John Strafford runs the Conservative Campaign for Democracy and has held office at virtually every level in the voluntary party, including nine years on the former National Union Executive Committee. He is also the author of Our Fight for Democracy – A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom. Here he responds to Paul Goodman's articles this week (published here and here) on the future of the Tory grassroots.
Last year I wrote an article for ConservativeHome showing the decline in Party membership from 2,800,000 in 1952 to 320,000 by 2003. I set out some of the reasons for the decline. What has happened since then? The decline has continued to the point where the future of the Conservative Party as a party of mass membership has to be questioned. Without action now, within ten years it will have ceased to exist.
After the 1998 reorganisation of the Party, membership picked up a little, but by nowhere near as much as the Tories hoped. The total had fallen to 320,000 by 2003. When David Cameron became Leader in 2005 it was 258,239. Today in 2010 Party membership is 177,000, so we have lost over 80,000 members since he became Leader. The loss of 80,000 members is a net loss after taking into account new members joining the party. Assuming that the party got say 5,000 new members each year, then the loss of old members is over 105,000. On this basis only 153,000 of the 258,239 members at the time of Cameron’s election are still members of the Party. Put another way, approx. 105,000 members have either died or allowed their membership to lapse since David Cameron became Leader. That means that over 40% of members that participated in his election have now left the Party. The average age of a Party member is 68.
In the period just prior to the Labour Party taking office their membership went up from 250,000 in 1994 to 400,000 in 1997.
The decline in membership matters. Of the approx. 177,000 Party members about 10% or approx. 18,000 are activists. Today those activists consist primarily of 10,000 Councillors, their family and friends.
Because of the dire state of the economy some very tough and very unpopular decisions are being taken. Next year, at the time when we are likely to be most unpopular there will be local elections and many of our councillors will lose their seats, not because they have performed badly, but because of the national position. The effect on Party activists will be catastrophic impacting on membership and campaigning. We can expect to see more demonstrations on the streets like the National Union of Students demonstration. In these circumstances members loyal to the Party are essential to see us through these difficult times.
Since the General Election Labour Party membership has risen by 40,000, Liberal Democrat membership has risen by 6,000. Why the different results?
The reason for their success lies in participation. People will join a political party if they can participate. In Labour's case they joined to participate in the election for Leader. A similar situation happened when One Member One Vote (OMOV) was first introduced in the Labour Party. When it was announced in 1994 10,000 joined within the first week. The Liberal Democrats are the most democratic of our political parties. Before the Coalition Agreement with the Conservative Party could be signed the members of the Liberal Democrat Party had their say. They had a specially convened conference to endorse the Coalition Agreement. At their annual conference they had real debates. There was genuine participation by the members in determining official policy.
What happened at the immediate past Tory conference?
There was no Agenda in the published programme – just a series of blank spaces. Nobody knew beforehand what sessions were to be held or who would be replying to them on behalf of the government. Until you arrived at the conference you were unaware of which sessions would take contributions from the floor or for how long you could speak. In addition you had to fill in a "Contribution Card" showing what your contribution would be. This had to be submitted beforehand. No wonder the hierarchy did not receive many requests from members to speak. Even in those sessions which had been starred showing that there would be contributions from the floor, this didn't always happen: for example, the session on the economy was starred, yet there were no contributions from the floor.
There were 400 fringe meetings at the conference but these were nearly all sponsored events with the sponsors providing many of the audience, by way of their lobbyists and employees, so even the question sessions were often slanted. As a result of all this we now have a "fringe to the fringe" and thank goodness for the Freedom Association for putting on the Freedom Zone this over Monday and Tuesday. At last we got some real debate and the events put on by the Freedom Association were packed out. In the event at which I spoke on the Alternative Vote organised by Conservative Action for Electoral Reform the hall was full with standing in the aisles and at the back. The platform included several MPs and an MEP.
Unless the Conservative Party addresses the problems regarding membership, by the time we get to the next election our membership will be about the same size as the Liberal Democrats. We know that this means that we will be unable to mount an efficient national campaign and will have to rely on targeting particular areas of the country. What will happen to the Labour Party in the mean time? If they are smart they will democratise the Labour Party so that their membership will continue to increase. If they do, they will be a formidable force at the next General Election. If the Tories do nothing we will witness the gradual destruction of the voluntary side of the Conservative Party. It will cease to exist. Because of their age members are dying faster than they can be replaced.
In the General Election we lost 27 seats by less than 2,000 votes. In spite of all the money spent on national advertising, which research has shown does not affect the result, in spite of the national television debates, the most important factor in the election was “feet on the ground”. At the margin it was the canvassing and the knocking up that counted most. For that you need volunteers and the most committed volunteers are members. So how do we set about increasing our membership?
It is no good re-launching the institutions that have failed to prevent the decline in membership. If they have failed before, they will fail again. The National Convention has become a meaningless rubber stamp. This is recognised by the fact that attendance at its meetings is never more than 50%. It is fundamentally flawed. Its main component is Constituency Chairmen who serve a term of three years. On becoming Chairmen many have never heard of the Convention so they have little incentive to participate. By the time they have understood what it is supposed to be about, they are in their last year as Chairmen so about to vacate the post. The Convention has no continuity. There are no real debates at the Convention – the audience is talked at. Reports are given, but there is no real participation.
The Conservative Policy Forum has virtually disappeared without trace. Its role within the Party’s constitution has been totally ignored. Resurrect it on the same basis and in time it will fail again. Yet this is what appears to be about to happen.
Pyramid voting in the Conservative Party should be abolished. After all it was a Conservative government that made it illegal in the Trade Unions on the grounds that it distorted democracy. Currently Party members elect a Constituency Chairmen, who elect Area officers, who elect Regional officers. This is nonsense.
Research on party membership, done in the 1990s, showed two main reasons why people joined the Conservative Party. The first reason was for social purposes. People like to be with others of a like mind. They feel more comfortable. There is a tribal instinct. They like to be led, but they like to know that the Leader has listened to them before he or she takes a decision. The second reason is participation. This has to be meaningful participation i.e. they either vote on decisions or vote for the people taking the decisions. It is this latter reason which has not been met by the Conservative Party. Effectively large numbers of people join the Party each year wanting to participate. When they find that they have no voice they leave, usually after a couple of years. Only by adopting a radical approach will we break this cycle of decline. I set out below the measures that need to be taken:
It is not inevitable that we have a shrinking membership. We can and must do something about it. At present there is little, if any value in being a Party member. This has to change.
Without members the ability to fight elections will be impeded. Active politics will be left to an ever less representative rump. The Party will be ill equipped to engage with the people so making it more detached. It will leave the Party vulnerable to capture by extreme elements.
Today, the Conservative Party is controlled by a small group of wealthy individuals. The Labour Party is controlled by a small group of trade union barons. Both parties are now vulnerable to an insurgent movement which rises up and engages with the public. William Hague said that the Conservative Party “was like an absolute monarchy moderated by regicide”. The Nation abolished absolute monarchy and regicide 350 years ago. It is time for the Conservative Party to follow suit.
I hope that every Conservative Party member will support the proposals I have set out above. In November 1941, Franklin D Roosevelt said “Liberty, freedom and democracy are prizes awarded only to those peoples who fight to win them and the keep fighting eternally to hold them”. It is time for Party members to come out fighting.