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Why membership numbers mean very little to the Conservative party

The Tories now have fewer members than ever before - and their financial situation has hardly changed. But they'd be wise to address the decline anyway.

New Statesman
The Conservative party logo is repositioned ahead of a speech by David Cameron. Image: Getty

In a two week period in July this year, 140,000 people got out of bed and decided to make the trip to the National Railway Museum in York, for an exhibition showcasing six steam engines.

It is never a promising sign when you know there are more trainspotters than members of your party, but that is the position that David Cameron finds himself in. It was revealed yesterday that Conservative Party membership has dipped to 134,000 – a record low, down from more than 250,000 when Cameron took over as leader.

There is something grimly inevitable about the decline in party membership on all sides, like lower league football clubs watching their support fall away one season after another. Whereas in 1997 the Conservatives might have lamented the fact that its 400,000 card carriers constituted just a fraction of the 2.9 million who signed up under Winston Churchill’s leadership, now a couple of hundred thousand would seem like a pretty decent return. Labour, too, is suffering, losing more than half its members in the time since Tony Blair belted out Things Can Only Get Better, while the Lib Dems have suffered a similar percentage fall.

The statistics make for some pretty grim line graphs, but from a financial perspective the Tories can afford to be rather more sanguine. The Conservatives’ ability to raise so much money from high value donors has made the loss of subscription money relatively inconsequential. Where once membership subs were a vital part of paying for an election, now they are just a small cog in the overall fundraising effort.

The Conservatives can easily afford to take the hit. Looking at the party’s accounts from last year, it received a little under £750,000 in membership fees. To put that in perspective, since David Cameron was elected as leader, there have been 25 individual donations bigger than that sum, plus many more in the hundreds of thousands. In this environment, it’s unsurprising that increasing membership numbers – or at least, attempting to halt the decline – is not a policy that is at the top of the wish list. The party no longer needs its members to keep it afloat; so as long as there are enough people to keep the local infrastructure in place, then all is rosy if the donors keep giving.

Meanwhile, it’s hardly a surprise that many members have been put off from helping out when it is apparent that their usefulness has diminished. Local fundraising is now marginal to the state of the party’s bank balance: no longer do tea dances and whist drives keep the Conservative Party ticking over.

The problem for the Tories is that it is barely viable even to attempt to address the decline. A membership drive not only costs money, but also takes up valuable resources which could be better spent on well-focused campaigns both at a central level and in target seats. Even an astonishingly successful membership push adding, say, 50,000 people to the total, would barely touch at the impact of one rich donor and his largesse. What’s more, the time and effort required to persuade the single wealthy giver is miniscule by comparison – just a few meetings, perhaps a dinner or two, and almost no cash investment will usually do the trick. At the same time, the people tasked with recruiting members will have been diverted from other tasks that could have been used to win over voters, rather than the die-hards.

There is, however, a bigger downside to the membership problem than the rather bitter taste left at a fundraising coffee morning. Members are the spine of a party and at election time they are the disciples spreading the gospel. As matters stand, the local organisation only really matters once every few years – in between times, they are completely outgunned by big cheques. However, at the moment when they really count, this infrastructure is weaker than it otherwise would be.

This is not a problem unique to the Conservatives and the presence of big money helps to explain why all the parties are struggling to get people to carry their cards. While the other parties are rather less successful than the Conservatives at tapping up the super-rich - although they do their damnedest to emulate them - they still do receive large sums from a small number of sources (not least Labour and its union funds). This reliance feeds into the general malaise.

As long as there are huge donations dominating the balance sheet, members will only ever be a marginal financial force. If the parties manage to remove big donations from the political system, each party will again have a real incentive to engage with its membership. We may be able to save the last (tea) dance after all.

Bobby Friedman is the author of Democracy Ltd: How Money and Donations Corrupted British Politics