GROUCHO Marx’s disinclination to join any club which would accept him suggests a corollary that Groucho never mentioned: the club anxious to recruit just the sort of people who would not dream of joining. The Tories may be headed that way, and if they are not they should be. For its parliamentary candidates, the principal opposition should be actively seeking men and women who can show a clean record of non-involvement with the party. As their mass membership dwindles to a residue of the elderly, the sweet, the bored, the sad, the lonely, the obsessive and the mad, the point is being approached when proof of previous enthusiasm for the Conservative party ought to count against an applicant for inclusion on Conservative Central Office’s approved list of would-be parliamentary candidates.
I am neither joking nor directing this exclusively at the Tories. The problem is more urgent for them because a long period of unpopularity has sharpened their dilemma, but all mainstream parties are heading the same way. When looking for prospective members of either House, any serious modern political party in Britain should, with varying degrees of urgency, consider casting its net outside, and especially outside, its own ranks.
I write in Bournemouth. Behind me lie some 25 years of attending party conferences. Both in their present appearance and in the way they are changing, our two main parties have much in common when viewed at the seaside. They are both getting older, they are both getting smaller, and less and less can any British party boast a representative sample of the population whose votes they aim to attract.
This would matter less if, though unrepresentative, party memberships contained a core of high-calibre people well-placed to play a useful role in government or opposition. They no longer do. Worthwhile young men and women have better ways of spending their spare time than hanging around at party meetings.
The age of the mass-membership political party is almost over. If there were any future for it, then in the early years, when Tony Blair and his government soared in the polls, Labour’s national membership would have risen. In fact, it sank, alongside the Tories’. Should there ever be a revival in Tory voting intentions among the electorate, I doubt this will be reflected in any surge in ‘grass-roots’ membership. Being a member of any party is no longer cool.
I do not mean by this to disparage the good people I have been meeting in Bournemouth this week: most are kindly, most are public-spirited, some are sane; but far too many are of advanced years, and among the younger members the quotient of fanatics and geeks is climbing. An unhealthy number are in the party for unselfish reasons.
When some supposed ideological or patriotic imperative motivates political activism, watch out. Selfless zeal is a danger sign. Such people are often careless whether the party actually wins. Twenty years ago most Tory representatives would have cared about little else, and conference seafronts were thick with clever and personable young careerists. Today even New Labour is running short of these (they are more likely to be found in the media corps or among the lobbyists in the exhibition halls) while in the Conservative party the common-or-garden careerist aged under 50 and favoured with a sufficiency of talent, adjustable opinions, clear skin, two legs, and ears, nose and mouth arranged in the conventional pattern is almost extinct.
A diminished pool of talented people trying to get into Westminster leads to a diminution in the appeal of those who do get there. More and more of the MPs a voter is likely to see on the green benches look drab, dim or swivel-eyed; and a young person contemplating the move into politics is put off. Can it really be worth the long haul upwards through her or his local party association, earning political air miles by taking minutes at ill-attended meetings, being laughed at by friends, standing in local elections where winning would be the worst outcome – all in the hope (should you clamber eventually on to the summit) of joining this pack? Thus begins – has begun – a vicious circle of decline that has virtually finished off representative local government. If floor-mopping in the constituency sculleries were a useful apprenticeship and honed talent for Westminster, the case for earning your spurs in this way would be arguable. But it does not hone; it filters out. It filters out the best.
Dimly, I think the Tories recognise this. There has been talk this week (swiftly denied) of ‘positively discriminating’ in the search for candidates in favour of gays and blacks. After decades of discriminating against them the lurch is dizzying, but exotic initiatives are secondary. The Tory party urgently needs to recruit a bigger and better pool of the white middle-class heterosexual males and females who will always be its principal reserve.
The key requirement should be this: regardless of race, sexuality or gender, the desired recruit should appear conspicuously capable of doing something else. Better still, he or she should offer conspicuous proof of having already done something else. It follows that in most cases the desired recruit will be otherwise employed. The more energetically they have thrown themselves into getting a real life, the more meagre will be their record of work in the Conservative cause. These are the people we need to attract.
Fitfully and rather furtively the Tories do operate what is effectively a ‘fast track’ on to the Central Office list for a minority of favoured would-be parliamentary candidates. It should become a main track. Not being an active member, or a member at all, should cease to be seen as an obstacle, possibly circumventable if so-and-so has a word with so-and-so who has the ear of Michael Ancram. It should be no obstacle at all. The Tories should openly advertise the fact that any talented, team-playing and articulate man or woman (from whatever walk of life) interested in representative politics and attracted to Conservative ideals, but a stranger to the Conservative party, will be welcome tomorrow for interview for Smith Square’s list – bonus political air miles awarded automatically.
That is not far from how it used to be in the Tory party. Then, the right kind of gent with the right sort of instincts had no need to demonstrate much previous attachment to party politics. Today, all the Tories need do is redefine ‘gentleman’ to embrace ‘lady’ and remove the element of class, replacing it with merit. A history of wanting to make tea and knock on strangers’ doors in any political cause should be a positive disqualification.
Matthew Parris is a political columnist of the Times.