The Conservative party no longer seems capable of winning elections by a convincing margin. Nor does it attract as many members as its main rivals. Arguably, the two things are related. A successful campaign requires cash, as well as an attractive offer to voters. But it also needs members capable of selling that offer on the ground.
The fact that the party hasn’t released membership figures since 2013 (when it was apparently around 150,000) doesn’t suggest they’re very healthy. But it’s not just numbers that matter. It’s also about who those members are and what they’re prepared to do for their party. And the findings for the Conservatives aren’t great, according to research by the Party Members Project (which I help to run, and is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council).
For a start, Tory members don’t look much like voters in general. Over two-thirds are men and nearly nine out of 10 are middle class. Meanwhile, getting on for half the party’s membership is over 65, with only about one in 20 in the 18-24 age group. That helps to account for the fact that, as well as being significantly more Thatcherite on the economy than the average voter, they are socially very conservative.
The same skewed demography also contributes to the fact that Tory members seem to have done less campaigning than their counterparts in other parties at the 2017 general election. They were much less active on Facebook and Twitter, and only half as likely to display a poster. When it came to canvassing, honours were more even, and on leafleting they actually did slightly better than Labour members (though way behind the Lib Dems in that department).
But perhaps the most alarming fact is that more than four in 10 Conservative members admitted to having spent no time whatsoever helping Theresa May deliver the party’s message to voters during the election. Perhaps this dovetails with the finding that when talk turns to politics in social or work situations, Tory members seem more reluctant than members of other parties to open up to friends and colleagues about their political affiliation.
So much for the problems. What about the solutions? How does the Conservative party bag itself more boots on the ground? Our research, because it took in both members and people who strongly support the party but don’t belong to it, offers a few clues.
First, the party needs to work hard to dispel a number of pervasive myths about membership. Far too many potential members wrongly believe people join parties for essentially self-interested reasons, or simply because they belong to a certain family or social milieu – and that they end up spending huge amounts of time on mind-numbingly boring tasks.
Second, the party needs to do more to persuade people that its members are respected by the leadership and can actually play a part in determining its direction. Currently, a third of Tory members (compared with well under 10% of Labour, Lib Dem and SNP members) don’t believe – and they’re right not to – that they are respected, and more than half of them would like to see the membership have more influence on policy.
Last, the party needs to avoid giving the impression that, in an ideal world, it would really rather not involve its members even in choosing its leader – something that’s happened in two out of the past three Tory leadership contests. Around one in six of those who strongly support the party but don’t actually belong to it said it might be worth joining to have a say in who got the top job next time round. Sure, balloting the grassroots introduces more uncertainty into the process. It also involves revealing to the world just how many (or how few) members the party really has. But if it helps bring in fresh faces, then that’s a risk very much worth running.