Breadcrumbs

Towards a better Conservative Party

(This quotation is also attributed to Rahm Emmanuel)

Introduction

I have prepared this paper for the 1922 Executive and for a group of Conservatives from within and outside Parliament, some with experience of CCHQ, from all parts of the country, and from all wings of the party, who want a better Conservative Party.

Obviously, the outcome of the next general election will depend upon how well the Conservatives run the government over the next few years, and there are many lessons about policy which need to be addressed.  However, there is also widespread dismay amongst MPs, candidates, donors, activists, members, supporters and voters about how the Conservative Party conducted the 2017 General Election Campaign.  There are many common themes of concern –

  • the way the manifesto was drafted with so little consultation;
  • a campaign dominated by austerity and failing to offer hope or vision;
  • an obsession with a few narrow soundbites;
  • a failure to engage so many voters under the age of 45, particularly young professionals and university students;
  • a lack of understanding or capacity to strike the right tone, to adopt the best style and to use the influence of social media;
  • a failure to provide a convincing narrative about Jeremy Corbyn, beyond demonization and vilification which Labour social media counteracted;
  • a lack of any response to Momentum;
  • slow rebuttal and response to events, and then frequently the wrong tone;
  • an overbearing attitude from CCHQ towards candidates and others;
  • a general lack of respect felt more widely by the electorate, particularly by Labour sympathising communities and interests;
  • poor strategy: there appeared to be one and that was – ironically – to be more inclusive (e.g. of those just about managing) but became exclusive (of the elderly, of business, and of young professionals)
  • etc.

Much of this was due to the lack of warning that CCHQ had in advance of the election.  But many of these issues are not particularly new, and they reflect an underlying malaise in the Conservative Party –

  • an inability to engage help when it is offered from outside, such as from business people;
  • a failure over a long period to address declining membership and declining engagement with members and supporters;
  • over-reliance on a small pool of very large donors (perceived to devalue our commitment to the less fortunate);
  • a tendency to blame and to find scapegoats when things go wrong, rather than to learn for the future from success and failure;
  • an introverted, defensive attitude amongst people in the party at all levels;
  • crisis management, rather than planning for the long term.

The new Chief Executive is embarked on developing a new business plan to prepare the Party for next year’s local elections (which will be critical in London in particular) and for the possibility of another surprise General Election.  Even if the next General Election is years off, much urgent work needs to be done.  But there remains a serious risk that immediate pressures continue to crowd out planning for the longer term. 

Today’s Conservative Party may seem to be in a worse state than for many years, with fewer members than Labour or even than Momentum and far fewer activists, but this situation is best used to develop a shared understanding about –

  • why things in the Conservative Party tend to go wrong when they do; and
  • how we can better learn from these events so that the same mistakes are not repeated.

This is not to undervalue so much that is good about CCHQ, nor the commitment of the staff and volunteers.  Nor is this paper intended as criticism of the present Leader of the Conservative Party, or the present Chairman, or any past leader or chairman.  Indeed, learning from past mistakes is best achieved by setting aside the tendency to blame, on the basis that we know of nobody who works for or serves the Conservative Party in any capacity who wants anything but success for the Conservative Party.

However, in a failing organisation, which is beset by an atmosphere of crisis, it can be very difficult to talk truthfully about why things have gone wrong.  People within the organisation can feel very inhibited and fearful, particularly if there is an atmosphere of blame.  There tend to be lots of meetings where things going wrong are discussed, and decisions are agreed, but the people then leave those meetings and privately tell their friends why the decisions taken will not work.  And the people at the very top of the organisation are the very last to know that things are still going wrong, because people do not tell them, or they cannot listen or hear what is being said.  It is likely that anyone who has worked in CCHQ during the past few months will recognise some or all of these characteristics.

The importance of “culture”, attitude and behaviour

Everything described above are outcomes, reflecting how the Conservative Party has come to be managed and led over a long period.  They are also symptoms of deeper and more fundamental characteristics of our organisation and culture.  If we want to improve the performance of the organisation, we are most unlikely to be successful unless we are prepared to address shortcomings in our organisation and culture, because culture in particular tends to determine the way people in an organisation behave, and the way they behave determines how an organisation functions. 

What do we mean by the word “culture”, since this is a loose term which means different things in different contexts?

The values of an organisation are embedded in its culture. Put simply, the culture determines what we do, how we do it and what we do not do. An organisation’s values and attitudes pervade the people in the organisation, and the habits of behaviour which its people have adopted over the years. These attitudes and habits of behaviour reflect the values of the organisation, and whether they are explicit and talked about, or just implied, learned and understood, they reinforce the attitudes people are expected to adopt, and therefore the way they behave. 

A bad culture gives permission for people to adopt negative attitudes such as cynicism, selfishness, dishonesty, lack of integrity, personal assertiveness, closed minds, bullying and sometimes even disregard of the law.  A good culture rewards positive attitudes such as commitment, selflessness, collaboration, openness, being good at listening, honesty, transparency, intolerance of bad behaviour, and meticulous compliance with the letter and spirit of the law. 

The Conservative Party’s culture reflects our long history and the accumulation of the inherited understandings about how things are done.  In the Conservative Party, most of us will know of examples of most of the attitudes and types of behaviour described above.  In order to improve the performance of the organisation, and its reputation, the leadership of the organisation must decide explicitly and publicly which attitudes and behaviour they want to promote, and which they should be calling out.

How do you improve “culture”, attitude and behaviour?

It is of course impossible to challenge bad attitudes or bad behaviour unless people – that is everybody – can talk about them.  It is one of the characteristics of a failing organisation that people cannot talk about the things that really matter.  It is the values, attitudes and types of behaviour (for example, whether people compete with each other, or collaborate) which determine how well the organisation performs. 

It is up to the leadership of any organisation to initiate discussion about values, attitudes and behaviour, and in this case this depends upon the Chairman, the Chief Executive and the Board of the Conservative Party.  There may already be some references to standards of behaviour in Conservative Party staff contracts, and in the staff handbook.  There is also now a Code of Conduct for the Leadership and Management of Volunteers which was introduced following recent events.  However, none of these is as comprehensive or explicit as a published mission statement, backed by a set of values which are explained and protected by leaders. 

This takes time and persistence.  Leaders must be careful not to challenge too much all at once.  It is wise to choose three or four issues on which there will be a measure of shared understanding. This is likely to be enough challenge, but avoids challenging too much too quickly at any one time.  Leaders must be aware when they are trying to change a culture, so they must also accept that even a single “rewarding” (by promotion for instance) of someone who behaves in a way that is not part of the desired culture, damages the whole message about behaviour.  Again and again, there are examples of leaders who damage their whole effort with just one “bonus” or promotion for the wrong person.

The Board needs first to set out explicitly the mission of the Conservative Party.  This will seem an otiose exercise to some, since we all tend to think our mission is so obvious.  It may not be so obvious to the wider membership and to the public, and it is likely that the precise wording of a mission statement will be a subject for wide and varied debate.  Some will find a text too bland and obvious, but others will find the text too narrow and limiting. 

Then we need to draft a Statement of Values, with sufficient explanation about what these values mean and how it is expected that people will apply them to their work for the Party.  It is perhaps surprising that, despite political parties being so much part of public life, so little thought has been given to applying the Seven Principles of Public Life to them and what they do.[1]  Over time, this could form the basis of a fuller Code of Conduct, which is included in the conditions of membership of the Party, and in staff contracts.  Some companies have now developed a shorter “operating philosophy” rather than long lists of things which all too easily become ‘motherhood and apple pie’.

The requirement of strong and consistent leadership

But all this will have no relevance unless the Chairman, the CEO and the Board are totally united and committed to implementing the Mission Statement and the Statement of Values.  This will be the hardest part.  There is no evidence that there will be any significant change in attitude and behaviour in any organisation where the leadership are themselves not committed to the mission and values.  They must be prepared to lead by example, stand united behind the plan, and regard the programme to reform peoples’ attitudes and types of behaviour as part of their main effort, or there will not be any significant change.  The agreement of the text of the Mission and Values Statements is not the end of the process, but just the beginning.

Success also depends upon a high level of engagement, in this case with Party staff, and with members across the country.  This means listening and understanding what staff and members are saying, respecting and drawing on their knowledge and experience, before promoting the new Mission and Values Statements.  It requires a rolling programme of meetings and discussions, mentoring and training, involving everyone at all levels of the Conservative Party.

The Leader of the Conservative Party and the Cabinet also therefore need to be fully committed, so that the Chairman, Chief Executive and the Party Board are in no doubt that this is a priority. 

Mission of the Conservative Party

A mission statement can be bland and meaningless, or it can define goals, ethics and the way we make decisions and carry them out.  It should be a tool to understand, develop and to communicate our fundamental purpose, and the reasons behind it.  It should answer the basic questions:

  • What is the overriding purpose?
  • How do we achieve it?
  • For whom do we strive to achieve this?
  • And for what purpose?

DRAFT MISSION STATEMENT:

It is the mission of the Conservative Party to win elections so Conservatives can serve at all levels throughout the United Kingdom, and so secure the interests of all the people of the United Kingdom and of all human kind, of whatever race, colour, religion, gender or sexuality, and for future generations, and above all, to safeguard the national interest, and to advance the cause of freedom, democracy, equality, prosperity and security.

Various comments have been made about this suggested text.  One has said it is too bland and the name of any of the main UK parties could be substituted for the Conservative Party.  Others have suggested that there should be reference to the importance of freedom of the individual, or of free markets, or the objective of a small state, or the need to support the least fortunate.  However, the party’s mission statement must not stray into matters of policy.  It is not intended as a definition of Conservatism, which is one that constantly evolves and adapts to the circumstances of the time.  It must be, as far as possible, all embracing and timeless.

The values of the Conservative Party

A values statement sets out the attitudes we expect Conservatives to adopt, which will guide the way Conservatives are expected to behave in their work for the Conservative Party.  The Conservative Party expects government and public bodies to apply the Seven Principles of Public Life: selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, leadership.[2]  These principles are intended to inform people of the attitudes which public servants are expected to adopt, and the positive ways in which they are expected to behave.  The Conservative Party itself should adopt a similar statement.

Conservatives Party Draft Statement of Values

  1. Selflessness

You must work for the Conservative Party, not to advance your personal ambitions or interests, but to serve the Party, the nation and the national interest at all times.  This involves working as a team, and resolving disagreements with others in such a way which promotes confidence and trust between you and your association, and builds up public confidence and trust in the Conservative Party as a whole.

  1. Integrity

You must fulfil your duties and obligations to the Conservative party responsibly, always acting in a way that is professional and that deserves and retains the confidence and trust of all those with whom you have dealings.  You must fulfil any fiduciary obligations to make sure party funds and other resources are used properly and efficiently, and that you conduct yourself and the affairs of the Conservative Party in accordance with the spirit, as well as the letter of law.  You must deal with the membership and with public effectively, efficiently, and sensitively, to the best of your ability.  You must not misuse your position, for example by using information acquired in the course of your work for the party, to further your private interests or those of others.  You must not accept gifts or hospitality or receive other benefits from anyone which might reasonably be seen to compromise your personal judgement or integrity.  You must not disclose Party information without authority.  (This duty continues to apply after you cease working with the Conservative Party).

  1. Commitment

You must be wholly committed to the Conservative Party, and to its mission and values, and not to any other political party. 

  1. Accountability

You must act and take decisions in an open and transparent manner. You must take responsibility for your own decisions, and be accountable for the decisions which are made on your behalf by those who work for you.  You have a duty to be aware of the mission and values of the Conservative Party and to make others aware. If you believe that you are being required to act in a way which conflicts with these values, the appropriate body in the Conservative Party must consider your concern, and make sure that you are not penalised for raising it.  If you have a concern, you should start by talking to [the appropriate person]. If you become aware of actions by others which you believe conflict with this code you should report this to [the appropriate person]; alternatively you may wish to seek advice from [a nominated officer]. You should report evidence of criminal or unlawful activity to the police or other appropriate regulatory authorities. (For employees, HR management issues are covered separately.)

  1. Openness and transparency

Information should not be withheld from other members of the Party or from your work colleagues unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.

  1. Honesty

You must set out the facts and relevant issues relating to any matter truthfully, and correct any errors as soon as possible.  You must use the Party resources only for the authorised purposes for which they are provided.  You must not deceive or knowingly mislead anyone at any time.  You must not be influenced by improper pressures from others or the prospect of personal gain or advancement.

  1. Good Leadership

Those with responsibility for leading others in the Conservative Party must exhibit these principles in their own attitudes and behaviour. They should actively promote and robustly support the principles, and be willing to challenge poor attitudes or behaviour wherever it occurs.

Conclusion

The Conservative Party is the better party.  Governments of the Left tend to fail to sustain prosperity, rising living standards, high levels of employment, or environmental protection.  Governments of the Left have even tended to fail to deliver better public services or greater equality.  Yet, the Left often succeed in claiming moral superiority over the Conservatives, because we are tainted by the portrayal of the poor attitudes and bad behaviour of some in our party.  We do not put our purpose and values to the fore.  The Conservative Party could be the first major party in the UK to adopt a formal mission and values statement.  This will begin to challenge the misconceptions that we are “the party of the rich” or that we are unconcerned about people who are less fortunate.  This will also make it clear that we expect to live up to our own values, and that we are determined to lead in that spirit.  It is also a challenge for us to demonstrate that these words are not just for presentation.

ENDS

Bernard Jenkin MP, House of Commons, LONDON    

Bernard is Chair of PACAC (the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee) and MP for Harwich and North Essex.  Bernard has also been appointed a Visiting Fellow in Marketing and Reputation at Henley Business School, where he gives occasional lectures.      

11th July 2017