“By-elections are often ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. But Eastleigh is different. It confirms what Conservative activists already knew - that there is a massive disconnection between the leadership of the party and its grass roots.”
Philip Circus is a lawyer and a leading Conservative - whose outspoken views have been regularly featured in this newspaper.
A member of Horsham District Council he is currently Vice Chairman of the council and chairman elect. In this special article, written entirely in a personal capacity and not as a councillor or member of the Conservative Party, he looks at the implications of the Eastleigh by-election as West Sussex gears up for its county council elections in May.
By-elections are often ‘full of sound and fury, signifying nothing’. But Eastleigh is different. It confirms what Conservative activists already knew - that there is a massive disconnection between the leadership of the party and its grass roots. In nearly 40 years of involvement with the Conservative Party I have never known such a widespread and deep feeling of alienation.
Supporters have swallowed hard as so called ‘international aid’ was ring fenced, even though we know that there has been scandalous misuse of aid on an industrial scale. They have endured the nonsense of despoiling parts of our countryside with wind farms. We had the replacement of experienced Police Authorities with often lightweight Police Commissioners unsupported by any real democratic mandate. We still have a higher top rate of tax than existed for most of the last Labour government, even though lower taxes stimulate economic growth. The supposed masterstroke on Europe which the Prime Minister declared would ‘kick UKIP into touch’ has done nothing of the kind and a cynical public has concluded that in fact the issue has been kicked into the long grass.
And as for us as councillors it has become all too obvious in recent weeks that the top down approach to housing numbers will remain, but because of the so called ‘localism agenda’ we will get the blame for housing numbers we don’t want, but which we have to plan for to satisfy government inspectors.
Then came gay marriage. Not in the manifesto, it has proved the last straw for many who rightly concluded that irrespective of its merits, it was an unnecessarily divisive issue at a difficult time for the party and the country. Allegedly a free vote, some members were bullied into voting for gay marriage on the basis that they would have no future in government if they didn’t. And who contrived to have the vote just as many Conservative membership renewal forms were landing on the doorstep?
At root, the problem is that the party needs to be led by people with a powerful sense of mission, rather than a powerful sense of entitlement. And we need leaders who believe in Conservative values and principles. For it is the modernisers, with their determination to appear to be anything but Conservative, who have helped bring us to our current parlous state. It is time for traditional Conservatives to re-claim the leadership and direction of the party. The modernisers have listened too much to the liberal, metropolitan chattering classes, unaware that they are thoroughly unrepresentative of the nation as a whole.
Finally, one the most disturbing features of the Eastleigh by-election was that the local party organisation has virtually ceased to exist. Fifteen hundred members from twenty years ago has now been reduced to barely one hundred. And without a strong membership and local party organisation, the chances of winning target marginals will be virtually impossible.
So, Mr Cameron, if you want to win in 2015 start re-connecting with the grass roots. And what’s more, you will find they are much more in touch with what the country is thinking and feeling than the many young, inexperienced and unrepresentative special advisers who surround Ministers, most of whom have had little experience of life and no experience of any job outside of the hothouse world of politics.