You no longer have to join to be able to join in…
Having become a Minister of State at the Foreign Office I feel I have spent most of the last year on an aeroplane. I have now clocked up visits to Belize, Panama and opened our new Embassy in El Salvador. I have been to Mexico, Chile, Brazil, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Across the other side of the world I have been to India (twice), Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Burma, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea (twice), the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and I have just returned from a climate change conference in the Marshal Islands.
I have been to New York for the United Nations General Assembly, where I return shortly for this year's General Assembly before travelling to Brazil again and on to Paraguay to open the new British Embassy there. In November, I return to India before heading to Sri Lanka for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting at which Her Majesty the Queen will be represented by the Prince of Wales.
It might sound terribly glamorous but the honest truth is I get in a car at the airport, attend meetings and then get in another car to another airport to another country for another set of meetings. Sadly, sightseeing is never on the agenda.
So is all this travel necessary? The short answer is yes. We believe if the British economy is to recover we need to dramatically increase our exports. That is why much of what I and other ministers do involves supporting UK Trade and Investment in securing deals for our leading companies and in trying to get more of our small medium enterprises (SMEs) to export. And it is working.
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But it is not all just about trade: it is about exporting British values too, be it building on the G8 summit initiative on trade, tax and transparency or encouraging other governments to sign up to the Bribery Act, the Extractive Industries Initiative or the Open Government Forum, all of which are designed to stamp out corruption and make government and business more ethical and accountable to the people. My constituents might want to complain I'm never here (as does my wife!) but I also like to think they want to see a sustained economic recovery, they want to see the United Kingdom at the heart of international decision making and they want our voice to be heard and our financial commitment to be seen in stamping out injustice, promoting ethical investment, eradicating poverty and trying to make the world a safer, better and fairer place and I consider myself privileged to be allowed to play a small role in that however long it may last.
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The conference season comes to an end this week. But questions were again raised. How many members actually attended? Are the conferences now predominantly filled with lobbyists and journalists? Should they not be held over a weekend so ordinary working people can be there? Are they too expensive? Should there be formal motions for debates?
These questions tie in with the notion that people are disengaged politically. I completely disagree; today we're witnessing some of the greatest advances in communication ever known. Personal technology is more affordable and accessible than ever before. We're connected in ways never thought possible, even a generation ago.
Through social media, growing numbers of people can speak for themselves; they don't necessarily need to join a political party; that is why membership is down across the board. And yet it's clear people still want to be members of their chosen community.
What's changed is the form that this association takes. Sometimes it's more issue based. Sometimes more transient. But it is no less meaningful as a result. Today, in a world where you can choose between the traditional town hall meeting or a debate on Facebook, individuals are opting to create their own patterns of association, membership and sense of belonging. And if parties are to build from the ground up, we must do the same.
Full members of our party still have the most rights and control – choosing Members of Parliament and the Party leader.
But we shouldn't be turning our backs on those who want to be involved, just because they haven't shelled out £25 to join us yet. That's why we're inviting new ways to contribute and interact – and our approach is already changing things on the ground.
Support for our party now ranges all the way from a simple 'like' on Facebook to becoming a Member of Parliament – and many different forms along the way.
It all adds up. The person joining our campaign for an EU referendum through a click on our virtual "Co- sponsor the Bill" app might not go on to share our campaigns on the economy or child protection. Yet these micro campaigns allow for expressions of support on specific issues. In the end membership will survive – but it will change.
All political parties are coming to terms with that.