In September we lost one of our own. I didn’t really know Elliott Johnson that well, having only bumped into him a few times at Conference. But I still feel an obligation to him, and to our organisation, to explore what went on, and ensure we learn out lessons for the future.
There are some who think by simply reading the commentary of Fleet Street, that some regulatory regime can be brought into being to stop this happening again. There are others, who, while making a great deal of noise on social media, fail to dig down into the issues of what went on. We cannot slip into the misguided notion that this problem can be dealt with in 140 characters. Because the real problem is a broken culture. A culture where our elections have become a glorified twitter parade, with more votes awarded for a photo with the PM, than an afternoon delivering leaflets. A culture where you can scheme and connive your way to the top, with no fear that you may actually have to implement your promised policies when in office. A culture, so alien to normality, that a grown man was able to slime his way in, with the tacit support of our Executive, so that he could further his own political career, to the detriment of others.
What needs to be remembered is that our organisation is for everyone under-30. We are as much for the late twenties young professional in London, as the early teens school-kid from Teeside. And that creates both opportunities, but also a great responsibility of care. One our Leaders have neglected and our Party are only just getting to grips with.
Responsibility. A term that stands proudly in bold print on the back of our membership cards, but which we must all now ask, have we followed in recent months? Anyone who had anything to do with Roadtrip knew it wasn’t built upon the ideals of our Party – yet we didn’t do enough to speak out. But likewise those that were informed of issues did little to reassure that they were taken seriously, as I will now explain.
While not in any way comparable to the recent reports of the darker side of Mark Clarke, I had dealings with him from 2014 onwards. At the time, I had just finished my term as President of the Oxford University Conservative Association (OUCA), and Mark was keen to meet to discuss how we could support Roadtrip. Myself and some other senior officers of OUCA were asked to attend a meeting on May 30th, where instead of persuading us of the merits of supporting the Roadtrip project, we were instead berated, shouted at, and smeared. The fact that OUCA has been doing ‘Away Days’ as we call them, since before Roadtrip was even a thing, didn’t matter. The Eastleigh By-election, the Newark By-election, and the marginal seats of Walsall North, Telford, Chippenham, Swindon South and Sherwood all received campaigning sessions, as well as our local marginal of Oxford West and Abingdon. But that wasn’t good enough, because if you weren’t campaigning with Roadtrip, you might as well be at home in Mark’s eyes, as I’ve written about before.
Following what I had written, I contacted one of the (soon to be elected) candidates for the CF National Executive, to ask for a meeting so that I could discuss my concerns. We met on August 6th, and I outlined some of the issues I had with Mark, and the need for there to be change to the way CF ran its elections, that the slates themselves needed to be open and transparent about who was financially backing them etc., and that I hoped they would stand up for what was right, among a sea of Mark Clarke bootlickers. They attempted to reassure me, but I had little confidence they meant what they said.
A few weeks later another soon to be elected candidate asked if I would meet with them. On August 16th, we had lunch in the Paddington area of London, and while a major topic was Conservative involvement in Universities and the National Union of Students, I made clear then the terrible way in which my fellow officers and I had be treated by Mark. I made clear that he shouldn’t be allowed near CF, and that it was a corruption of our democratic processes for him to be pulling the strings.
What followed was a CF election controlled by Mark. We all heard the rumours, and I wrote about some of my concerns at the time. Candidates would mysteriously drop out of the race, and some who were expected to run, didn’t even bother nominating. It was clear to see that the power of the ballot box had been undermined by cloak and dagger tactics behind the scenes.
At Party Conference that year, I learned that, in an attempt to source money for the Roadtrip project, funds from regional CF accounts were to be drawn in to the centre. So much for localism. As someone who had worked as part of the previous West Midlands regional executive to raise a great deal of that money, and who saw how effectively it was used to support our activists (compared to the inefficiency of Roadtrip) I was livid. I immediately messaged a member of the CF National Executive to ask for a meeting, and received a prompt reply so we met straight away.
Once again I expressed my concern, not only that the Party was not living by its own values, but also that Mark was controlling the show, rather than our own representatives. I also reiterated the underhand tactics at play against OUCA, with well-known and leading RoadTrippers spreading false stories of how OUCA had been blacklisted by the Party, in the attempt to drive campaigners away from our Oxford West and Abingdon Target Seat Campaign Days and towards Roadtrip. Clearly rattled by my accusations, this time I was met with a stronger defence, and my concerns about the direction that Conservative Future was taking were brushed aside. There seemed to be no grasp within our National Executive that having Mark Clarke at the centre of our organisation, leaching disunity and division in every direction, was even a bad thing.
So when the sad news about Elliott came through, followed by more information on who else was involved, it was, in the most shockingly predictable way, not a surprise. Because while my concerns paled into insignificance compared to those which have recently surfaced, they all had a common cause. A common cause in Mark Clarke and his foetid RoadTrip-or-bust mantra that bound our National Executive together.
And this is why we cannot move on while they are still in place. I know many of the National Executive have been greatly affected by the loss of Elliott, but they must recognise that we cannot truly come together as an organisation and recover from the exorcism of Mark, while those who still lead us were so assistive in his rise to power.
It has now been announced that the next elections won’t happen until June 2016 – probably a wise move to allow us all to deal with what has happened. But interim arrangements need to be put in place until then; because I fear Conservative Future will be deeply divided by the time of the May elections if that status quo remains. Those May elections are vital for our Party and our Country, and CF needs to be out there, working together, as one, for victory.
And while we are on the topic of the Conservative Future elections, there’s another point that needs to be made. There will certainly be much discussion of how we build the Conservative Future we all need; one that takes activist welfare seriously. This is right and proper. But those who seek to use the current situation for their own political advantage should be ashamed of themselves. Members need to be constantly asking the serious questions of the candidates – and their motives. What did they know about the recent events in CF, and what did they do about it? Is their social media presence over-inflated, when compared to their political actions? Are they the change we really, so desperately need?
It’s only right, that after saying those things, I should make my own position clear. My comments above are simply those of a concerned member, and nothing more. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in various positions in CF, but I will not be standing in the upcoming CF elections.
With a Party Review in progress, a set of elections that need our support in May, and our own ballot to set the direction of CF in June, the next 8 months will be critical to the future of CF. I just hope we can all remember our personal responsibilities, as members and leaders, and do what is right for the good of our Party.