The Conservatives face dwindling membership and are failing to match Labour’s fundraising. Even worse, they may be losing the battle of ideas
As the Conservatives gather in Manchester this month for the party’s annual conference, they face what the old Chinese curse calls “interesting times”. Should the Prime Minister be put on a short leash following her poor performance in this year’s unnecessary general election? (Less than half of the party’s members reportedly wish her to remain as leader until the next general election.) If, as is widely presumed, she will not be able to lead the party in the general election scheduled for 2022, how long before the poll will her successor need to be elected to establish him or herself? Given the lack of an overall majority, will a short-term crisis force her from office and, perhaps, lead to another election before 2022 or to another referendum on the terms of Britain’s leaving the European Union?
Apart from debates on EU policy and other fraught issues, there is the inevitable post mortem on the election campaign itself. At the moment, the focus is on whether the central party organisation was given too small a role and outside consultants such as Sir Lynton Crosby had too much power. The complaint within high party circles is that the Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) had become “hollowed out”.
The risk is that discussion and recrimination will concentrate excessively on lessons to be gained from the analysis of short-term errors. It would be wiser to pay attention to gradual, deep-rooted, largely ignored issues of Conservative Party decline. The Conservatives’ massive opinion poll lead in the early months of 2017 derived from distrust of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and not from deep-rooted attachment to the Tories or to Toryism.
Measuring the number of party members is notoriously hard. It is even more hazardous to attempt to assess trends over decades. So much depends on the definition of a party “member”, on the subscription required, on whether former members who are in arrears are retained on the party rolls, on whether such rolls are maintained centrally or by local party branches. In 1953, the Conservatives claimed 2.8 million members. Labour reached its peak of individual subscribers at one million in 1952. After a slump during Harold Wilson’s premiership in 1966-70, Labour was down to 310,000 members in 1974. The Conservatives admitted a fall in membership numbers but remained well in advance of Labour until the 1990s.
Despite Margaret Thatcher’s success in winning three general elections, Conservative membership fell sharply during her tenure. For years, the party headquarters concealed this. In 1994, some party officials were so alarmed at constituency atrophy that they passed comprehensive local party membership figures to me on the basis that I would publish them in The Times during that year’s annual party conference. One constituency had only two members. The second significant membership slump occurred during David Cameron’s leadership when membership halved again. This was not wholly surprising in view of the advanced age of many previous members.
It is arguable whether party members matter any more. One Conservative MP for an outer London constituency told me that membership is out of date. I understood him to say that his constituency has no local organisation at all. His own staff provides the support he needs. Certainly, the rapid growth in staff allowances for MPs and the introduction in the 1970s and subsequent increases in salaries and allowances for local councillors have had huge impacts. By 2012, MPs employed 2,750 publicly paid assistants. Because of loose rules, these staffers fulfil some of the functions previously carried out by party agents whose salaries depended on the subscriptions of party members and on (mainly local) donations. Election campaigns, it is frequently said, depend in the modern age on national advertising slogans and on the performance of the party leaders on television. Already in 1959, a Conservative grandee involved in election planning reportedly said that “elections are no longer won by little men walking up and down streets”.
The change in title by Cameron from Conservative Central Office to Conservative Campaign Headquarters may have reflected an underlying view that the promotion of local organisation on a permanent basis between general elections was of declining value.
Anyway, as a possible result of changing social habits which have made party membership less fashionable but also — I believe — as a result of long neglect of party management issues by successive leaders, Conservative membership has changed from being three times larger than Labour’s to being a third or a quarter of it. The current figures would once have been unthinkable. According to the most recent published figures, the Conservatives had 149,800 members in 2013. This was barely larger than the SNP’s 2017 total of 118,000 and the Liberal Democrats’ 102,000. Individual Labour membership stood in June 2017 at 552,000.
For every 20 individual party members Labour had at its peak in 1952, the party had 11 members in 2017. For every 20 members the Conservative Party claimed in 1952, it had just one in 2013.
Theresa May is in the exceptional position of becoming the Conservative leader having earlier chaired the party headquarters. She is in a good position to tackle the rot, but will also have other things on her mind.
It is hardly surprising that steeply falling membership has had financial consequences for both the central and local Conservative structure. The ability to attract millionaire money has only partly lessened the underlying problem. In fact, it may have made the difficulties worse by providing a relatively lazy way to avoid the drudgery of trawling for tens of thousands of small and medium-sized donations. The most recent annual party accounts show that in the non-election year of 2016, central Conservative income amounted to £28.3 million. This was significantly lower than Labour’s £49.8 million. Labour was helped by its share of “Short Money”, the state grant given to opposition parties in the House of Commons. But this explains relatively little of its financial lead. When all state grants are subtracted, Labour had a national income of £42.6 million compared with with the Conservatives’ £27.9 million. More-over, Labour ended the year £11.1 million in the black while Conservative HQ remained £4.2 million in the red. The general election campaign gave a temporary financial boost to the Tories as shown in donation statistics published by the Electoral Commission for the second quarter of 2017.
More significant is the analysis I prepared in 2016 for the Committee on Standards in Public Life on trends in local party funding. Despite the fall in membership, Conservative constituency associations still easily outspend their Labour counterparts. But this advantage has been steadily declining, as might be expected from the membership trends. Between 2003 and 2013 (two years without general elections), the average expenditure of constituency Labour parties rose 3 per cent faster than inflation (as measured by average wages). By the same reckoning, local Conservative spending fell by 29 per cent. Compared with 1993, estimated Labour local spending was 15 per cent higher in real terms by 2013 but Conservative constituency spending was 52 per cent lower in real terms.
The third, probably most important dimension of long-term party decline is in the field of ideas. The failure to engage younger electors, especially in the universities, is nothing new. But it has reached crisis proportions. It will not be enough to offer short-term economic bribes to them. It is crucial to engage on an intellectual and moral level, to listen as well as lecture, to reach out. There is no magic way to do this. The existence of a small, vocal Bullingdon tendency in some university Conservative societies has been destructive. The rise of Conservative-oriented think-tanks also has been a mixed blessing. As Tim Montgomerie recently argued in the Guardian, think-tanks tend to be reliant on commercial sources of funding. They tend to commission studies and sponsor events designed to promote policies favourable to their interests. This applies to think-tanks of all political hues.
Ideas are not just fuzzy and insubstantial. It should not take a Gramsci to realise how vital they are. The debate on national sovereignty and negotiations about UK exit from the EU has come to be dominated by a highly vocal series of activists in leading universities, with the new Oxford Vice-Chancellor Louise Richardson one of the loudest critics of the public verdict in the EU referendum. Major grants dispensed by the taxpayer through the research councils often reflect the prevailing moods and political orientations of academic bureaucrats. This, perhaps, is as it should be since the alternative — the manipulation of research on political grounds by the government of the day — would be worse.
A central party organisation cannot on its own change an entire climate of opinion. Nor would it be desirable were it able to do so. But political parties have legitimate, important roles in public debate. With his creation of a “Campaign Headquarters” David Cameron recognised that Parties exist to win power and that losing three general elections in a row — 1997, 2001, and 2005 — was an unacceptable state of affairs. The problem now, even more so than when Cameron won the party leadership, is that several tasks must be carried out at the same time.
In the months ahead, there are bound to be upheavals and crises. There are serious “known unknowns”: uncertainties stemming from Mrs May’s lack of an overall majority in the House of Commons, from internal divisions within the party over the terms of Brexit, from EU negotiators determined to punish and warn that abandoning the EU ship must have a heavy price, and from the House of Lords. Then come the “unknown unknowns”, not least international dangers.
Against this background, it would be understandable were the Prime Minister and her senior advisers to place the tasks of long-term party regeneration on the back burner. Yet this would be a huge error. It was immediately after Winston Churchill’s overwhelming defeat in the general election of 1945 that a leading businessman, Lord Woolton, became chairman of the battered Conservative Party. He was one of the most important influences on postwar politics. Since his work was either conducted behind the scenes or was too boring to attract notice, his role has usually been ignored. He restored the party’s finances and created a nest egg that was to help secure three election victories in 1951, 1955 and 1959. The large team of paid canvassers (“missioners”) scoured the country for new members. The Conservative Research Department was a valuable, highly regarded generator of ideas backed by an important party figure, R. A. Butler. In 1948, a grand home in Yorkshire was set up as Swinton Conservative College. Its closure in 1975 was a milestone in the process of party decline. By that time 54,000 people had participated in its courses.
Today, a major business leader, Sir Mick Davis, is at the helm at the Conservative Campaign Headquarters, though as chief executive rather than party chairman. Will he prove to be the new Lord Woolton?