Brandon Lewis, Conservative Chairman since the start of the year, regards increasing the party’s membership as a “key priority”. But in this interview he rejects cutting the £25 annual subscription in order to encourage more people to join, including many who are already in some way involved with the party.
Lewis also denies having anything to do with a plan to offer members a discount card useable at chains such as Nando’s, and suggested the idea could have come from one of his predecessors, Grant Shapps, who is “obsessed with Nando’s”.
But Lewis promises “things will be different” at this year’s Conservative Party Conference and members will “feel it’s their conference”.
He warns that prospective parliamentary candidates who failed to campaign in the recent local elections are likely, unless they have a very good reason, to be struck off the candidates’ list.
ConHome: “What’s the latest news about the membership figure? In March, it was 124,000.”
Lewis: “At Spring Forum I outlined where we were. I’d read all the stories about 40,000, 70,000 and what have you, that some journalists were writing about, and as we are starting to get the centralised administration of membership, for the first time we can genuinely say, ‘This is what the membership is.’
“Previously there’s always been an element of estimation because it wasn’t centrally administered.”
ConHome: “So how did you manage to get the 124,000?”
Lewis: “That’s how many names I know who are paid members, who I can literally print off and count the names. That project, central administration of membership, I think is a really important project. I’m determined that we will complete that work before party conference.
“So some stage after that will be a logical point to do an update on where we’ve got to.
“Sometimes in the past members have understandably complained they’ve got four or five emails in the space of about ten days, often asking for money. And part of the reason for that is they’ll be on several different data bases. So by getting central administration of membership we end up with one clear data base.
“It also means we can free up the associations, where you’ve got an office or even a member of staff focused on doing the membership, they can restructure their time so they’re more focused on recruiting new members and campaigning, which to be blunt, as Chairman of the party, I want more people campaigning.
“We can start helping with the renewals, and making sure that people are renewed. And if we want to do a membership drive, we know we’re not asking people who already think they’re members.”
ConHome: “So how much does having a large and indeed growing membership matter in your view?”
Lewis: “For me it’s one of the key priorities. For me as Chairman of the party expanding and strengthening our comms and digital comms is obviously important; our campaigning machine is obviously hugely important; and I want to see more diversity, including women, representing the Conservative Party at all levels.
“But absolutely key to delivering all of that is remember we are a membership-based organisation. I was a member of the Conservative Party before I was elected.”
ConHome: “How were you recruited, by the way, to the Conservative Party originally?”
Lewis: “When I was about 11 I delivered leaflets for Robin Squire. I got actively involved in ’97 when I was expounding my views of what the Conservative Party needed to do to be re-electable again, this was just before the election, and a friend of mine said ‘You should get involved, because if people like you think that and don’t get involved, why would it ever change?’
“Which I thought was a very fair point. And I was 26, and there weren’t many 26-year-olds joining actively.”
ConHome: “And where were you living at that point?”
Lewis: “Brentwood. I was very quickly asked, ‘Oh could you do this, you should do that,’ and I became a councillor then in ’98, and had no intention of being a Member of Parliament, I wanted to do my bit locally and enjoyed doing my bit locally. So it was an evolution for me rather than a great plan.
“So I’m a member and I still passionately believe we are a membership-based organisation. One of the things I enjoy the most is being with the members. I absolutely adore and am hugely proud of being the Chairman of the party I joined in the first place as a member.
“Because it is a family, and actually I want that family to grow. Increasing membership for me is really important, for two reasons. One is obviously we are a membership-based organisation and we are better and stronger and bigger that membership is, and we are a broad church and always have been, and to be a broad church, the more people involved the better.
“But equally because there are hundreds of thousands of people out there, week in week out, going to their Conservative clubs, who are members of their Conservative clubs, who are going out and delivering leaflets, helping their friends and colleagues stand for council, PCC, mayor, whatever it happens to be, who are volunteers and helpers, but who aren’t fully paid up members. But they are part of the family.”
ConHome: “But should it cost £25 to become a member? Because I was talking to a Tory lady the other day, and she said she could remember a generation ago she’d go round collecting subs, and there were some people who really couldn’t afford to pay more than a very small sum, and basically they could pay whatever they could afford.
“And she said in those days her local party had this much wider range of people, and many more of them too.”
Lewis: “Membership of the Conservative Party is still half the price of membership of the Labour Party, because they’re £50.”
ConHome: “Well they had this three quid deal, which I know didn’t work out without difficulties for them, but 25 quid sounds like a lot.”
Lewis: “I don’t think it does, but let me just explain why. I think we’ve got work to do to explain this, and I take that fully on the chin. The equivalent we have got to the Labour three pounds is we’ve got a lot of people round the country paying two or three pounds as part of their membership of a Conservative Club.
“They sign this form that says they’re affiliated to the Conservative Party, and those clubs will often then pay a few thousand pounds a year to their local Conservative Association.
“I know, because I’ve met a lot of them, that a lot of these people think they’re fully paid up members of the Conservative Party, which actually they’re not, but they are part of the family.”
ConHome: “Well if you want to increase the membership, surely you could dissolve the distinction between these two categories.”
Lewis: “How we encourage that group to become fully paid up members is part of it. We’re trying to do it on direct debits. It’s two pounds and nine pence per month. And I think there’s two things to that. One is if you pay that way it’s not so painful for people.
“But secondly, if associations feel there are people who really can’t afford to join but they want them to be involved, they can, they can leaflet, they can go to their cheese and wine events. You go to any association event and I guarantee there’ll be a fair chunk of people there who are supporters but are not paid-up members.”
ConHome: “It would still be good to have them as members.”
Lewis: “I would like to convert them to members. For me the way to do that, and we do discounts for young people and the military, veterans, but for me the way to do that is to make sure the membership gives them something they value.
“Now I think that involves, we’ve just started last week, instead of just getting emails asking for more money, they will now get a monthly e-newsletter that doesn’t ask for money, but actually gives them information.”
ConHome: “Who’s editing that?”
Lewis: “We do. It’s from the Chairman. And I’m looking at how we expand that and do more.”
ConHome: “But there’s not going to be a reduction in this £25 figure?”
ConHome: “Right. And what about The Times, I think yesterday, suggesting there’s going to be a discount card.”
Lewis: “I genuinely don’t know where that came from. This was about the Nando’s card. I wondered whether they’d been talking to Grant Shapps, because when Grant was Chairman, he was obsessed with Nando’s, but that is some time ago now.”
ConHome: “He took me to Nando’s once. So you haven’t issued an official denial of this?”
Lewis: “I did kind of giggle. We did let the journalists know this had not come from us. For me it’s about building the membership.”
ConHome: “Will members be gaining or regaining any democratic powers under your chairmanship?”
Lewis: “In what ways?”
ConHome: “At the conference, for example, a generation ago you did feel the Home Secretary or someone might get a really rough ride if the members were angry about something. Now you feel there’s less excitement in the actual hall.”
Lewis: “If you look at what we did at Spring Forum this year, we changed the format so it was much more interactive. That worked really well at Spring Forum. Party conference is different because obviously you’ve got the media and you’ve got the speeches by the Secretaries of State.”
ConHome: “Well you’ve always had the media.”
Lewis: “Not to the extent of live-streaming and that.”
ConHome: “The media will always print embarrassing stories.”
Lewis: “At conference this year, I and the Prime Minister are determined that the members feel it is their conference. Things will be different at conference this year. But I’m going to resist the temptation to outline the full details of conference just yet.”
ConHome: “One of the classic occasions was 1950, when conference found itself setting the target of 300,000 houses a year. Electorally it was tremendously effective, because then Harold Macmillan got them built. So that was a very successful example of grassroots pressure. You’re open to grassroots pressure?”
Lewis: “I would like to think that when the conference agenda comes out, and at the end of conference, your readers and our members will say that they had a really enjoyable conference and felt more involved than before.”
ConHome: “Fantastic. I hope we’ll hear it first on ConservativeHome. Well possibly on your e-newsletter. You can’t scoop the e-newsletter.”
Lewis: “I’m definitely keeping ConservativeHome in the loop.”
ConHome: Now the Pickles Review proposal, which was to select candidates in target seats by June 2018, slipped in order to allow the use of local election data in picking targets.
“What have those data told you in terms of what the new targets look like, and what is the new deadline date by which candidates will be selected?”
Lewis: “Well there’s actually more to it than that. We also have got to think about the implications of what may happen in the Boundary Review.
“What I’ve got to resist is selecting in a target seat that may be dramatically impacted in the Boundary Review and then we have to start again. For the sake of a few months there’s not a lot of logic in that.”
ConHome: “When are we going to get that?”
Lewis: “Later this year. The other thing which I’ve been quite open with people about is there is a view with members, which I understand, that in some places last year, whether we had the best of the best candidates, really strong campaigners, fighting for certain seats.”
Lewis: “Yeah, yeah, yeah. So one of the things I wanted to have a look at this year is to make sure people on the candidates’ list get the right support and understand what campaigning means.
“And the only way you really understand what campaigning means is to go out there and campaign. So in the first week or ten days in the job, I wrote to everyone on the candidates’ list and said ‘Look, I expect you to campaign in the local elections. And after the local elections, I’m going to review what you’ve done.’
“I’ll be doing that next week. So we’re compiling everything at the moment from the field agents’ reports and all the reports. And if there are people who have not done their fair bit of campaigning, and have no good reason for not having done their campaigning, I will be doing something about that.
“Because I’m not prepared to have candidates out there who are not going to go out and do their work.”
ConHome: “So what counts as a good reason?”
Lewis: “Certain professions where you are not allowed, and I’m not going to be completely unreasonable about that. I’d just want proof of that.
“Somebody may say I didn’t campaign for five weeks because I was sent abroad for work.
“But if somebody was living in Great Yarmouth, and we were a target council, and we were out four days a week for the best part of four months, and they haven’t done any campaigning, then their chances of staying on the list are going to be fairly slim.
“Because we’ve got to make sure people are going to campaign. One of the things I benefited from, being selected back in 2006 [in Great Yarmouth, then a Labour seat] for the 2010 election, was I had that time, it was a long time, but I think having a couple of years, three years, to build up and develop your local base, get your structure, particularly in a target seat, is really important.
“So I want to make sure we get people selected early. We will be starting selections this summer. We will make the June target in terms of starting selections but we won’t finish them in June.”
ConHome: “Walking through CCHQ to your office, I didn’t have the impression that you are gearing up for an early general election.”
Lewis [laughing]: “We are gearing up for the 2019 local elections.”