Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
An unexpected consequence of the recent EU Referendum has been a remarkable surge in membership. During the first three days after it took place, we were being notified of around 100 new members a day between the five Associations in the West Kent Group, and even though the rate soon slowed we have had a steady trickle ever since. Our count is now 500-plus new members – the most intense period of recruitment I have ever witnessed.
At first many of us were suspicious. Was this influx something organised by one of the left-wing pressure groups protesting about the EU vote? Or perhaps an exercise by jubilant UKIP supporters riding a post-referendum tidal wave and landing on our shore?
Our priority was to process the applications, record them on VoteSource, and send the new members a welcome letter. In that letter, I also had to deal gently with the fact that they would not have a vote in the leadership election, which I knew would cause anger from many who clearly had enrolled for that reason. I am pleased that CCHQ put a note to this effect on the enrolment page, thus managing expectations.
My next task was to try to understand who our new members actually were. Why did they join? What was their background? Why did they join now, and not in response to our previous invitations to do so? What did they expect from their membership? And what might they be willing to do to help us win future elections?
Last week, we sent each new member an online survey asking these very questions, and it was satisfying that by Saturday over 50 per cent had responded. Admittedly the sample has not been “weighted” by age, gender or social group, but a sample of 250 from a pool of 500 is probably sufficiently large to be meaningful. It is also worth noting that the responses do not significantly vary from one Association to the others, so it is fair to assume that they will not differ significantly nationwide.
First of all, I was interested in whether these were brand new people, or if they had been politically active previously. So they were asked: “Have you ever been a member of a political party previously?”
I was then keen to explore in some detail the factors that motivated them to join. Rather than a simple quantitative Yes/No, I provided a sliding scale resulting in a “score” of between 0 and 100 for each of the options presented. These may not have been exhaustive but certainly covered the main areas. Obviously, the higher the score, indicated the stronger the factor for joining.
From these figures, I see no evidence of any form of entryism, though our main concern must be managing the disappointment of the biggest group (75.8 per cent) who cited the opportunity to vote for the new party leader as being a motivational factor.
ComRes and YouGov have already published polling on how Conservative supporters and Party Members voted on 23 June. I thought it would be interesting to see how our new members compared, so I then asked, “Out of interest, which way did you vote in the EU Referendum?”
Suspecting that many members would be extremely disappointed at not being allowed to vote in the leadership ballot, I thought it was worth measuring this factor and their likely response to being excluded: “If you had been aware at the time of joining that members were only allowed to vote after three months’ membership, would you still have joined the Conservative Party?”
Clearly, we have some disappointed people, and several have already emailed to say that they have resigned in protest, but the overwhelming majority have accepted our explanation of the ‘three month rule’ and, with a bit of TLC, there is no reason to assume they will not become long-term participants in our activities.
Finally, I asked if our new members were willing to do more than pay an annual subscription to help the Conservative Party succeed in the years ahead. 76 per cent answered “yes”, and 24 per cent said “no” (those answering negatively were almost identical to the group who said they wouldn’t have joined the Party if they had known that they wouldn’t get a leadership vote). Of the 76 per cent willing to do more ..
From our survey, it is obvious that our new members are moderate, politically engaged and (with encouragement) could reinvigorate our Associations and replenish our pool of potential Local Government candidates.
It would be a tragedy if a lack of communication or poor organisational ability allowed resulted in our new army to drift away. In West Kent, we have already developed a plan to engage and encourage; each of our MPs will be hosting a New Members’ drinks party, and each Association will have a designated person to phone and welcome them to the Party.
There was one final question not dealt with above. I asked, “If there had been a leadership ballot and you had been able to participate, which of the candidates would you have been most likely to support?” Interestingly, over 70 per cent said Theresa May.
There is clearly huge goodwill both for our new leader and for what she is planning to do. It is our duty to seize this opportunity to rebuild our grassroots in the constituencies. It might be decades before we get an opportunity like this again.