Ruth Davidson: Splitting Tory party is not the way forward

MICHAEL Ancram, one of the Conservatives’ most experienced and respected stalwarts, describes the Scottish party leadership election as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to renew and reinvigorate.

I could not agree more – and not just because Michael believes I am the candidate who can deliver that opportunity. The party is at a crossroads. Its future – indeed its very existence – will be decided by which route our members choose when they receive their ballot papers this week.

Everyone agrees we need change. The key question is, what kind of change and how do we achieve it?

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Travelling around Scotland talking and listening to grassroots members has confirmed my belief that to disband is a road to disaster. There is no silver bullet. We cannot change our name or divorce from the UK Conservative family and suddenly expect people to like us. Instead we need meaningful and lasting change – generational change – that allows us to present a new face and a new voice.

We need to change ourselves, not our name.

As Michael Ancram and others like him recognise, this election provides a golden opportunity to do that. Adoption of the Sanderson Report means for the first time there will be a single Scottish Conservative leader. Annabel Goldie did a great job as leader of the MSP group – but she was fighting elections with one hand tied behind her back, unable to reform or reach out to large sections of the party. Now that has changed, we can start to renew and rebuild.

So how will I reform the Scottish Conservatives? Well, let me be clear: it doesn’t mean more centralisation. Underusing the energy and talents of our whole party has been a key failing. We must bring together members at every level – activists, councillors, MSPs, our MP and MEP to speak as one.

We need to rebuild our financial structure, giving us a sound footing on which to fight. For too long we have relied on a few generous donors. We need to build a funding network at every level, co-ordinated nationally, but with regional funding directors.

Reform of policy-making is a priority. We must use, not waste, the experience and expertise we have in our ranks, re-establish our policy committee and invite others to join the debate.

All members need to be involved in policy. That doesn’t mean a one-day event before an election, but a system that brings together the talents within. I intend to set up commissions on business and agriculture and fishing and will involve people from inside and outside the party. I want advice from industry leaders and organisations such as the FSB, and I will combine those ideas with our values to create robust policies.

Our conference will become a real membership event where debate and discussion are as important as set-piece speeches.

Our core values won’t change, but our policies must move with the times and be up to the mark.

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Our campaigning structure also needs change – trained agents, no paper candidates, a new media strategy and a visibility we have not had in decades.

That means no “no-go areas” for the Scottish Conservatives. We need to develop a grassroots infrastructure to deliver high-quality campaigns on the ground. I want to bring the best people to the party and, just as David Cameron has, I will ensure they are properly supported.

We will establish a volunteer agent programme to train key members so that all constituencies have access to activists equipped in modern campaigning, communications and fundraising skills.

These changes will make a huge difference to our party.

But, as the Prime Minister has said, the route to change is also about leadership. I will not sit in a Holyrood office and instruct the party. I will get out and about, visiting regularly the new regional campaign centres and associations to hear the views of all members.

I will also direct a national recruitment campaign. That means working closely with associations and ensuring members get more for their subscriptions. Associations need to run more events and publish regular membership magazines. I want a healthy flow of information and ideas between the grassroots and the central party.

Online campaigning is the key to reaching young people and we must use the power of social media much more to get our message across.

Involving more young people is crucial. I will ensure Conservative Future Scotland receives the money and resources to be a professional organisation. Young people will be used not just for delivering leaflets, but will be part of every facet of the party, from policy to fundraising.

To do this we will need to work with the UK party. They have the resources and experience that can help us train our people. That is yet another reason why splitting our parties would be madness.

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And as I said last week, we need our Prime Minister to come to Scotland more. I know David Cameron is committed to defending the Union. If elected, I want my first meeting with him to be about how we can fight together for the UK, not discussing details of a divorce. Unified, our party can stop the separatist tide and ensure Scotland stays in the Union.

Finally, I will embody the change we need. I will talk up the Scottish Conservatives. As a fresh face from a new generation I am not scarred by the battles of the past. I am ready for the challenge to make our party win again.

Ruth Davidson MSP is a candidate in the Scottish Conservative Party leadership election