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If the Conservative Party is in decline, whose fault is that?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-05-18 at 08.04.09There are activists in every Party whose eyes aren't entirely steady in their sockets.  And swivel eyes, to mangle a metaphor, cut both ways - see here.  But most Conservative members are normal enough.  Tory activists are not untypical of the class which, if one takes a romantic view, has been the backbone of England for centuries - and, even if one takes a prosaic one, works (largely in the private sector), earns, provides, saves, and gives generously to charity.  A high proportion of the members I know are involved in their local communities: indeed, they are the Big Society.  But Tory members have undergone one significant change in the last 25 years or so.  They are, on the whole, older people.  The Conservative Party has been hit hard by the hollowing-out of conventional politics.

The response of the Party leadership, since 2005, could have been to strive for new members - or, alternatively, to abandon the concept of membership, and seek to build a new movement based on overlapping interest groups.  Its view of what to do about declining membership has ebbed and flowed as Party Chairmen have come and gone, but one big point is clear.  People who join political parties want to have a say in them - or at least a sense of ownership.  At a national level, party members have no more say than when David Cameron became leader.  And at a local level, they have less: the power of local members to select their own Parliamentary candidates has been diminished by the vogue for primaries.  Membership costs £25 a year: no small sum.  Payment is followed by a steady stream of letters and e-mails asking for more.

CCHQ and Downing Street (when the Party is in office) has massive power over local Associations which is sometimes arbitrarily wielded: if you doubt it, read Mark Wallace on this site this week on the subject of the present Euro-selections.  In short, the Conservative Party is trapped in a spiral of failure as far as membership is concerned.  The smaller the membership becomes, the less its leadership trusts it - and the less its leadership trusts it, the smaller its membership becomes. (Meanwhile, UKIP membership rises.)  But it doesn't follow that because it's small, it has no influence all - it does, albeit in a very narrow compass.  MPs are reliant on their local Associations for support in tough political times - and sometimes fellowship, too.  That's why so many of them voted for the Baron Euro-amendment in the Commons this week.

This is the event that triggered the observations on the rotation frequency of actvists' eyeballs by a "member of the inner circle" with "strong social connections to the Prime Minister and close links to the party machine".  But if the party on the ground is not in a good way, whose fault is that?  Doesn't it lie as much with David Cameron - to whom this person is apparently close - as with activists who have often worked hard for the Party for many years, and will still be working hard when the present leadership has moved on?  Since there are few "members of the Prime Minister's inner circle" with "social connections" to him and "close links to the pary machine", I imagine that the secret will probably be out by Monday.  I refrain from guessing only because my inkling may be wrong.  But I wonder if the position of this mystery man will become untenable.


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