The New Statesman’s rolling politics blog

RSS

The Tories want to buy Britain, but they're losing the campaigning battle

While the the Tories are increasingly reliant on a small pool of mega rich donors, Labour is rebuilding itself as a movement. 

While the the Tories are increasingly reliant on a small pool of mega rich donors, Labour is rebuilding itself as a movement.
David Cameron and George Osborne speak together at the construction company Skanska on April 22, 2014 in Rickmansworth. Photograph: Getty Images.

The Tories want to buy their way to power. Today’s revelations over the lobbyists and wealthy elite David Cameron and his ministers dine with and the recent boasts of a £30m Tory war chest underline how out of touch the Tories are. They think that big money means having the "big mo", but in fact this reveals a party without a movement increasingly reliant on a small pool of mega rich donors.

Analysis of Conservative Party donations in Q1 2014 shows that half of the Tories' money came from donors who attended private dinners with David Cameron and other senior ministers. These financiers, hedge fund managers and bankers gave a total of £3.2m. Since Electoral Commission records began, donors associated with the hedge fund industry have given a total of over £43m to the Conservatives.

And what have they got in return? George Osborne’s 2013 Budget abolished stamp duty reserve tax on funds, an effective £145m giveaway to hedge funds, not to mention that the top one per cent of earners have been given a £3bn tax break, worth an average of £100,000 for those earning over £1m. Instead of the families up and down the country suffering a crisis in their living standards, David Cameron is standing up for those he wants to fund his re-election attempt. But while the Conservatives' many millions pay for glossy mailings, they cannot mask their campaigning crisis. 

Under David Cameron, the Tories have hollowed out. Memberships has halved and if it continues to decline at the current rate the Tories are set to see its membership fall below 100,000 by the general election. This will be news to those who noticed the Tories' gleeful reaction to the Newark by-election (which wiped almost 9,000 off the Conservative majority). Mark Wallace gushed: "This by-election was ultimately won by the brute force of a massive activist turnout." Grant Shapps boasted, "When I presented 'Team 2015'…[Cameron] stood up afterwards and said 'this is the best things I've seen from CCHQ in thirty years.'"

A look at the most recent statements of accounts from Conservative Local Associations in target seats, however, tells a story of haemorrhaging membership in the most important electoral seats. Seventy eight per cent of Tory Associations in target seats for which data is available saw falling membership income 2012-13.  Membership subscriptions in these seats which will determine the outcome in 2015 saw a year-on-year drop of 21 per cent - a total of £144,000. This trend is also clear in Conservative cabinet ministers' associations, where there was a 10 per cent fall in membership subscriptions - 168 members even fled David Cameron's backyard of Whitney.

Comments from Association's 2013 accounts reveal that the Tories' on-the-ground machine is troubled by an ageing and disgruntled membership. Mid Dorset and North Poole Association accounts state, "The main reason for loss of support continues to be partly due to old age and death." Croydon Association lamented, "It has been a disappointing year for membership with the declining trend of previous years continuing." Iain Duncan Smith's Chingford and Woodford Green Association moaned that "membership continues to be challenging", while Cambridge Association said, "This has been a year of hard work with no political reward".   

The Conservative Party is becoming a shell.  We know that in 2012 the total income total of £747,000 from membership fees equated to just 3 per cent of the Conservative Party's total income – compared to the Labour Party which received 40 per cent of its income from membership fees and affiliated membership.

Compare this to Labour's energy at local levels. We know that local factors and candidates’ community campaigning activity can make all the difference, which is why Labour has knocked on over 7 million doors across the country this year. We have selected candidates from diverse backgrounds early. We have more trained community organisers than ever before helping deliver face-to-face, doorstep-by-doorstep campaigning. Whereas at the last election the ratio of Labour staff in Westminster and the regions was 2:1 it is now parity, reflecting a rebalancing towards local campaigning. And we have made big reforms to open up our party to make us more rooted in communities and workplaces across the country.

The result is that in the key marginal seats held by the Tories and Lib Dems which had local elections this year, Labour topped the poll in the vast majority, including in key marginal target seats such as Amber Valley, Cannock Chase, Crawley, Harlow, Lincoln and South Swindon. We gained a further 109 council seats from the Tories and Lib Dems in the key marginals. Labour has the campaigning edge because our cost of living message resonates with the reality of people's lives, we have adapted our campaigning to digital communications and, vitally, our activist base is larger and more dynamic than our opponents'.

David Cameron wants to spend his way to victory in 2015.  Labour has another weapon: hardworking people's knowledge that while the Tories increasingly rely on a few, the many are being overlooked, which will spur our growing numbers of activists every day from now until polling day. 

Jon Ashworth is Labour’s Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office