Speech to the Conservative Women's Organisation's Annual Conference
"I want to talk about a single simple thing: how we organise and campaign to win elections. Because the only reason this party exists is to secure the elections of Conservatives into public office. And while we've done really well in local government, we've done poorly in national elections.
I'm not going to take you through the full-on gloomfest analysis I did at Blackpool. It hasn't changed since then. We've been losing support since 1992 among the middle classes, in the cities outside London, north of Watford Gap, we're in third place among ethnic minority voters. Most importantly for today's conference we've been losing support among women. For the first time since women fully got the vote in 1928 we had fewer votes in May from women than from men.
We can change all that.
We'll need a good leader, good policies, and we'll need to persuade people that our values are good ones. We'll need to become once again a party that is capable of appealing to a much wider swathe of the electorate than at present. After all, we've completely cracked the secret of getting 33% of the voters to support us. We've done it three times in a row, give or take, with only tiny increases. And it's nowhere near enough. If we are to have a chance of winning and serving our country in Government, we need to be attractive to millions more people, people who haven't considered themselves to be automatic Conservative supporters.
So it is necessary to have a good leader with broad popular appeal, and you have two to choose from. Necessary to reach out to millions more people. Necessary but not sufficient. In addition we need to rebuild our organisation so that once again we are the most modern, most forward-looking of the parties. In too many places we are simply incapable of carrying our message to the voters. We simply don't have the people or the organisation. Sorting that'll mean some hard decisions.
That was what led the board to draw up the 21st century party paper that was published soon after the May election.
What we proposed wasn't right, I know that. It was too centralised, too prescriptive. Change needs to work with the grain of what you think will work in your areas. But change we must have.
That's why work with the 1922 Executive has gone ahead to thrash out a consensus on key proposals, with a view to submitting to a ballot after the leadership election if constitutional change is required.
At a minimum this will introduce a process for de-selection of MPs, both to protect local associations and the MP. Everyone recognises that the Howard Flight case made clear that our current procedures need reform.
Second it will cover ways for MPs and leading councillors to be engaged much more closely with areas, and potentially with more MPs on the Party Board. This is not somehow giving something to the MPs - rather it is requiring them to take shared ownership in the future direction of the party.
Third, we must look at a way forward on groupings and shared resources. Where we can't campaign effectively we need to act. Since A 21st Century Party ideas, many proposals for groupings have come forward. My own Association in Horsham has a general meeting on Friday to discuss a potential merger with Crawley's - now our top target seat. But there are many other models. One size does not fit all. In Liverpool last night, where there used to be a formidable Conservative Party organisation, I was hearing of plans to form a single Liverpool Association to start the long slow process of rebuilding our capability in that great city.
There is now general agreement that where an association is failing to meet some basic minimum performance standards there must be an ability for the Area Management executive to intervene. We do not have the right to sit complacently on our hands when we know for certain that the party in many parts of the country is incapable of campaigning effectively. That would be a gross betrayal of everything those who went before us toiled to build.
None of this matters in itself. Organisation, groupings, campaign centres, agents, areas - all these useful only to the extent to which they contribute to our ability to campaign and win elections.
We're not a supper club. Yes social events are good. But we exist to campaign.
And we're not a savings bank. Many associations are sitting on substantial cash reserves. I don't want to grab them for the centre - though if offered I might not turn you down! But I do want you to use it for campaigning whether in your own seat or another. One target seat last election sitting on reserves of several hundred thousand refused to use the money for the election. They said they were keeping it for 'a rainy day'.
Well, how rainy does it have to get? An election is a rainy day. That money has been raised so that we can campaign, not sit around congratulating ourselves on our thriftiness.
One quick word about candidate selection -which I'll say a little more about in a moment. When Theresa May was Chairman, she trialled different methods. The one that really worked was selection by open primary, where two or three finalists were selected by the conventional means, and then submitted to a vote by members of the public in an open meeting.
This is an admirably open method, gets terrific exposure for the party and for the new candidate, engages a much wider range of voters in the process who then feel some sense of ownership in the person who may be their next MP. But more than that, where it's been tried it led to an influx of new members and more importantly new activists. It really was a shot in the arm. So if there's any association that feels that it is in perfect condition, with as many members and activists throughout the age range as they can possibly need, that association should feel completely free to turn its back on this possibility. To any that feel there may still be some scope for improvement, I commend the open primary.
Now I want to talk about women. No one who's been around as long as I have - who was almost literally born into this party - has any illusion about how much we have depended on women. Women have been the backbone of our organisation, and around a quarter of our councillors are women. So how have we got to the position where we have only 17 women MPs, when women form 52% of the electorate? How is it that we have only one woman on the Party Board? That in the senior reaches of our Party women are so under-represented?
That has to change. I hope that in the elections to board positions next spring there will be able women standing and being elected to the board. I only need look around the room to know that the ability is there in abundance. I don't want tokenism. I don't want time-serving. I want raw capability, and how can we deliver that when we are only calling on half the pool of talent at our disposal?
And as we select candidates for Parliamentary seats over the next twelve months, it is absolutely essential to our success that we field many more women candidates than before. Just look at any television commercial for any company. The people they depict will be as many women and men, and will be ethnically diverse, just as today's Britain is ethnically diverse. They do this not from any obligation to be politically correct but because they want to sell their goods and products. They know that unless they show that they understand the landscape of modern Britain they will not succeed. If it's true for them it's even more true for us, because we aspire to govern the whole of modern Britain.
We have some very talented women on our list of Approved candidates. But not nearly enough. Please, all of us, search out, recruit, support and promote the capable talented women we all know who want to commit to public service in this way.
I know there are those who believe that part of the answer is for the Conservative Women's Organisation to be fully institutionalised within the Party's structures. I understand that. I also understand the argument that to do so would be retrograde, returning to an era when women had their separate place within the Party rather than a central role in the mainstream.
All I will say is that as a signal that the Conservative Party is again serious about the concerns of women, selecting many more women candidates is of infinitely greater importance than what we do with our internal structures and hierarchies. If we are to resist, and I understand why we might, the case for all women short-lists as a sure remedy for this most glaring deficiency, it would be bizarre indeed, alone among the major parties, then to institutionalise a separate women's organisation.
For we must be one single unified party. There must be an end to the blame game where different sections of the party blame each other for the party's collective deficiencies. We must be a single party with a single purpose, to campaign, to win elections so that Conservatives can again serve our country in Government as we already serve so many of our communities in local Government. That is our single solitary purpose.
This can be a great moment for this party. Our leadership issues will be resolved in four weeks while the others' drag on into eternity. We have great days ahead if we have the courage to seize our own destiny. Let us go out, look out, reach out, be again the party of the future, and win."