The state of the Conservative party’s grassroots has concerned activists for years. The last released membership figures were in 2013, which showed 150,000 paid-up members, and we haven’t had an update since – meaning they’ve fallen.
Some informed activists believe that number fell as low as 70,000. Contrast that with Labour’s 600,000, and you know the party of government has a manpower problem when the next general election comes around.
Membership drives are expensive and difficult, compared with the modern Tory focus on securing support from wealthy donors instead. In fact, before this year, the last proper Tory membership drive was in 1988 (called the Bulldog Campaign).
But since Theresa May’s Chequers summit on 6 July this year, committing to a softer version of Brexit than Brexiteers accept, the party has seen an increase in membership applications.
This has been exacerbated by Leave.EU founder and Ukip donor Arron Banks calling on his supporters to join the Conservatives to unseat May and threaten Remainer Tory MPs by stirring up a “grassroots rebellion in the Tory party”.
“A number of constituencies have seen an increase,” observes John Strafford, chair of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, former councillor, and long-time party activist in the Beaconsfield Constituency Association.
Anecdotally, Strafford has heard these upticks have mainly consisted of around ten to 20 extra people in local associations, in about half of Tory constituencies – particularly those represented by pro-EU MPs. “It tends to be in those constituencies which have got Remainer MPs,” he says.
Such politicians, like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve, have warned CCHQ about local associations being vulnerable to “entryists” simply joining to try and oust anti-Brexit MPs and push for a new leader, like Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg (though, as my colleague Patrick Maguire explains, that’s not how Tory leadership elections work).
Soubry has gone so far as to call for Brandon Lewis, the Conservative Party chairman, “to end the membership drive until we can be confident we are not being infiltrated by people who are not Conservatives”.
In terms of their own positions, their alarm is understandable. Right-wing, Brexiteer entryism from non-Tory loyalists could push the existing hostility over Europe in their associations into outright plans to deselect them.
As Strafford says, even a few extra recruits could make a big difference in constituencies with such small membership bases.
“Bear in mind that pretty well half the constituencies in the country have got less than 100 members,” he says. “So a couple of dozen people joining it may well have a lot of influence.”
But the bigger picture for Conservative MPs is that they could be vulnerable electorally if the membership drive is halted. This hasn’t happened yet, but CCHQ is already sharpening its vetting of new members, as Guido Fawkes reveals.
The education select committee chair and former deputy chair of the party Robert Halfon MP – whose own Conservative association in Harlow has seen a 24 per cent increase in membership –condemned calls to end the membership drive on Twitter, complete with the hashtag: “#increasedConservativemembershipisnotaproblembutagoodthing”.
Indeed, the Tories are already on such a backfoot membership-wise that they cannot afford to start turning people away or making it harder to join the party if they want to challenge Labour’s manpower.
“The Conservative Party’s got away with it in recent times, because they’ve been capable of targeting marginal seats,” says Strafford. “The trouble today is who knows what a marginal seat is? The next general election is going to be fought on a national basis, on the ground…
“If the electorate can’t decide between Labour and Conservative, Conservatives face wipe-out, because Labour’s got the activists on the ground to fight a national campaign.”