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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Air pollution: 5 steps to vanquishing an invisible killer

A new report looks at the economics of air pollution. 

110, 150, 520... These chilling statistics are the number of deaths attributable to particulate air pollution for the cities of Southampton, Nottingham and Birmingham in 2010 respectively. Or how about 40,000 - that is the total number of UK deaths per year that are attributable the combined effects of particulate matter (PM2.5) and Nitrogen Oxides (NOx).

This situation sucks, to say the very least. But while there are no dramatic images to stir up action, these deaths are preventable and we know their cause. Road traffic is the worst culprit. Traffic is responsible for 80 per cent of NOx on high pollution roads, with diesel engines contributing the bulk of the problem.

Now a new report by ResPublica has compiled a list of ways that city councils around the UK can help. The report argues that: “The onus is on cities to create plans that can meet the health and economic challenge within a short time-frame, and identify what they need from national government to do so.”

This is a diplomatic way of saying that current government action on the subject does not go far enough – and that cities must help prod them into gear. That includes poking holes in the government’s proposed plans for new “Clean Air Zones”.

Here are just five of the ways the report suggests letting the light in and the pollution out:

1. Clean up the draft Clean Air Zones framework

Last October, the government set out its draft plans for new Clean Air Zones in the UK’s five most polluted cities, Birmingham, Derby, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton (excluding London - where other plans are afoot). These zones will charge “polluting” vehicles to enter and can be implemented with varying levels of intensity, with three options that include cars and one that does not.

But the report argues that there is still too much potential for polluters to play dirty with the rules. Car-charging zones must be mandatory for all cities that breach the current EU standards, the report argues (not just the suggested five). Otherwise national operators who own fleets of vehicles could simply relocate outdated buses or taxis to places where they don’t have to pay.  

Different vehicles should fall under the same rules, the report added. Otherwise, taking your car rather than the bus could suddenly seem like the cost-saving option.

2. Vouchers to vouch-safe the project’s success

The government is exploring a scrappage scheme for diesel cars, to help get the worst and oldest polluting vehicles off the road. But as the report points out, blanket scrappage could simply put a whole load of new fossil-fuel cars on the road.

Instead, ResPublica suggests using the revenue from the Clean Air Zone charges, plus hiked vehicle registration fees, to create “Pollution Reduction Vouchers”.

Low-income households with older cars, that would be liable to charging, could then use the vouchers to help secure alternative transport, buy a new and compliant car, or retrofit their existing vehicle with new technology.

3. Extend Vehicle Excise Duty

Vehicle Excise Duty is currently only tiered by how much CO2 pollution a car creates for the first year. After that it becomes a flat rate for all cars under £40,000. The report suggests changing this so that the most polluting vehicles for CO2, NOx and PM2.5 continue to pay higher rates throughout their life span.

For ClientEarth CEO James Thornton, changes to vehicle excise duty are key to moving people onto cleaner modes of transport: “We need a network of clean air zones to keep the most polluting diesel vehicles from the most polluted parts of our towns and cities and incentives such as a targeted scrappage scheme and changes to vehicle excise duty to move people onto cleaner modes of transport.”

4. Repurposed car parks

You would think city bosses would want less cars in the centre of town. But while less cars is good news for oxygen-breathers, it is bad news for city budgets reliant on parking charges. But using car parks to tap into new revenue from property development and joint ventures could help cities reverse this thinking.

5. Prioritise public awareness

Charge zones can be understandably unpopular. In 2008, a referendum in Manchester defeated the idea of congestion charging. So a big effort is needed to raise public awareness of the health crisis our roads have caused. Metro mayors should outline pollution plans in their manifestos, the report suggests. And cities can take advantage of their existing assets. For example in London there are plans to use electronics in the Underground to update travellers on the air pollution levels.

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Change is already in the air. Southampton has used money from the Local Sustainable Travel Fund to run a successful messaging campaign. And in 2011 Nottingham City Council became the first city to implement a Workplace Parking levy – a scheme which has raised £35.3m to help extend its tram system, upgrade the station and purchase electric buses.

But many more “air necessities” are needed before we can forget about pollution’s worry and its strife.  

 

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