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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.