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John Oxley: After a defeat, where can the Conservatives find another Lord Woolton to reinvigorate CCHQ? | Conservative Home

John Oxley is a consultant, writer, and broadcasterHis SubStack is Joxley Writes.

If the next election turns out as badly as most Conservatives have come to fear, there will be plenty of time in opposition for reflections and recriminations. The Party has had fourteen years in power and most people on the right will have strong views about how it used them. The first centrepiece for this will likely be the leadership election that follows defeat. Already there is some unsubtle positioning around this from those who think they might have a tilt at the top job.

Recovery will depend on more than simply the policy offering of whoever ends up on top. The party will face serious organisational challenges, because of both defeat and the changing nature of campaigning. Just as vital as political leadership, but far less headline-worthy, will be the administrative running of the party. The Conservatives should be asking not just from where its next Churchill or Thatcher might come, but if it can find another Lord Woolton or Cecil Parkinson.

Lord Woolton is known to history for his management of the nation’s food during World War Two. For Tories, though, his real legacy is the party organisation as we know it. The day after the 1945 election, Churchill appointed him as party chairman. A smart administrator, who came to politics after a successful career in retail, Woolton approached the party with the same organisation and zeal that had raised him from humble origins to running the country’s foodstuffs during the war.

Woolton reinvigorated local associations, encouraging them to focus on fundraising and membership building and giving them the guidance to do so. He introduced financial aid for talented candidates to run for parliament and developed a more nationally driven perspective on campaigning. His idea of changing the party name to Union Party didn’t stick, but many of his other innovations did. He’s largely credited with the 1951 general election victory and started a golden age of party membership when the organisation was truly a mass presence.

Now that age seems over. At the time of the 2022 leadership election, membership of the party stood at around 170,000. In 2001, when members voted for the first time, there were more than a quarter of a million in number. Despite the political successes of the last decade, membership has dwindled, and many associations have atrophied. While some of this is due to social change, we have to ask why it has hit the Tories worse than other parties, and why the pipeline of turning voters into members has struggled so much.

It mostly seems a problem of will. Anecdotally, people talk of working in Westminster or CCHQ for the party and have never even been encouraged to join as members. If we are failing to capture even the very engaged, there’s little hope for those more distant, but interested in the party. As someone who has chaired an association, it often felt like the wider party offered little in the way of encouragement or support, relying too much on the existing enthusiasm and skills of whoever was in place locally – with encouragement from the centre often feeling half-hearted.

A telling example is the Conservative Campaigner App. Launched in the wake of the 2017 election, it was premised on improving campaigning by making it more social and, in the parlance of marketeers “gamified”, bringing together central and digital electioneering. Within days thousands of enthusiastic campaigners signed up for it, yet weeks later it seemed nothing was really happening with it, and it petered out. It now lingers as a ghost on the app store, not updated since May 2018.

These problems feel partly driven by the lack of clarity and good relations between the various wings of the party. Only the most committed members understand where the boundaries between the parliamentary party, CCHQ, and the voluntary party sit. Often their responsibilities seem opaque, and the structures and incentives vague. Rarely do you hear people in the membership and associations speak of CCHQ as anything beyond a source of frustration. Perhaps unfair, but a sign of a real problem to be engaged with. Overall, it is a lack of clarity, accountability, and often drive that would be extremely worrying in the private sector.

Such things are hard to fix in government. Like in 1945, however, opposition would provide an opportunity to both re-galvanise and rebuild. Perhaps more important than new leadership could be new appointees as Party Chairman and Chief Executive, with a clear four-year mission around rejuvenating the party. I use this word carefully – for not only has the party membership and vote dwindled, but has skewed very much to retirees. This is a problem, both in formulating policy and for the future pipeline of talent in the party, whether as candidates, employees, or activists.

Beyond that, the party should become better at guiding and encouraging associations to drive their own growth and success. There should be more knowledge sharing between regions and between the centre and the periphery. Too often there is a lack of coordination, understanding or even respect. The problems are very similar to the party Woolton inherited, and most likely the solution is similar – an energetic person at the top, rooted not simply in party politics, but in how to make organisations succeed.

Indeed, there is perhaps one obvious candidate. A person who, like Woolton, cut his stripes in retail, learning how to run a complex organisation that delivers what people want before turning to politics: Andy Street. With an understanding of logistics, motivation, and some successful campaigns under his belt, it seems like an interesting way of channelling Street’s talents into future service for the party. Even if he doesn’t want the role, there are worse places to look than someone in that mould.

It’s easy to focus on the next leader as the person who turns the party around. It’s the contest which garners the headlines, and ultimately the person who will be in Downing Street if the turnaround is a success. But there are real challenges for the broader party, and it is now way helped by an era of shrinking membership and enthusiasm. Reversing this trend will be vital, especially if some of the rumoured challenger parties do materialise.

To turn this around requires an effective and energetic building programme. This was true in 1945, and Woolton provided it, winning not just one election, but creating an organisation that saw sustained victory through the 1950s and remained the foundation for success later on. Society, politics, and campaigning have all changed since then. The party has moved too, for sure, but it feels like with its current position, a bigger bang is needed, and perhaps a new Woolton.

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