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

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Theresa May knows she's talking nonsense - here's why she's doing it

The Prime Minister's argument increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in her words - the Tories your vote.

Good morning.  Angela Merkel and Theresa May are more similar politicians than people think, and that holds true for Brexit too. The German Chancellor gave a speech yesterday, and the message: Brexit means Brexit.

Of course, the emphasis is slightly different. When May says it, it's about reassuring the Brexit elite in SW1 that she isn't going to backslide, and anxious Remainers and soft Brexiteers in the country that it will work out okay in the end.

When Merkel says it, she's setting out what the EU wants and the reality of third country status outside the European Union.  She's also, as with May, tilting to her own party and public opinion in Germany, which thinks that the UK was an awkward partner in the EU and is being even more awkward in the manner of its leaving.

It's a measure of how poor the debate both during the referendum and its aftermath is that Merkel's bland statement of reality - "A third-party state - and that's what Britain will be - can't and won't be able to have the same rights, let alone a better position than a member of the European Union" - feels newsworthy.

In the short term, all this helps Theresa May. Her response - delivered to a carefully-selected audience of Leeds factory workers, the better to avoid awkward questions - that the EU is "ganging up" on Britain is ludicrous if you think about it. A bloc of nations acting in their own interest against their smaller partners - colour me surprised!

But in terms of what May wants out of this election - a massive majority that gives her carte blanche to implement her agenda and puts Labour out of contention for at least a decade - it's a great message. It increases the sense that this is a time to "lend" - in May's words - the Tories your vote. You may be unhappy about the referendum result, you may usually vote Labour - but on this occasion, what's needed is a one-off Tory vote to make Brexit a success.

May's message is silly if you pay any attention to how the EU works or indeed to the internal politics of the EU27. That doesn't mean it won't be effective.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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