The Tories might be winning the air war but they're losing the ground game

The story of the Conservatives’ shrivelled membership is potentially as significant as the story of Labour’s presentational shambles.

On the bright side – or is that sunny side up? – there won’t be any more complaints about Labour keeping too low a profile this summer. Ed Miliband’s picture will be in all of tomorrow’s papers. Unhelpfully for the opposition, it will be as the recipient of a dissenting egg. Or six. 

That will surely prolong the "Miliband’s summer of woe" story just when it might have been running out of momentum. The charge that Labour have mismanaged their recess is simultaneosuly true and unfair. As some of us pointed out early on, there was an awkward haitus after parliament rose in which the coalition parties carried on campaigning and the opposition appeared to stop.

That set the tone for the ensuing weeks, although Labour got more organised – effectively turning the conversation to the cost of living crisis for a few days – while the Tories and Lib Dems went quiet. The problem for Miliband was that a fallow patch and the suspicion that "the grid" of planned news interventions had been neglected aggravated an older and deeper anxiety about the lack of clarity in Labour’s offer to the electorate. It hasn’t been hard in recent months to find Labour people who will complain about the situation in private; the silly season lull meant those gripes were amplified in print. Before long there was a bad news feedback loop – people who need to write about politics and dread the period over summer in which there is nothing to write about, found that they could write about the politics of there being nothing happening and why it was bad for Labour (Look, here I am, at it again).

It is interesting to compare the treatment of Milband’s travails with another summer story rumbling on in the background about Conservative party membership. A number of prominent Tories connected to the ConservativeHome website have been trying to extract a definitive number from their party (£). CCHQ has refused, although in the process it has become clear that there are very probably fewer than 100,000 active card-carrying Tories.

It is a fairly arcane row and there is no reason why it should be reported with the same breathless vigour as Miliband’s malaise – but it is also a bona fide crisis for the Tory party. Since David Cameron became leader, membership has fallen by two thirds. (Numbers are falling across the board, with the exception of Ukip, but the drop is steepest among Conservatives.) So what? Perhaps, the days of mass membership of political organisations are over. Some form of looser association will be devised; innovation and modernisation might yet come to the rescue. That, at least, is the hope.

The problem for the Tories is that, even in the most optimistic analysis, the gap left by missing members won’t be plugged in time for a general election. As I wrote a few weeks ago, concern about a rusty machine with missing pieces in vital marginal seats is one the two issues that otherwise confident Tory MPs say could really scupper their chances of being the biggest party in the next parliament. (The other one is an outbreak of panic if Ukip win the highest share of any party in next year’s European parliament ballot.)

Labour, by contrast, are getting relatively organised on the ground. The Lib Dems are famously tenacious in the bastions where they are fortified around a local council and local MP. One senior Conservative recently told me he expects the next election to throw up a whole lot of constituency results that will look anomalous – cases of rogue swings, unexpected defeats or strange episodes of incumbent survival, which on closer inspection will turn out to be the result of especially effective local organisation.

There have always been a few such cases – Labour holding Birminghan Edgbaston in 2010 is one often cited example – but the Tory expectation is that there could be many more like it in 2015. The risk is made greater by losses in successive council elections over the course of a parliament. Each small defeat demoralises another member, his or her family, their friends. There is an aggregate effect that ends in fewer feet pounding the pavements and fewer hands stuffing envelopes when the big push comes.

In short, the story of the Tories’ shrivelled membership is potentially as significant as the story of Labour’s presentational shambles but, crucially, one is a London-based media topic and the other unfolds elsewhere, below the radar. In that sense, what the summer has confirmed is that Labour are losing the "air war" but are no less a force to be reckoned with on the ground.

Air supremacy matters, of course. Labour cannot afford the aura of mystery surrounding their basic offer to the country to continue. But the Tories should also be wary of celebrating what feels like a victory in the battle for control of the political landscape, when the quiet hills may conceal pockets of guerrilla tenacity sufficient to halt a Conservative advance.

David Cameron talks to staff during a visit to the Salford Royal Hospital accident and emergency department on August 8, 2013 in Salford. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Every day, Theresa May's mask slips a little further

First the Human Rights Act, now Dfid. What's next, asks Jon Ashworth.

The news that the new International Development Secretary is about to slash development spending and channel Britain's aid budget into defence spending is yet another major slip of the new government's centrist mask.

Theresa May has tried to pitch her policy agenda as prioritising social justice and a “Britain that works for everyone” but the reality is that this announcement is the true right-wing colours of her government shining through.

The appointment of the most right-wing Cabinet for decades was a major warning sign, with figures such as David Davis, who said he was “very worried” about sexual discrimination legislation, and Liam Fox, who said equal marriage was “social engineering”, now at the highest level in government.

Those of us passionate about development were horrified when Priti Patel, who has previously called for the Department for International Development to be scrapped, was appointed as the department's new Secretary of State, but few of us would have imagined such a dramatic break with Britain's strong development legacy so soon.

Not only is what is reported very dubious in terms of the strict regulations placed on development spending- and Priti Patel has already come dangerously close to crossing that line by saying we could use the aid budget to leverage trade deals - it also betrays some of the very poorest in the world at a time when many regions are facing acute humanitarian crises.

It was Gordon Brown who put international development at the heart of 13 years of Labour government, massively increasing aid spending and focusing minds in Britain and abroad on the plight of those suffering from poverty, famine and the ravages of war. David Cameron followed Gordon’s lead, enshrining the 0.7 per cent aid budget in law, making Britain the first G7 country to do so. In light of these new revelations Theresa May must now restate her commitment to the target.

Sadly, it now seems that Theresa May and Priti Patel want to turn the clock back on all that progress, diminishing Britain's role in international development and subverting the original mission of the department by turning it into a subsidiary of the Ministry of Defence, focused on self-interest and security. Not only will this create the opposite of the "outward-looking and globally-minded country" Theresa May said just weeks ago she wanted Britain to be, it’s also a betrayal of some of the poorest people across the planet.

Other examples of the right-wing traits of this Government surfaced earlier this week too. On Friday it emerged that Gerard Lopez, a tax-haven based businessman with links to Russian State banks that have been sanctioned in the wake of the Ukrainian conflict, donated £400,000 to the Tory party just months ago. Theresa May needs to tell us what meetings and interactions she has had with Lopez.

Earlier in the week Liz Truss, the new Justice Secretary, brazenly insisted that the Government would proceed with scrapping the Human Rights Act, despite fierce opposition from politicians of all parties and the public.

With so many right-wing announcements trickling though when the government has hardly had time to change the name plaques above the doors you've got to wonder and worry about what else is set to come.

Jon Ashworth is Labour MP for Leicester South.