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“Memes are not the way to look at it”: inside the Tory membership crisis

Losing members could lose the Conservative Party the next election – and it doesn’t know how to win them back.

At 9am on a rainy Monday morning in October last year, a handful of men and women sat scattered around the echoing main chamber of Manchester Town Hall.

They weren’t happy.

Just a few streets down from the main Conservative Party conference centre, they felt a world away from the politicians making speeches in its smart auditorium and stuffy meeting rooms.

But it’s these people who those leaders will rely on to win another general election – a prospect that seemed an impossible dream that morning, where activists concerned about the state of the party’s grassroots had gathered (I reported from there at the time).

One young male activist in the sparse audience complained about being “outnumbered on the streets sometimes 30, 40 to one” by Labour campaigners ahead of the 2017 general election. A middle-aged woman sitting on the other side of the hall added that she felt like Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) was “turning us into market researchers” rather than effective, passionate activists.

“I know they didn’t win but it feels like a moral victory for Labour”

She mentioned a training video made by Momentum – the grassroots campaign built around support for Jeremy Corbyn – as “the most effective thing I saw on social media over the election campaign; it was simply old-fashioned canvassing, how to talk to voters on the doorstep, to engage with conversations… I know they didn’t win this election but it feels like a moral victory for Labour.”

“Nobody’s trained” properly in canvassing anymore and “the quality has been diluted” because of this, according to John Strafford, chair of the Conservative Campaign for Democracy, former councillor, and long-time party activist in the Beaconsfield Constituency Association. He warned his audience that the party was haemorrhaging members.

“We’re going to have a spiral downwards,” he said. “And the other aspect of this is of your ten activists who are there, a couple of them are going to die in the next year because of the age of them.”

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Three months later, and these warnings have hit home. On 4 January, London’s Queen Mary University published some terrifying results for the Conservatives from its survey of UK party members.

Tory members are far less engaged than other parties. Only 59 per cent feel their party encourages them to get involved (Labour’s comparative result is 85 per cent), and just 28 per cent agree they have a significant say on party policy as members (61 per cent of Labour members feel this). Conservative members are also far less likely to campaign on social media – at 38 per cent compared with Labour’s 63 per cent. Only 28 per cent have increased what they do for the party in the past five years, against Labour’s 45 per cent.

The Conservatives also have a much narrower demographic than the other parties, with 71 per cent of its members being male (compared with Labour’s 53 per cent), and 44 per cent aged 65 and over (compared with Labour’s 29 per cent).

These revelations felt all the more urgent when Strafford claimed that the party now only has 70,000 members (just over a tenth of Labour’s membership) – a figure that the party will not confirm, although it hasn’t given its own calculation. Another estimate spooking the party is that 300 constituencies have less than 100 Tory members in them (and only ten turn up to campaign in some of these).

“The Labour party is streets ahead”

The last time the Conservatives released their membership figures was in 2013, when they had 150,000 paid-up members. Grant Shapps, a former party chairman, urged his party this month to “come clean” about today’s number, calling it “embarrassing not to publish the figures”.

Although the party hasn’t paid heed, there is now a new team at CCHQ following Theresa May’s reshuffle, including the party chair Brandon Lewis and his deputy James Cleverly. They are searching for ways to plug the membership gap.

The last time the party had a proper membership drive was in 1988 – it was called the Bulldog Campaign. As the author of Democracy Ltd Bobby Friedman points out, membership drives are very expensive, whereas it’s cheaper and less time-consuming to secure support from a wealthy donor.

There is a feeling among the grassroots that CCHQ has relied too much on the latter for money and influence, at the expense of building a sustainable membership base. It resonated in 2013 when the former party co-chair and ally of David Cameron, Lord Feldman, was accused of calling local Conservative Association members “mad, swivel-eyed loons” (something he denies).

“The Tory party got to a point where it realised it could raise big sums of money from fat cat bankers and hedge fund managers… that [it] didn’t need members,” says the Conservative Campaign for Democracy chair John Strafford.

When promoted, Brandon Lewis fretted to the Telegraph about getting his party “battle ready” for the next general election and “some really difficult local elections” in May. His plan is to boost social media: “We are looking to expand how we do things digitally,” he told the paper, revealing that he wanted to work with young people to create “the toolkit” required to “go out there and argue” online.

“The Labour party is streets ahead,” says Strafford. “The Labour party can run a national campaign, across the board, on the ground… They have got a huge head start on the use of social media.”

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The Queen Mary figures and CCHQ’s response highlighted the Conservative Party’s two main problems: a lack of manpower and social media heft to fight modern elections, and failing to appeal to younger people.

Young voters overwhelmingly preferred Labour at the election – which had the highest youth turnout in 25 years – with 62 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds voting for Jeremy Corbyn’s party.

But the Tories are also failing to attract millennials. According to YouGov, the tipping point at which a voter is more likely to have voted Conservative than Labour is now the age of 47 – up from 34 at the start of the election campaign. Indeed, 63 per cent of 25-29-year-olds, 55 per cent of 30-39-year-olds and 44 per cent of 40-49-year-olds (still the majority) voted Labour.

“They’ll just die off”

This has dented the spirits of younger Tory activists, who feel that metropolitan, liberal, pro-European voters – who are affluent but precarious in terms of work and property ownership – have been left behind by the party.

“It is a farce that basically everyone I know who’s a very well-earning [professional], who’s very aspirational, doesn’t really believe in Corbynism or left-wing policy, who thinks that Britain needs to be open in terms of its economy – almost everyone I know like that voted Labour,” says a former Tory candidate who ran last year. “They have no message coming from the Tories.”

This also has practical ramifications for the party’s campaign machine. “They’ll just die off,” says Strafford of party activists. “Not only just die off, but they’ll become incapable of standing around for a couple of hours at a polling station and canvassing people and all the rest of it.”

Activate, a youth organisation campaigning for Tory policies but otherwise separate from the party apparatus, is trying to rectify this. While Labour has Momentum, a huge external grassroots network – which was central to its digital and doorstep success last year – the Conservatives have realised they need something similar. Could Activate be the answer?

Sam Ancliff, the group’s 23-year-old Campaign Director who has been involved since its bumpy start last August, wants Activate to influence election results by campaigning for key council seats. The group has eight people on its national committee (all volunteers), and nearly 1,000 members. Ancliff says Activate’s biggest challenge is to “end the stigma” of being a young Tory online.

“The biggest problem that young Conservatives get is that… there’s no presence [on social media] from anyone on the right of the spectrum who are pushing out the things that Conservatism is doing or even just actually being present,” he tells me. “Let alone anything else that’s actually showing that there are other people with similar values out there, then they’re not going to be engaged.”

“This ‘we have to get the memes out’ is not how to look at it”

Ancliff wants his group to target the 40 per cent or so of under-25s who didn’t vote, having only become interested in Tory politics himself a couple of years ago (he’d been in the Army between the ages of 16 and 22). Growing up in the safe Labour seat of Ashfield in Nottinghamshire, he hardly heard from the Tories.

“There was nothing coming through my door, no one posting on the internet, there was nothing that I saw that spoke about Conservatism,” he recalls. “That’s the biggest challenge really, just actively getting people when they’re 16, 17, starting to become more politically aware.”

But to do this, Activate has to overcome the cringe factor of their chosen party being behind on social media strategy – Brandon Lewis was mocked on Twitter for his “toolkit” proposal, and there were a number of online bungles during the recent reshuffle, including tweeting out wrongly that Chris Grayling had been appointed party chair.

How do Tories avoid looking embarrassing when using social media and referring to things like memes?

“Especially when you’ve got 50-year-old blokes sharing them!” laughs Ancliff. “Yeah. I think there’s a time and place for them. But I think phrasing it round ‘we have to get the memes out’ is not actually the way we should be looking at it,” he says.

“As much as it is quite an archaic word, ‘infographics’ is far more appropriate because that’s actually what we should be doing… talking about policy or contradicting an opposition party; [it] isn’t necessarily going to be fun but it still needs to be shareable content.”

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Sam Ancliff began to engage with policy when the Tories went into coalition with the Lib Dems in 2010, and is far from evangelical about current Tory preoccupations: he doesn’t have an opinion on fox-hunting, for example, joking in an online Q&A that he’s only ever seen one fox in his life.

But this strikes at the heart of the true membership crisis for the Tories – it’s not just about numbers, it’s about who to attract. Making policy for the property-less socially liberal millennials, for example, may come at the expense of retaining longer-standing members in rural strongholds and market towns.

May’s decision to drop her pledge to revisit the fox-hunting ban earlier this year is an example: many pro-hunting groups, such as Vote-OK, have provided campaigners for Conservative candidates in elections past.

“Since going back into the Nineties with the Hunting Bill, which raged for so long back then, there has been quite a lot of engagement from the hunting community and the wider rural community supporting mainly Conservative candidates,” says Tim Bonner, chief executive of the Countryside Alliance, which is apolitical.

“The reality is that the hunting community is about the most politically-savvy group of people you could find, given the years of battle over hunting legislation.”

Yet Bonner says pro-hunting activists are unlikely to be put off campaigning for Tory candidates if they remain sympathetic to their cause.

“People have become very frustrated that their views aren’t heard”

And the Campaign for Conservative Democracy’s John Strafford believes the only way of rebuilding membership is to give members a say – the right to elect their party chairperson, for example, and to vote on policy motions at the annual conference (which members of other parties are allowed to do).

Strafford served on the party’s National Policy Forum committee, as well as its National Union Executive Committee for nine years and the Board of Finance for three years, and says the idea they consult members is “rubbish”.

“People have become very frustrated that their views aren’t heard,” he says. “The note that Corbyn struck was to say ‘look, we value you ordinary grassroots members and we want your voice to be heard’.”

The Tory leadership is doing the opposite. On 16 March, constitutional changes to centralise the party will go before the party’s National Convention (the voluntary party’s governing body). These include taking the word “constituency” out of constituency associations (and merging some of them), the selection procedure and the selection of all candidates to be determined by the Committee on Candidates (an appointed body), and the removal of even any lip-service to local influence over selections.

These changes aren’t guaranteed to go through, though the National Convention is seen as a bit of a rubber-stamp. And the very fact they have been mooted shows how out-of-touch the central party is from its disillusioned grassroots.

Tory MPs like Priti Patel, who recently urged the party to decentralise, cut membership fees and open up the selection process, and Rob Halfon, who is calling for “democratisation” of party conference and its ruling bodies, are putting pressure on CCHQ’s new team to make radical changes. They will need more than a digital “toolkit” to rebuild the party’s crumbling structures.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.