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Davis: Reaching out to the new communities of modern Britain

Speech to Newmarket Conservatives

"Recently, I have been setting out clear politics to improve the lives of people across Britain, but today I would like to talk about how we take the first step towards delivering those goals.

Because the truth is that without updating our party organisation of fighting the battles of today, we will never be able to win the election of tomorrow. And if we don't win, we can't begin to put our policies into action.

It is true that the Conservative Party organisation has been a much feared election winning machine in the past. Visitors from around the world flocked to Central Office to see how we did it!

In the past, the Conservative Party has won elections because it has constantly adapted to meet the challenges of the day. We hold to our principles and we apply those principles in a practical way to make lives better. When we do that we win.

But we also win when we run our party in the way we run the country. With a respect for our history and tradition but a thoroughly modern approach to the way we do business.

Ahead of the game

We can trace the roots of our current party organisation back to the Reform Act of 1832 when constituencies were required to maintain an electoral register for the first time, and political parties formed 'registration associations' to encourage their supporters to register and vote.

This new system of registration was a challenge but the newly emerging Conservative Party was the first to see the opportunities and soon Conservative Associations were thriving across the country: in boroughs and counties.

We were ahead of the game. But since then, much has changed.

I am a Modern Conservative - I have spelled out what that means in terms of how we will behave in opposition and how we will take on the duty of governing our country.

I have described the kind of country I want our party to serve in government.

A country of opportunity - where everyone has the chances in life I had when I was young.

A country in which the bottom quarter of society have the same opportunities as those at the top.

I have made it clear that as Modern Conservatives we look to Britain's future. We love our country as it is today rather than yearn for some misty eyed nostalgic vision of Britain's past.

And the same applies to our own party organisation.

We learn from our past successes and we do our business in a modern professional way.

And today Mr Chairman I want to address some of the issues that we face and outline what I think we need to do to recreate that election winning machine that I described. I want to put the Conservative Party ahead of the game again.

Earlier this year, hastily, in the days immediately after our election defeat, proposals were put forward to change our party constitution. Changes that would have undermined the rights of constituencies, imposed a dangerous centralised power over Members of Parliament and created a creaking bureaucratic organisation rather than the streamlined structure we need to face the challenges of today's political world.

This approach is folly. Our task is to win again right across Britain and that means having a vibrant organisation in every part of the country. In every city as well as every shire. And to do that we need to make our organisation more local not more centralised.

So constituencies remain the building block of our organisation. And constituencies should retain the vital right to select candidates.

Under my leadership, MPs will have the freedom to speak out - and be treated like grown-ups.

I have also seen suggestions that there should be all-women shortlists in some circumstances.

I support efforts to ensure that there are more women candidates and MPs - indeed I raised the number of women candidates to 30 per cent when I was party chairman - but I am against such shortlists. I support association autonomy.

In the end, these are local decisions which must be made by party members. We must move ahead by persuasion not central diktat.

We clearly have a huge task to win against Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the next election.

We need to learn from our successes and failures in May. I have taken a close look at those results and have taken on board some important lessons.

Many of our best results were in seats where candidates fought very intensive local campaigns. Often candidates were fighting a seat for the second time. Many are rightly now being urged to fight their seat for a third time. That is a huge 12 year commitment that we are expecting in some cases.

No longer is it good enough for a parliamentary candidate to show up weeks before Election Day. They now lead the party's campaigning effort at a local level. We need to learn from their experiences and understanding of their local communities. I will want experienced candidates to be much more involved in our policy development and party organisation decision making.

Success at General Elections is often built on success in local elections. In the last few years we have rebuilt our local government base but we need to expand it further - much further. Further into our urban centres, especially in the big cities. Our best councillors have shown us what needs to be done. We must learn from the success of Conservatives in power up and down our country and when recruiting parliamentary candidates where better to start the search than among the thousands of Conservatives who are already serving their communities in local government?

But we also need to attract more diverse council candidates. Frankly we need to emulate the other Parties and attract more young people to consider standing for Councils. If the LibDems and Labour can do it so can we. Our youth organisation is larger than the LibDems and Labour put together - but we lose them when they leave university. We must keep track of where they move to and retain their active involvement in the Party.

But vibrant constituency associations are not just about candidates and councillors. People will join our Party when they feel they are involved, when they believe their voice will be heard. So my commitment to constituencies as building blocks is based on a real belief that we will only win the next election if we have a strong grassroots structure. That is why constituencies should have rights and responsibilities.

A Party that likes Britain and looks like Britain

I have said that I committed to giving local people the right to select their candidate. But alongside that right come responsibilities.

When I was Party Chairman I initiated a number of experiments to improve our candidate selection process. But there is much more to do.

And while it is the right of constituencies to select their local candidate they have a duty to the wider Party. I would expect local Party officers to co-operate with Central Office in making use of modern selection techniques.

I am convinced of the need for us to have a much more diverse parliamentary party. Not only do we look out of touch with modern Britain, but we are missing out on the talents of women and members of ethnic minorities who we are failing to attract as candidates and failing to get selected in winnable seats.

I intend to do something about this - it is a minimum requirement of a modern Conservative Party.

However - as I have said - I will not tackle this problem by imposition but by hard work.

The first thing to tackle is the candidates list. It needs to be shorter and made up of the very best men and women who are prepared to work hard to win. I would expect Associations to work alongside Central Office to choose a shortlist for local interview using Central Office's knowledge of the candidates and the local Association's knowledge of their constituency.

But let me emphasise those words - "work alongside" - not be dictated to, not be told what to do by Central Office but take advice and then decide for themselves.

And I will make an all out effort to headhunt and support women and ethnic minority candidates so that we no longer miss out on this huge pool of talent. If by the middle of this parliament, our candidates list does not reflect today's Britain we will have failed.

We need to do more to attract local candidates who want to fight the seat in which they live. They should be encouraged, given training and support

And believe me, I know what a big commitment being a candidate is. Not just mentally, emotionally and physically but also financially. I fear that it is such a huge financial commitment that we are losing out on some great candidates who cannot afford to be selected early in a Parliament, for fear of what it will cost them. We cannot afford to lose some of what could turn out to be our best candidates.

This is why I propose to establish a Candidates Trust Fund, which would be used solely in those target seats in which candidates are selected very early on. It won't be available to everyone, but it will provide some much needed support for those candidates who clearly need it. The Fund will be under the auspices of an independent Board, one step removed from the Party bureaucracy.

Initiatives like this are vital because we expect more from our candidates than ever before.

The right of a constituency to select their candidate should be subject to a minimal threshold. Associations that are not functioning or have so few members that they are not viable would have to accept greater involvement from the centre. With autonomy comes responsibility.

And one of those responsibilities is to make a properly informed professional choice of the person most likely to win their seat for the Party.

When I was Chairman I worked closely with Angela Browning, who looked after our Lib Dem campaigning. For our target Lib Dem seats we carried out a survey of local voters to find out what qualities they valued in their local MP, what sort of person they thought would best represent them.

This survey was put together as a presentation for the selection committee which they reviewed at each stage of the selection process. Angela or one of the senior CCO staff attended the selection meetings and offered guidance throughout. This was not interference - it was partnership. And it worked. Selection committees kept their eye on the ball and we chose some excellent candidates who took the fight to the Liberals and won.

This system should operate in all selections in Conservative held and target seats. I know it will result in more local candidates, more women and more candidates from a range of different backgrounds. And it will result in more winning candidates. So we are going to do it.

A new kind of conference - reviving debate

I also want to make some significant changes to our annual conference - and before anyone says it, I first outlined these before we went to Blackpool this year.

Our conference has become too far removed from its members, too safe and usually too bland.

I said that one of our aims must be to increase membership participation if we are ever to create the levels of involvement that we need to thrive as a modern party.

And the first place to start is with the conference.

I want to see our conference take place over a weekend - starting on a Thursday afternoon and ending on Sunday lunchtime - so that younger people and working people can attend. And I want conference to be held in cities right across Britain - not just Bournemouth, Blackpool and Brighton but in Cardiff, Manchester, Birmingham or Glasgow. Our spring and autumn conference together should provide a platform for the party and our policies, but a forum too for our members to debate and test our ideas as we revive modern Conservative thinking.

So we will have conferences that move around Britain, that are held at times when working people can more easily attend and which have real debates and genuine participation.

Involving and renewing

As this leadership ballot has shown, our membership is in serious decline.

Part of the reason I have described is our failure to involve our members in debate. But there are more fundamental underlying reasons too.

Society is changing. People work harder and longer. They play hard too.

It is not true however to say that people are not interested in politics. I visit schools and universities where I find young people passionate about political causes and fundamental political issues: poverty, its causes and cure, the environment, equality and fairness in society.

Our task is to attract these people to our party and we need to be innovative and imaginative in the way we do that.

When I visit America I am struck by the success of the Republican Party in building a coalition of supporters. Indeed as far as I can tell it is virtually impossible to join the Republican Party yet there are countless ways of affiliating to the Republicans, to their campaigns and to support their candidates.

People are often prepared to make a short term commitment - to support us on an issue that matters most or join a campaign team to support a candidate that they like and respect.

We must radically reform our membership structure to allow many more ways of affiliating and subscribing to the Conservative Party, its values, causes and campaigns.

Registered Conservative supporters is a first step that many have advocated, but supportive pressure groups should be encouraged to affiliate, and campaigns should be designed to attract individual supporters and commitments. Candidates and councillors too should build a network of campaigners.

We must use the internet much more creatively and emulate the success of the Republicans who have created virtual communities of minority voters who previously would never have subscribed to the Party but are now passionate advocates for the Republicans in their own communities.

Doing less, better

Our Party is served by some excellent professionals - agents and campaigners, communications experts and political and policy advisers. Yet I don't think we are making the best of the talent available to us.

I want our professional organisation to be more focused and more specialised. A resource for constituencies but sufficiently flexible that we can fight campaigns where it matters.

We need organisation specialists to revive the Conservative Party in our great cities and to build the coalitions of support and affiliation that I have described

Campaigners who are up to date with the latest campaigning techniques who move from one campaign to the next, honing techniques and sharing expertise.

This means we focus on what really matters - getting Conservatives elected and building a modern, open, confident organisation.

I will change the way we train our people so that they are able to develop their talents and become real experts working together as a team for the whole of the Party.

If an agent is brilliant at running local by-election campaigns, that is what they should be doing for our Party.

If they are great fund-raisers let us put them in charge of raising the money for our target seats.

If they are organisational geniuses they should be reviving our Party in the cities or implementing the new boundaries.

The professional party matters. If it's not staffed with the best people, who are fully motivated and fully trained we all suffer. I'm determined that under my leadership we'll have the best resourced Central Office since the days of Margaret Thatcher.

The Conservative coalition

When the Conservative Party wins elections it wins with the support of a broad coalition of the British people. When we win, women vote for us, professionals vote for us, public servants vote for us. And younger people vote for us.

If we are to win again we must rebuild that coalition and reach out beyond it to the new communities of modern Britain, to our great cities.

That coalition will not be bound within the formal structures of a political party. It will be made up of people who share many of our values - but we will attract them through the causes that we champion and the campaigns that we fight.

A modern Conservative Party must have the right values and the right policies to win, but we must have the right organisation too. We must use all the talents at our disposal and all the resources we have. We must once again be ahead of the game. That's the way to win."

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