There 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.
By Harry Phibbs
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This morning there are reports that both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have problems with Party membership. For Labour the problem is a flood of new recruits. In Falkirk West the local Party until recently had fewer than 200 members. But there has been an influx of 100 members of the Unite union - in an effort to ensure the selection of a left wing candidate. In Ilford East the same union has offered to pay the Labour Party membership sub for those members who join.
By contrast, the problem for the Conservatives is not enough new recruits. Interviewed in the Daily Telegraph this morning Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary and also a former Party Chairman says:
“We need to listen to the grassroots — we need to listen to them intently. But the party has also got to spread its roots and widen its reach. Get into parts of the forest that they’ve retreated from. Our membership is a tad elderly. It would be nice if we could get some younger people in. It would be very nice if there was a concerted effort to do so.”
Mr Pickles believes a larger membership would help the Party "stay connected" and to be "immersed in the community."
In its leader column the Daily Telegraph backs this call. We must "rebuild the party as an organisation that better reflects the communities it seeks to represent.":
In the early Fifties, the Tories boasted three million members; today that number has declined to around 130,000. In many parts of the country, the local Conservative Association still sits at the heart of parish life – but the Tories could do a better job of increasing participation and embracing people from different backgrounds. It needs to counter the charge that its higher echelons are a “chumocracy”.
What could be done to achieve this? One useful first step would be to end the routine obstruction of those wishing to join. A mystery shopping exercise a couple of years ago, reported by Mark Wallace, showed that of those who applied to join the Conservative Party over half had no reply, 10% were told the Party was closed to new members and some were told that an interview must first be passed.
By Mark Wallace
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Predictably, there are acres of newsprint devoted to the EU issue in the press today - what should Cameron do? Ought ministers to be allowed to vote for the amendment? Is this a damaging split or a realigning of the Conservative party to a more popular position?
It's easy to focus so much on the big ideological debates that we miss the more mundane practicalities - and yet a party needs both the right policies and the right day-to-day infrastructure to win elections.
As it happens, while the headlines are all about Europe there is a practical debate going on too, about how the party uses its European representatives.
As reported on MPsETC today, the selection process for the European Parliament elections is now underway. With a list system demanding that we order our candidates as well as just select them for each constituency, it's quite drawn-out.
There is also understandable controversy about the fact that sitting MEPs, if reselected, automatically go to the top of the list, effectively removing the power of the party membership to democratically deselect them should they so wish.
But this time round attention is falling on the bizarre purdah period the party rules enforce. For the duration of May, June and July, all Conservative MEPs and MEP candidates are forbidden from speaking at party events, going out campaigning with activists, host visitors at the European Parliament or even send out their regular emails updating party members on what is going on in Brussels.
By Peter Hoskin
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Change is afoot in Wonkland. ConservativeHome can reveal that Mark MacGregor has been appointed as Deputy Director of Policy Exchange, replacing David Skelton, who has, of course, departed to run a group dedicated to broadening the Conservative Party’s appeal in the North and elsewhere. Mr MacGregor will operate alongside the recently appointed Director of Policy Exchange, Dean Godson.
Many of you will recognise Mr MacGregor’s name from the party’s near past. He was, and then wasn’t, Chief Executive of CCHQ during the tumultuous Iain Duncan Smith years. And he went on to manage Steven Norris’s campaign for the London mayoralty in 2004. Since 2007, he’s been in the private sector, as CEO of Connect Support Services, an IT company which, incidentally, was founded by Adam Afriyie.
Mr MacGregor’s return to Westminster means that Policy Exchange now has quite a collection of modernising former party advisers at its disposal, including Sean Worth and James O'Shaughnessy. Their continuing influence is assured.
By Paul Goodman
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The link to the book can be found here.
By Paul Goodman
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Parliament will honour Margaret Thatcher on Wednesday. But what will the party do? I gather that Grant Shapps is mulling the options. The Party Chairman is much taken by Barak Obama's use of volunteers during last year's election, but recognises to that be effective, they must be trained. That may mean a training school or college of some. Which in turn may mean naming it after Baroness Thatcher. (By the way, Shapps will have his eye on Ed Milband's own plans for recruiting an army of community organisers, which have involved the American campaigner Arnie Graf.)Whatever happens, something special should be done to honour Baroness Thatcher's memory at this year's party conference, and I believe Shapps is already thinking of ways to do so. It isn't easy finding very senior former Ministers from the Thatcher years who left her government on relaxed terms with her. (Nigel Lawson, anyone? Geoffrey Howe? And by the way, anyone seen Michael Heseltine today?) Lord Tebbit was one of her original "Gang of Four", but has always been very much his own man. Shapps is a great admirer of Cecil Parkinson, who remains as sharp as ever. Whatever the party does at its conference, Lord Parkinson should certainly be involved.
By Paul Goodman
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Yesterday's meeting of the Conservative Parliamentary Party has already been well covered. James Kirkup has described how backbench MPs told Cabinet Ministers to row in behind Cameron. James Forsyth has reported how one MP in a marginal seat - James Morris - told his colleagues to stop making difficulty for people like him. (Another one, Sarah Wollaston, defended her right to tweet as she pleases.)
One more point. I'm told that David Cameron indicated that Lynton Crosby, whose performance cheered up Tory MPs, will run the Conservatives' 2015 campaign and have authority over it. My view remains that there's no point in having another cook spoiling the broth in Cameron's kitchen, and that Crosby must therefore be unambiguously in charge.
By Tim Montgomerie
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81 Tory MPs rebelled on David Nuttall's EU referendum motion.
91 Tory MPs voted against Lords reform.
136 Tory MPs voted, last night, against the Tory leadership's position on gay marriage. Another forty abstained.
Technically, of course, last night's vote wasn't a rebellion against government policy. It was a free vote. But it was certainly a vote against one of David Cameron's most important initiatives since becoming Prime Minister and also against his model of modernisation. Read today's papers and the result is certainly being presented as a rebellion against his authority. The party looks divided in the eyes of voters and voters don't like divided parties. Very divided. Some gay people may have new confidence in the PM but less faith in the Conservative Party.
By Tim Montgomerie
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Lord Ashcroft has written about his new poll of more than 2,000 voters here.
He argues that the Europe speech has cheered up the Conservatives - "this is not to be sneezed at" - but has not changed voters' perceptions of our party. The latest YouGov survey certainly suggests the boost we received at the weekend may be fading. It puts Labour 12% ahead. This may be because of the lack of potency of the Europe issue - it may be the economic growth gloom - but it may also partly reflect a failure of the Tory machine. There has been no viral or substantial campaign to follow up on Cameron's speech. One Cabinet minister told me that the Tory Party should have used the last seven days to nail every inch of Ed Miliband into a position where he was defined by his opposition to a referendum. The minister also wondered why Conservative HQ hadn't launched a vivid way of communicating that Cameron is absolutely determined to deliver on his referendum pledge. There is no imagination, they complained. We are seeing the same lack of follow-through that was absent after last October's party conference. A good speech is delivered but where is the campaign to do the other 90% of the selling?
On a day when The Guardian splashes with more speculation against David Cameron's leadership (you'd almost think the newspaper had an agenda!) Lord Ashcroft's poll also suggests that the Cameron v Miliband brand is a much better framing of the next election - as far as Conservatives are concerned - than a Tory v Labour framing.
The table below compares the Conservative and Labour identities:
By Tim Montgomerie
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We still don't quite know for sure what David Cameron will say in his Europe speech but I would now be flabergasted if he doesn't promise the biggest ever attempt to renegotiate Britain's relationship with Brussels and also an In/Out referendum at the end of that process of renegotiation. I fear he won't deliver the third commitment that the ConHome Editors requested last week - legislation in this parliament to underwrite the referendum promise (the 'John Baron commitment') - but David Cameron is set to make a huge attempt to take Britain off the path to ever closer union. When we hear the speech I suspect he will embrace a great deal of the Fresh Start agenda co-ordinated by MPs Andrea Leadsom, Chris Heaton-Harris and George Eustice.
The speech is not going to contain everything Tory MPs or Tory members wanted but it is a huge step forward. It is going to be interesting to see how the party reacts.