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.

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The government has admitted it can curb drugs without criminalising users

Under the Psychoactive Substances Act it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess for their own consumption recreational drugs too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

From Thursday, it may be illegal for churches to use incense. They should be safe from prosecution though, because, as the policing minister was forced to clarify, the mind-altering effects of holy smells aren’t the intended target of the Psychoactive Substances Act, which comes into force this week.

Incense-wafters aren’t the only ones wondering whether they will be criminalised by the Act. Its loose definition of psychoactive substances has been ridiculed for apparently banning, among other things, flowers, perfume and vaping.

Anyone writing about drugs can save time by creating a shortcut to insert the words “the government has ignored its advisors” and this Act was no exception. The advisory council repeatedly warned the government that its definition would both ban things that it didn’t mean to prohibit and could, at the same time, be unenforcable. You can guess how much difference these interventions made.

But, bad though the definition is – not a small problem when the entire law rests on it – the Act is actually much better than is usually admitted.

Under the law, it will not be a criminal offence for someone to possess, for their own consumption, recreational drugs that are considered too dangerous to be legally sold to the public.

That sounds like a mess, and it is. But it’s a mess that many reformers have long advocated for other drugs. Portugal decriminalised drug possession in 2001 while keeping supply illegal, and its approach is well-regarded by reformers, including the Liberal Democrats, who pledged to adopt this model in their last manifesto.

This fudge is the best option out of what was politically possible for dealing with what, until this week, were called legal highs.

Before the Act, high-street shops were free to display new drugs in their windows. With 335 head shops in the UK, the drugs were visible in everyday places – giving the impression that they couldn’t be that dangerous. As far as the data can be trusted, it’s likely that dozens of people are now dying each year after taking the drugs.

Since legal highs were being openly sold and people were thought to be dying from them, it was obvious that the government would have to act. Until it did, every death would be blamed on its inaction, even if the death rate for users of some newly banned drugs may be lower than it is for those who take part in still-legal activities like football. The only question was what the government would do.

The most exciting option would have been for it to incentivise manufacturers to come up with mind-altering drugs that are safe to take. New Zealand is allowing drug makers to run trials of psychoactive drugs, which could eventually – if proved safe enough – be sold legally. One day, this might change the world of drug-taking, but this kind of excitement was never going to appeal to Theresa May’s Home Office.

What was far more plausible was that the government would decide to treat new drugs like old ones. Just as anyone caught with cocaine or ecstasy faces a criminal record, so users of new drugs could have been hit with the same. This was how legal highs have been treated up until now when one was considered serious enough to require a ban.

But instead, the government has recognised that its aim – getting new drugs out of high-street shop windows so they don’t seem so normal – didn’t depend on criminalising users. A similar law in Ireland achieved precisely this. To its credit, the government realised it would be disproportionate to make it a criminal offence to possess the now-illegal highs.

The reality of the law will look chaotic. Users will still be able to buy new drugs online – which could open them to prosecution for import – and the law will do nothing to make drugs any safer. Some users might now be exposed to dealers who also want to sell them more dangerous other drugs. There will be few prosecutions and some head shop owners might try to pick holes in the law: the government seems to have recognised that it needed a better definition to have any chance of making the law stick.

But, most importantly for those of us who think the UK’s drug laws should be better at reducing the damage drugs cause, the government, for the first time, has decided that a class of recreational drugs are too dangerous to be sold but that it shouldn’t be a crime to possess them. The pressure on the government to act on legal highs has been relieved, without ordinary users being criminalised. For all the problems with the new law, it’s a step in the right direction.

Leo Barasi is a former Head of Communications at the UK Drug Policy Commission. He writes in a personal capacity