, no hard feelings. Now, no doubt that the more naive recipients of these emails are currently at their desks hastily scribbling down Britain’s new industrial strategy in time for the next round of Brexit trade talks or alternatively setting out their solution to reduce NHS waiting times. If this sounds like you, put the pen down, stop drafting the next Autumn Statement and go and do something worthwhile. We all know that Theresa May doesn’t want to hear what Jude from Deptford thinks about climate change, so let’s not waste anyone’s time in pretending so.
Having painted such a pessimistic (though positively accurate) picture of Conservative Party outreach, you’re probably expecting the remainder of this article to pose a sort of rallying cry, a call-to-arms among rank-and-file members demanding the attention of CCHQ to listen to our views. Sorry, not quite. I actually believe that the party’s membership should not be consulted on any policy matters whatsoever. Why? Because we’re all nutters. I’m certainly not a nutter, you’re probably thinking. Let me explain.
There are three primary actors operating within a party system. Party elites; these are people who occupy a formal position within the party such as MPs, advisors or press officers for example. Party members, such as myself, who pay subscription, attend party events and help to canvass during election campaigns. Swing voters; these people have no intrinsic loyalty to any party, however, they could be persuaded to vote for the Conservatives if our manifesto reflects their individual preferences closer than any alternative offering.
Of these, two are part of the formal party structure and therefore possess some influence; party elites and party members. However, while party elites tend to favour more moderate views which often align with swing voters, party members seem to prefer a more radical policy agenda.
Students of politics recognise that it is actually pretty irrational to join a party. It would incur a financial cost as well as other opportunity costs such as time spent campaigning and attending meetings. Furthermore, your contribution is likely to be so statistically insignificant to the overall outcome of the election, coupled with the knowledge that you cannot be excluded from the benefits a Conservative government would bring, it would be a rational decision not to join. So why do we?
For party elites, the incentive to join spouts from material benefits such as a salary or the chance to run for office. Rank-and-file members, however, can expect to receive no such benefits and instead join for an entirely different reason; to be granted an ideological stake in the party. We join because we believe that it is the best way to advance the Conservative views which we so passionately hold. Therefore, while party elites are far more willing to build policy to attract crucial swing voters (my time spent in the Conservative Research Department confirms this), ordinary members are typically less compromising and, let’s be honest, often occupy a pretty radical free-marketeer position which just doesn’t wash with the chunk of the electoral market which we need to gain votes from.
Focus groups, surveys, policy polling. The collection of public opinion from potential Conservative swing voters in marginal constituencies must drive our party’s next manifesto. We have to be utterly obsessed with winning, even if it slightly clashes with our existing beliefs. As members, we have to come quietly. In different times, I’d consider promoting the Conservatives as a policy-seeking, not a purely vote-seeking party. However, I’d much rather sideline the views of our members and adhere to moderate swing voters if it means barring Jeremy Corbyn from Downing Street tenancy, which is a prospect so frightening that hopefully we can all take a few years off sending in our manifesto wish-lists and getting inevitably cross when they’re not included. Let the party elites, in conjunction with moderate swing voters, steer policy direction for now, and let members take a back seat and do what we do best; good ol’ fashioned door knocking.