The Conservative Party is dying on its feet. But whose Party is it anyway? (Part One)
By Paul Goodman
The Conservative Party is the largest force in local government. It may win the next election. But it's dying on its feet.
Ponder the likely course of events -
- Membership is falling. It currently stands at roughly 177,000 - as this site reported during Party Conference.
- The Party will lose council seats, and control of councils, as this Parliament continues... It's happened whenever we've been in government before - voters use local elections to protest against the Government of the day. And it will happen this time round too, possibly in spades.
- ...Leaving MPs and candidates exposed at the next election, since by then some councillors will have lost their seats and local membership fallen further.
It's true that council election trends ebb and flow. Were the Party to go into Opposition next time round, it would probably start winning back council seats and control of councils. But whether it does so or not, Party membership will surely continue to fall, which means, over time, the selection of council candidates by a shrinking local base.
Many reasons have been given for the continuing fall in membership, including -
- Disdain by the Party leadership for the members;
- Distrust and dislike of some members for the leadership;
- Discontent with the policy direction of the Party;
- The ageing of the Party: members die, or move away, or don't join a new Association after a boundary review;
- The £25 minimum membership fee;
- The inefficiencies of Merlin and local Associations;
- The poaching of potential local members by CCHQ in their drive for central membership;
- Anger at CCHQ interference with the selection of Parliamentary (and Euro) candidates
- Disillusion with politics as a whole;
- And above all, the decline of political parties in Britain as bodies with a mass membership - a trend that's also affected Labour and the Liberal Democrats.
Readers will no doubt supply others (and have been particularly critical in the recent past about Merlin on our comment threads). But I want to concentrate on one final reason - namely, the lack of rights and benefits for Party members.
The Party's constitution is extremely difficult to find on the internet: indeed, I confess to not having found it at all, but having hunted down a copy by other means. There's certainly no link to it on the Party's website - a fact that says a lot. (We may put a copy up on ConservativeHome in due course.)
But as far as I can see, having read the constitution and asked around, Party members are uniquely entitled to -
- Vote for the Party leader during a leadership election;
- Vote at their local Association's annual general meeting (if a member for three months);
- Vote on the selection of candidates for local and European elections;
- Appeal against expulsion from membership;
- Petition to Chairman of the Party Board for amendments to the Party constitution (of which more later)
- and that's more or less it, with a few minor exceptions. I've excluded the right to vote in the selection of local Parliamentary candidates because I'm unsure to what degree the open primary experiment will be continued. If it does, Party members will of course not be uniquely entitled to vote in such elections.
For interest -
- Labour Party members have a few more rights than Conservative ones. These include the right to elect the Party's Deputy Leader and its for National Treasurer.
- Liberal Democrat members have many more rights than Conservative ones. These are very detailed, and include, for example, submitting policy proposals to the Federal Policy Committee.
As far as I can see (and as a member myself), Malcom Dunn, one of our regular contributors, had it largely right when he wrote on a thread that -
"I pay £25p.a. for the privilege of receiving more begging letters and delivering leaflets. That's it."
As far as I can tell -
- According to the Party's website, it has an "Affinity Programme". This directs the reader to a series of discounts on products, some of which are listed.
- According to the website again, there is an "Activist Centre". This directs the reader to a section containing lists of Policies, People (which contain links to profiles of Cabinet Members, Ministers, MPs, Peers, and devolved assembly members, though not local Association websites), Press Releases and various other links. There is a further link marked "Activist Centre" which returns one to the section I've described.
- Party members have no formal role in Party policy-making - an important matter given that the Government's formal policy-making machinery works for the Coalition, not the Party. However, it was announced at Conference that the CPF is to be revived.
- There's no two-way means of communication from the Party to its individual members. (As far as I'm aware, this is true of the Party Board and the 1922 Committee as well as the Party leadership). There's a weekly e-mail from David Cameron (which members must first sign up for) and text messages (which, again, they must sign up for).
- There are few effective formal Party networks - for example, there's no effective business network that I know of.
- There's no training programme for Association Officers.
- There's no College or summer school.
- There is no control by Party members, or accountability to them, over how money that they raise is spent.
- There is no Voluntary Party office with Voluntary Party representation in CCHQ. (Jeremy Middleton proposed such an office earlier this year, as I reported, though staffed by party professionals.)
I'll turn tomorrow to what could be done. At which point, it's important to write that I've no cure-all solution, no proposal, no prescription, not even a list of suggestions. This is a big subject, and there are points I'll have missed and things I don't know. I've an idea about the three broad options for the future of Party membership are, but no more.
What really matters isn't what I think, but what ConservativeHome readers think: this is an instance of seeking the wisdom of crowds. Perhaps you believe that membership can be revived, and have ideas about how to do it. Perhaps you think that the whole concept's outdated. Perhaps you don't care - at least, not in sufficient numbers to change anything, presuming anyone wants to in the first place. We will see.