The dwindling Tory party: is anybody out there?, Telegraph, 21 September 2013

David Cameron’s enemies have been quick to pounce on figures which suggest that the Conservative Party’s membership has almost halved since he took over as Tory leader back in 2005. The drop simply proves, they argue, what they have been saying all along – that the Prime Minister is a pussy-footing metrosexual, hopelessly out of touch with the traditional views and values of his grassroots who are deserting the party in their droves, thereby rendering an unlikely outright victory in 2015 even more unlikely.

If only things were so simple. The fact that the Tories now only have 134,000 members – and many of us would like to see their detailed workings before accepting that figure as gospel – is only the latest chapter in a sorry tale that began long before the current leadership took charge.

It is undoubtedly the case that Cameron’s kind of Conservatism – socially as well as economically liberal – sticks in the craw of many members. That much is obvious from a survey of party members that I helped – in conjunction with YouGov – to conduct this year. Six out of 10 opposed legislating for gay marriage, with a similar proportion disappointed at the Government’s refusal to extend restrictions on immigrants from Bulgaria and Romania. Two-thirds wanted to scrap the ring-fence around Britain’s overseas aid spending, and over half of all members didn’t think that the leadership respected them.

Remember, though, that these people were sticking with the Conservatives, Cameron or no Cameron. Simply disagreeing with the party’s top-brass, in other words, clearly isn’t enough to prompt mass desertions. True, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence that those who have departed have done so because they despaired of Cameron. But given that nearly half of current members devote no time to the party, then many former members will have slipped away silently, leaving us none the wiser as to their reasons for going.

In any case, if it were simply a case of Tory leaders giving their rank and file what they wanted – either in terms of policies blue in tooth and claw or victory after victory at the ballot box – then membership would have held up nicely under more Right-wing or electorally more successful leaders. But it didn’t. It’s been dropping ever since the mid-Fifties – a long-term trend that showed no signs of slowing even under Margaret Thatcher, surely a leader who ticked all the boxes.

The decline may appear to have accelerated recently, but that impression is exaggerated by the fact that the party now has so few members that losses seem so much worse. By the same token, it’s easy to forget that the 2.8 million members the party could boast in the early Fifties were a historical blip – the result not just of a determined post-war membership drive on the part of an exceptionally gifted, national treasure of a chairman, but also of a part-rational, part-emotional reaction among the middle classes to the threat posed to their pre-war property and privileges by a relatively radical Labour government.

While it’s possible, then, that the Prime Minister may not have done much to help, it’s unlikely that all of this is his fault. David Cameron, no less than every single one of his predecessors as Tory leader since Winston Churchill, is swimming against a tide that seems unlikely ever to turn.

Even a cursory glance through the party’s archive in Oxford’s Bodleian Library soon reveals that its falling membership, and the growing reluctance to turn up for anything on the part of those who did carry on paying their subs, have been bemoaned by its bureaucrats and bigwigs for over half a century now – all to no avail.

Clearly, some of the reasons why the Conservative Party finds it more difficult to recruit and retain members are by no means unique. Indeed, not only are Labour and the Lib Dems in similar trouble but so are mainstream parties all over the developed world. Admittedly, the UK, where only around 1 per cent of the population is a member of a political party and which has seen that proportion drop by two-thirds over the past 30 years, seems to be in slightly more trouble than most. But it may just be leading the way where others are bound to follow.

To some extent, parties only have themselves to blame. For a long time, convinced that campaigns could no longer be won locally and on the ground but had to be fought nationally and on the air, they may have regretted the passing of mass membership. But they didn’t really regard it as a tragedy – especially since they could more than make up for lost subscriptions by soliciting donations and state funding. Indeed, between 2005 and 2009 the former (along with legacies) made up 59 per cent of Conservative Party income and the latter 15 per cent; membership fees accounted for just 3 per cent.

By the time tougher legal regulation began to impact seriously on donations and spending, and by the time that academic research began to suggest that local effort could pay off at elections, it was simply too late. The ship had sailed – although some brave souls, including Tory chairman Grant Shapps, argue that social media, “big data” and a more fluid definition of what constitutes membership can somehow compensate.

But it takes two to tango, or rather to break off the dance. In the immediate post-war period, parties helped us do things that we can now do in other, probably better, ways. Belonging to a party – particularly, some would say, the Conservative Party – used to be a precious way of staving off suburban boredom, especially for non-working women, and meeting not only people of like-mind but also of the opposite sex.

Television, the Swinging Sixties, and women’s entry into the labour force put an end to that, and, while free time is under pressure, opportunities for leisure (and pleasure) have expanded massively ever since. So, too, have opportunities to express ourselves politically on single issues and through new technologies, some of which only reinforce our contemporary fear of potentially dull and demanding commitments.

And then there is class. In an age where there was so much less stuff, belonging to the Tory party used to be a quick and convenient way of badging oneself as having made it, or at least wanting to. Over the decades, that has become so much easier to do by conspicuous consumption – the cars we drive, the holidays we take, the magazines we buy, even the food we eat and the drinks we drink. Even if they weren’t toxic, as brands, parties simply cannot compete.

Moreover, the rewards of loyalty to those brands, especially when one is paying for the privilege, now seem laughably limited. Sure, Tory members still get to select parliamentary candidates, and even the party’s leader, every so often. But they have no say in deciding policy. That may not have mattered much in more deferential decades gone by but it rankles now we’re routinely asked for our opinion about almost everything else we buy or belong to.

Maybe, then, instead of worrying about why people are abandoning the party, Tories – whether they be friends or enemies of Mr Cameron – should ask why anyone who doesn’t harbour political ambitions would bother joining in the first place.



About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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