The death of the Tory Party is announced at Glasto
Forget the conspiracy theories – the story should be the obituary for Conservatism Cameron’s ally wrote before he died in the Glastonbury toilets.
The fact that a close ally of Tory prime minister David Cameron had been found dead in the toilets at the Glastonbury music festival at the weekend would alone have been enough to get the digital gossipmongers twittering their fingers off. When it became clear that Christopher Shale, chairman of Cameron’s West Oxfordshire constituency, had died after learning that his damning ‘secret’ memo about the state of the Conservative Party had been leaked to a Sunday newspaper, conspiracy junkies joined in the fun. They were given an extra shot of adrenaline when it was reported that initial tests had left the precise cause of death ‘unascertained’.
Questions such as ‘Another David Kelly?’ started appearing on the web, implying that Shale had somehow been ‘got at’ by ‘dark forces’. (To which the answer is surely: no, he was not, but then Kelly the government scientist wasn’t, either.) The mainstream media also appeared to get carried away with it all, one hasty editorial in a national newspaper demanding: ‘Did telling the truth [about the Tories] have tragic consequences for a respected local politician?’ Answer: probably not, no. Shale’s family have apparently been told it is ‘99.9 per cent’ certain he died of a heart attack. The prospect of reading about oneself in the Sunday tabloids has been known to bring on some indigestion, but there is no evidence of it causing a massive coronary.
All of this conspiratorial nonsense might have been a touch more credible had it not quickly become clear that Cameron and Tory HQ had been ‘deeply involved in and supported’ Shale’s criticisms of his party’s failure to recruit new members and his proposals for reviving it. It appears he was less a maverick whistleblower than the referee’s assistant.
Perhaps the only ‘revealing’ thing about the circumstances of Shale’s death was that such a senior Tory should have been spending the weekend in a VIP winnebago at Glastonbury anyway, alongside assorted celebrities. This seems to have been taken for granted as normal, yet it reveals quite a lot about both the Conservative elite and Britain’s major music festival today. Glastonbury is no longer the hotbed of alternative culture that it claims. It is now as mainstream and conformist as the green politics the organisers want to champion, attracting many middle-class and middle-aged citizens alongside va kidz to see such uncontroversial middle-of-the-muddy-field acts as U2, Coldplay and Beyoncé.
Asked whether he was going to Glastonbury this year, veteran BBC wag Terry Wogan, 72, replied that he did not think he was old enough. He must have been almost the only DJ who was not there. The BBC gives Glastonbury the sort of multi-channel TV-and-radio coverage normally reserved for a General Election or a war (and not a little war such as Libya, either). The general media assumption seems to be that the only reason any of us are not sharing in the Glasto dream is because we could not get the priceless tickets (rather than because we might think it hell on earth). Glastonbury has become a sort of compulsory shared national experience, a modern-day Last Night of the Proms in wellies. So we should not be too surprised to find a 56-year-old businessman and top Oxfordshire Tory there (and not in an embarrassingly out-of-place way, as when William Hague donned that baseball hat at the Notting Hill carnival). If the Church of England used to be the Tory Party at prayer, then Glastonbury can quite comfortably accommodate the Tory Party at play today.
The bigger problem with all of the pointless speculation about Shale’s coincidental death is that it has overshadowed the thing most worth discussing in this grim affair: the contents of the report that he wrote, with Cameron’s backing, about the dire state of the Tories in Oxfordshire and beyond. To the outsider it reads less like a realistic plan for reviving Conservatism than as an obituary for the Tory Party.
Shale’s internal document, ‘Operation Vanguard – A Strategy to Transform Membership’, first sets out the problems with trying to recruit members to the Conservative Party today, summarised as ‘No reason to join. Lots of reasons not to.’ He said that people think the Tories in places such as West Oxfordshire are ‘not like them’ (he conceded diplomatically that ‘collectively we are not always an appealing proposition’); that Tory socialising isn’t considered ‘fun’; that people think the party will ‘beg and steal from them’ if they join (‘and they’re right’); that membership is viewed as a scary ‘slippery slope’ to compulsory political activism and the ‘terrifying’ prospect of canvassing the public for votes; and that people don’t want to be publicly identified as a member of the Tory Party.
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The overall impression given is of the Conservative Party locally as an ageing group of out-of-touch inward-looking white people who seem at least as alienated from the cultural trends in modern Britain as any young Muslim might be. Indeed, the party leadership’s own ‘secret shopper’ research recently found that many branches ignored or actively discouraged applications from wannabe new members. Conservative membership plunged from a claimed (though exaggerated) membership of 2.8million in 1953, to around 250,000 when Cameron became leader six years ago - and it has fallen further still under his ‘dynamic’ leadership.
So far, so fair enough. Yet Shale’s supposed solutions to the crisis only reveal the depth of the Tories’ problems. Like the capitalist he was, he described party membership as a ‘product’ they need to sell. But he also understood the market for Tory membership is a niche one. So he said they would need to target older loyal Conservative voters in their membership drive rather than trying to attract the public.
Shale wanted to make the party more attractive by switching its emphasis from ‘politics-heavy’ people (the existing core of activists) to appeal to ‘politics-light’ people (ordinary Tory voters). They should be encouraged to join the party by offering them more fun – eg, a day out to Wormwood Scrubs prison, including lunch with the inmates - and demanding less in the way of financial and political commitment.
As he wrote, ‘When we ask them to join we’ll ask them only to share our values, give us their vote and not support our opponents’. In case even that pathetic list seemed too challenging, then the party would need to ‘spell it out’ thus: ‘When we ask them to join we’ll promise that membership isn’t a slippery slope to political activism – and we’ll make sure it isn’t.’
There is plenty more of this stuff, packaged with banal marketing-speak and vague talk of the need to ‘look different… sound different… behave differently’. The question it all left me with was: what is party membership for, then? If it’s not about actively supporting your party, campaigning for votes or trying to raise money, what exactly is the point of it? And why would anybody want to sign up for such a meaningless form of membership? What possible reason would the undecided have to make a commitment to something that appears to stand for nothing whatsoever, and is dedicated to looking and sounding different from what it actually is?
Of course, even in the party’s heyday, being a member of the Tories often meant little more than gaining access to the bar at the Conservative Club. That even this form of membership is now deemed too ‘politics heavy’, too strong beer in need of dilution, is a sure sign of desperate times for the old parties. Shale suggests the problem is that people don’t like too much politics these days. Yet to judge by his report, those with a real aversion to politics are the party leadership.
There is no mention in the 18-page document of any political argument around which the Conservatives might win support, no word of any idea that could possibly galvanise new members. He leaves his readers with woolly references to ‘our values’ without any attempt to suggest what those valuable things might be. But how could it be different, when a Conservative-led coalition government has nothing to offer except the accountants’ politics of austerity? That is surely nobody’s idea of ‘fun’.
Call me an out-of-touch old leftie, but would it be too outrageous to suggest that one way to try to get people interested in your political party might be to talk to them about some politics, rather than pretending it is a par-tay kind of party? First you need the politics, then you might get the party – not surely the other away around.
The problems Shale identifies are not peculiar to the Tories. They apply in slightly different ways to all of the moribund and near-bankrupt – financially, politically and morally – mainstream parties in the UK today. Maybe somebody else will come up with a way to revitalise Labour or the Conservatives or even the Lib Dems. Perhaps it is more likely that it will take different organisations and parties to bring British politics back to life. But either way, without an alternative political vision, these parties are going to end up in the toilet of history, and deservedly so.
The Glasto approach of trying to be all things to as many people as possible, making it as inoffensively ‘fun’ as you can, might work when the product you are selling is a family music festival. But not when it is a political party, and you hope to see some changes in society rather than just in the headline acts.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.