How Tory membership has collapsed under Cameron

Membership has halved since Cameron became leader to as little as 130,000.

One of the quiet crises of David Cameron's leadership is the continuing decline in Conservative Party membership. A study by the House of Commons Library recently found it had fallen to a modern low of 177,000. Now, a new ConservativeHome survey (previewed in today's Independent) suggests even this figure is generous, with membership estimated at between 130,000 and 170,000, a decline of around 50 per cent since Cameron became leader in 2005.

The Tories are far from the only party afflicted by falling membership. In 1983, nearly four per cent of the electorate belonged to one of the three main parties. Now, just one per cent do, one of the lowest rates of party membership in Europe. Although Labour membership has risen by 31,000 to 187,000 since Ed Miliband became leader, this remains far below the peak of 405,000 seen under Tony Blair in 1997. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have seen membership fall by 5,000 since the general election to 60,000, down from a peak of 101,000 in 1994. But it is the Tories, who once boasted a membership in excess of three million (see graph), who have suffered the most rapid decline. Should the trend continue, membership will soon fall below the psychologically significant 100,000 mark.

The Daily Mail's Andrew Pierce has previously attributed the decline to Cameron's prominent support for gay marriage, reporting that thousands "ripped up their membership cards and refused to renew their subscriptions." He added:

The alarm bells sounded in the Tory HQ, which in January launched a national appeal to try to persuade waverers to return to the fold. The appeal was a dismal failure.

The constraints of the coalition mean that Cameron can do little to woo traditionalists back to the fold. ConservativeHome editor Tim Montgomerie said: "Cameron's compromises on traditional Tory beliefs and the failure of those compromises to deliver a parliamentary majority mean he's upsetting both kinds of grassroots member."

Cameron's failure to retain existing members or to recruit new ones is yet another reason why the odds are against a Tory majority in 2015.

David Cameron has seen Conservative Party membership halve during his time as leader. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn's Labour conference speech shows how he's grown

The leader's confident address will have impressed even his fiercest foes. 

It is not just Jeremy Corbyn’s mandate that has been improved by his re-election. The Labour leader’s conference speech was, by some distance, the best he has delivered. He spoke with far greater confidence, clarity and energy than previously. From its self-deprecating opening onwards ("Virgin Trains assure me there are 800 empty seats") we saw a leader improved in almost every respect. 

Even Corbyn’s firecest foes will have found less to take issue with than they may have anticipated. He avoided picking a fight on Trident (unlike last year), delivered his most forceful condemnation of anti-Semitism (“an evil”) and, with the exception of the Iraq war, avoided attacks on New Labour’s record. The video which preceded his arrival, and highlighted achievements from the Blair-Brown years, was another olive branch. But deselection, which Corbyn again refused to denounce, will remain a running sore (MPs alleged that Hillsborough campaigner Sheila Coleman, who introduced Corbyn, is seeking to deselect Louise Ellman and backed the rival TUSC last May).

Corbyn is frequently charged with lacking policies. But his lengthy address contained several new ones: the removal of the cap on council borrowing (allowing an extra 60,000 houses to be built), a ban on arms sales to abusive regimes and an arts pupil premium in every primary school.

On policy, Corbyn frequently resembles Ed Miliband in his more radical moments, unrestrained by Ed Balls and other shadow cabinet members. He promised £500bn of infrastructure investment (spread over a decade with £150bn from the private sector), “a real living wage”, the renationalisation of the railways, rent controls and a ban on zero-hours contracts.

Labour’s greatest divisions are not over policy but rules, strategy and culture. Corbyn’s opponents will charge him with doing far too little to appeal to the unconverted - Conservative voters most of all. But he spoke with greater conviction than before of preparing for a general election (acknowledging that Labour faced an arithmetical “mountain”) and successfully delivered the attack lines he has often shunned.

“Even Theresa May gets it, that people want change,” he said. “That’s why she stood on the steps of Downing Street and talked about the inequalities and burning injustices in today’s Britain. She promised a country: ‘that works not for a privileged few but for every one of us’. But even if she manages to talk the talk, she can’t walk the walk. This isn’t a new government, it’s David Cameron’s government repackaged with progressive slogans but with a new harsh right-wing edge, taking the country backwards and dithering before the historic challenges of Brexit.”

After a second landslide victory, Corbyn is, for now, unassailable. Many MPs, having voted no confidence in him, will never serve on the frontbench. But an increasing number, recognising Corbyn’s immovability, speak once again of seeking to “make it work”. For all the ructions of this summer, Corbyn’s speech will have helped to persuade them that they can.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.