The Conservative Party will not be compassionate until its members care

Published by ConservativeHome

Party conference - empty seats

“Please don’t feel guilty about betraying the Conservative Party, they’ve already betrayed you – and without a care.”

With these parting words, David Meacock resigned his membership of the party he has loved since his childhood and served as a member of the Chiltern District Council since 1999. He also won a by-election against the Liberal Democrats to become a Buckinghamshire County councillor, which was no mean feat back in 2001 – even in ‘true blue’ leafy Bucks. Like many loyal and hard-working party members, he had dedicated months and years of his life to canvassing, door-knocking, writing ‘In Touch’, delivering leaflets, phoning, stuffing envelopes, attending hundreds of meetings and getting out the vote.

He worked so hard that he even increased his majority in 2003, and again in 2007. In the interim, he earned a place on the Approved List of Candidates, and fought the parliamentary seat of Huddersfield in the 2005 general election – as well as a county council seat back home in Amersham. God knows how much he spent on petrol and how many hours his glazed eyes whizzed up and down the M1.

I first met him in 2002, just after I became deputy chairman in Beaconsfield. Our paths crossed again fairly superficially at a number of subsequent Bucks gatherings and party fund-raisers. Like me, he had been a member of both Conservative Way Forward and the Bow Group, and we got on the Approved List around the same time. I remember him as an engaging communicator and a passionate thinker with a sincere commitment to his community. Unlike many in politics, he was genuinely friendly and approachable.

His dedication was tireless. He helped the Chalfont St Peter Community Centre procure grants and external consultancy for transformational improvement. He resolved local flooding issues, defended the Greenbelt, and made a direct intervention in the 2003 Church Licensing proposals which precipitated a swift ministerial climb-down, thereby sparing churches all over the country the mind-numbing bureaucracy of having to register ‘approved’ community events.

He even founded and led the local ‘A40 Choir’ – possibly the first Tory prospective parliamentary candidate since Ted Heath to conduct an orchestra and choir. And he has used his musical gifts to raise money for a number of good causes – including £1,300 towards anti-HS2 judicial reviews. Unlike his council colleagues, he has a 100% attendance record for all council meetings, including the Community & Environment Overview Committee, Licensing & Regulation Committee, and the Taxi & Private Hire Licensing Sub Committee. The Conservative Party used to value members like these: they work tirelessly for the common good and are the life-blood of conservatism.

When I heard a few weeks ago that he had joined UKIP, I was surprised. He explained: “I cannot in all honesty continue to ask the local electorate to support the Conservative Party when it is so determinedly hell-bent on destroying our cherished Chilterns.”

“Having been a passionate Conservative since school-days, I have not taken this decision lightly; in fact I have been searching my conscience for some months. Locally, I have wanted to fight HS2 much harder from within the Conservative Party but have had no support from any other Conservative Councillors.”

Such disenchantment is currently shared by many Conservatives for a variety of reasons. I know quite a few who have left the party over the past year – not so much with a high-profile Meacock flourish, but simply a passive, low-key decision not to renew their memberships. Here in South Bucks there is little doubt that HS2 is a vanity project that will blight the landscape forever. And you can’t U-turn this like a pasty-tax or the conservatory free-for-all: you can’t un-concrete green fields and ancient woodland. But the Government isn’t listening, and CCHQ no longer needs to. Its utilitarian machine long ago supplanted the authentic conservative voice.

Cllr Meacock is of the view that it is “ludicrous” for him to continue representing his electorate as a Conservative councillor, arguing that there is no justifiable national benefit, when the official position of the party is that high-speed rail link is crucial for economic growth. And so he will stand for UKIP in the Buckinghamshire County Council elections this week.

The response of his former colleagues to this cry of conviction?

Cllr Nick Rose, Leader of Chiltern District Council, says this defection is “an isolated incident” which he doesn’t think “will translate into a great deal of support for UKIP in the long run”. And Andrew Garnett, Chairman of the Chesham & Amersham Conservative Association, said: “David Meacock has been a long term semi-detached member of our party, and I would also question the timing of his decision after he failed to secure a Conservative Party nomination for a county council seat.”

Not a word of thanks for a life-time of service; not an utterance of praise for his local achievements; not a whisper of appreciation for years of dedicated work in his community. Just pompous and dismissive denigration; an ungracious allegation that Cllr Meacock was merely a “semi-detached member of our party”; and an absurdly counter-intuitive assertion that this defection is “an isolated incident”.

By “semi-detached”, one wonders if Andrew Garnett refers to the fact that while Conservative councillors on Chiltern District Council voted to increase council tax, Cllr Meacock, mindful of his struggling constituents and heeding the advice of the Prime Minister and the desire of Eric Pickles for restraint, voted against. Is it now “semi-detached” to resist tax increases and oppose spending £32bn on HS2? Is it “semi-detached” to support the traditional view of marriage and selective education by academic ability?

Cllr Meacock’s exasperation might be felt by thousands of traditional Conservative supporters. He tried for years to argue his case from within the party, and patently failed. He has now come to the conclusion that anyone in South Bucks and the Chilterns who votes Conservative on 2nd May “will be sending a message to the Coalition Government that although people up and down the line may grumble against HS2 they’re not prepared to get out of their armchairs and rise up against it”.

Compassion isn’t just about communicating raw policy; it’s about dealing with people fairly and justly. The Conservative Party’s previously unwritten social contract has been warped by a codified constitution which views the centre as omnipotent and party members as entirely dispensable. Debate is stifled; dissenting individuals are cold-shouldered. The membership used to be wooed and charmed; now it is patronised and unvalued. Thousands have gone, and, contra Cllr Nick Rose, thousands more will do so: the Meacock defection is not “an isolated incident” but part of an emerging psephological pattern.

There’s no point the Conservative Party trying to preach a political gospel of compassion if its members are seen to be infighting, backbiting, or climbing the greasy pole to feather their own nests. Compassion starts with the lost and outcast. Until the party shepherds learn to leave the 99 sheep to go in search of the one that has strayed, no amount of electoral strategy, opinion-group intelligence, policy formulation or flying hordes of by-election workers into marginal seats will persuade those who say they might vote Conservative to do so.


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