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.

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

The Conservative party logo is repositioned ahead of a speech by David Cameron. Image: Getty
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Labour’s best general election bet is Keir Starmer

The shadow secretary for Brexit has the heart of a Remainer - but head of a pragmatic politician in Brexit Britain. 

In a different election, the shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer might have been written off as too quiet a man. Instead - as he set out his plans to scrap the Brexit white paper and offer EU citizens reassurance on “Day One” in the grand hall of the Institute of Civil Engineers - the audience burst into spontaneous applause. 

For voters now torn between their loyalty to Labour and Remain, Starmer is a reassuring figure. Although he says he respects the Brexit vote, the former director of public prosecutions is instinctively in favour of collaborating with Europe. He even wedges phrases like “regulatory alignment” into his speeches. When a journalist asked about the practicality of giving EU citizens right to remain before UK citizens abroad have received similar promises, he retorted: “The way you just described it is to use people as bargaining chips… We would not do that.”

He is also clear about the need for Parliament to vote on a Brexit deal in the autumn of 2018, for a transitional agreement to replace the cliff edge, and for membership of the single market and customs union to be back on the table. When pressed on the option of a second referendum, he said: “The whole point of trying to involve Parliament in the process is that when we get to the final vote, Parliament has had its say.” His main argument against a second referendum idea is that it doesn’t compare like with like, if a transitional deal is already in place. For Remainers, that doesn't sound like a blanket veto of #EUref2. 

Could Leave voters in the provinces warm to the London MP for Holborn and St Pancras? The answer seems to be no – The Daily Express, voice of the blue passport brigade, branded his speech “a plot”. But Starmer is at least respectful of the Brexit vote, as it stands. His speech was introduced by Jenny Chapman, MP for Darlington, who berated Westminster for their attitude to Leave voters, and declared: “I would not be standing here if the Labour Party were in anyway attempting to block Brexit.” Yes, Labour supporters who voted Leave may prefer a Brexiteer like Kate Hoey to Starmer,  but he's in the shadow Cabinet and she's on a boat with Nigel Farage. 

Then there’s the fact Starmer has done his homework. His argument is coherent. His speech was peppered with references to “businesses I spoke to”. He has travelled around the country. He accepts that Brexit means changing freedom of movement rules. Unlike Clive Lewis, often talked about as another leadership contender, he did not resign but voted for the Article 50 Bill. He is one of the rare shadow cabinet members before June 2016 who rejoined the front bench. This also matters as far as Labour members are concerned – a March poll found they disapproved of the way Labour has handled Brexit, but remain loyal to Jeremy Corbyn. 

Finally, for those voters who, like Brenda, reacted to news of a general election by complaining "Not ANOTHER one", Starmer has some of the same appeal as Theresa May - he seems competent and grown-up. While EU regulation may be intensely fascinating to Brexiteers and Brussels correspondents, I suspect that by 2019 most of the British public's overwhelming reaction to Brexit will be boredom. Starmer's willingness to step up to the job matters. 

Starmer may not have the grassroots touch of the Labour leader, nor the charisma of backbench dissidents like Chuka Umunna, but the party should make him the de facto face of the campaign.  In the hysterics of a Brexit election, a quiet man may be just what Labour needs.

What did Keir Starmer say? The key points of his speech

  • An immediate guarantee that all EU nationals currently living in the UK will see no change in their legal status as a result of Brexit, while seeking reciprocal measures for UK citizens in the EU. 
  • Replacing the Tories’ Great Repeal Bill with an EU Rights and Protections Bill which fully protects consumer, worker and environmental rights.
  • A replacement White Paper with a strong emphasis on retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union. 
  • The devolution of any new powers that are transferred back from Brussels should go straight to the relevant devolved body, whether regional government in England or the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
  • Parliament should be fully involved in the Brexit deal, and MPs should be able to vote on the deal in autumn 2018.
  • A commitment to seek to negotiate strong transitional arrangements when leaving the EU and to ensure there is no cliff-edge for the UK economy. 
  • An acceptance that freedom of movement will end with leaving the EU, but a commitment to prioritise jobs and economy in the negotiations.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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