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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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