Attack-mails from Grant Shapps and his sorcerer's apprentices in CCHQ's kitchen seem to be arriving in my in-box at a rate of approximately one a minute. I'm not going to report each time the Party Chairman announces a new attack website, but here's today's, timed for the start of Labour's Conference, which gives a sense of how much the Tory assault operation has improved.
I asked on this site in early August why the Party wouldn't declare a membership figure, and ran the editorial asking the question every day for a week - a first for this site. The answer was plain. 253,600 members voted during the 2005 leadership election, and Downing Street didn't want headlines declaring that since David Cameron won it membership has fallen by roughly half. These are certain to follow the figure that senior CCHQ sources have disclosed to ConservativeHome - 134,000 constituency members, which is a bit over that halfway mark. So how reliable is that headline total? And why has CCHQ changed its mind about releasing it?
This site has seen an individual constituency breakdown of the 134,000 figure, but has not had the time to examine it closely: we will do so during the next few days. (The Party claims that the total membership figure is 174,000.*) There are three main reasons for the decision itself.
By Mark Wallace
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The news today that Graeme Wilson, Deputy Political Editor of The Sun, has been appointed as press secretary is one result of that process.
It's a good choice - Graeme has a great nose for a story, and just as importantly is extremely likeable. Not everyone in the Lobby gets on with each other, to put it mildly, so it is both important and tricky to secure a candidate who is universally liked.
There are two interesting aspects to flag up. The first is that while parts of the left predictably moan about "another Murdoch man" being hired, it isn't that simple. As well as Murdoch's supposed control of individual journalists being very much exaggerated, Wilson hasn't always worked at The Sun. Indeed, he spent ten years writing for other papers before joining it - several of them at the Daily Telegraph.
By Peter Hoskin
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There is, according to the Telegraph’s Matthew Holehouse, a bit of a to-do going on in the constituency of Harlow. The local Trades Union Council is motioning against Labour’s candidate for the next election, a Unite-backed party advisor called Suzy Stride. As Holehouse reports, they’ve taken to calling her “Silent Suzy” on account of her… well… silence on a range of issues that matter to them. And they even contrast her unfavourably with the serving Tory MP, one Robert Halfon. “We are deeply concerned that we have received far more support from Conservative MP Robert Halfon on the issues of trade union facility time and job losses at Comet and Tesco than we have from Suzy,” says one. Unite’s political director has subsequently attacking this viewpoint as “unacceptable”.
The Daily Telegraph and the Sunday Times (£) both burrowed into the Electoral Commission's records recently for details of Party membership figures. It was only a matter of time until a full calculation of the data was carried out, and this site has made one based on last year's figures.
The real full time membership figure will be higher than 59,000 or so. There may be accounting units other than the 674 we have identified. And if, for example, half the 386 units who haven't declared are roughly comparable to the 139 who have, full-time party membership would remain well above the 100,000 mark.
"Bluntly, the Conservative Party’s problem with ethnic minority voters is costing it seats," Lord Ashcroft wrote last year after the publication of his report, Degrees of Separation. Correcting the problem is a long-standing cause for this site. Tim Montgomerie has pointed out that the number one driver of not voting Conservative is not being white. I have argued that the Party had made strategic errors through tokenism and ignorance; that it doesn't matter if we think we're not racist but ethnic minority voters do, and that it's time to end the Conservative war on multiculturalism (which, by the way, is supported by 71 per cent of Tory voters).
The new study by Operation Black Vote which found that Britain's ethnic minority voters may determine the 2015 election thus makes a point which all of us should have grasped already, though the detail is compelling. In its account of the study today, the Guardian reports that the number of seats where black and Asian voters could decide the outcome had rocketed by 70 per cent compared with the 2010 election, and says that the ethnic minority vote is bigger than the majority of the sitting MP in no fewer than 168 constituencies. ("The seats extend beyond inner-city areas to include places such as Southhampton Oxford, Sherwood, Ipswich and Northampton," according to the paper.)
One can quibble about the detail, but the trend is unmistakeable. In 2001, one in ten voters were ethnic minority members; by 2050, that figure will be one in five. It would be easy to conclude that nothing can be done to halt a Conservative slide to demographic marginalisation, as we dwindle into becoming a rump party of the shires, like the protectionists of the 1850s. However, there is cause for cautious optimism, for three reasons. First, because although the Party won a mere 16 per cent of the ethnic minority vote in 2010, the figure is higher among some groups: among voters of Indian origin, for example, it came in at 24 per cent. Second, because Downing Street and CCHQ have grasped the scale of the problem.
Ed Miliband intends to change the way in which trade union members are affiliated to the Labour Party. One can argue back and forth about whether this is more or less likely to reduce union influence on Labour. (Mark Wallace offered a thorough analysis on this site in the wake of Miliband's original speech.) What is likely, however, is that it will change Labour's calculation about party funding dramatically. To date, the two main parties have had the drop on each other over the issue, like gunslingers in a western: Labour has had no real interest in changing the law to stop the Conservatives gaining big donations, because the move would render its union money vulnerable to a Tory counter-attack. Obviously, the opposite applies. Or it has to date, because - as I say - Miliband's plan has changed all that.
CCHQ's main reason for not releasing the number of members who voted to select candidates for the European elections is that the Board hasn't agreed to do so. This doesn't mean that it made a specific decision not to release the figure: merely that since it has not been released during previous European elections, there's a presumption that it shouldn't be issued after this one. More widely, CCHQ pleads the usual difficulties in citing a membership figure - namely, that the Party hasn't a centralised structure; that local Associations don't always have up to date figures, and that this difficulty is compounded by their unwillingness to risk entering data into Merlin - and thus risk losing it in cyberspace.
To recite these excuses is to grasp at once how flimsy they are. Just because the voting figure in the European elections wasn't released last time round is no reason not to release it again. And CCHQ could easily get a wider estimate of membership from each local Association. No, the reason that no figure has been released is that Downing Street is too embarrassed to do so. As the Times points out this morning, 253,600 members voted during the 2005 leadership election. Membership is now estimated to have fallen to about 130,000, and the actual figure may be lower. UKIP's membership is reported to be as high as 40,000. One should be wary, since it has the same interest in puffing its own number than any other party, but there can be no doubt that its support has grown. The gap between the two figures is not unbridgeable.
Continuing enquiries about membership are undoubtedly an embarrassment for Downing Street and CCHQ. This morning, they would rather that the media - and ConservativeHome - focus on the appointment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama's campaign manager last time round, to help with the 2015 election campaign. However, CCHQ's refusal to release figures and its glee over Messina's appointment only serves to highlight the nature and scale of the problems facing the Party, and the coincidence of the two taking place at the same time is highly illustrative. It is always easier to think short-term (about how to win the next election) than to plan for the medium-term and longer (about how to build a growing voluntary Party). Time and time again, CCHQ has been crammed with staff and money for election campaigns...and been left bare afterwards.
I wrote last week that Lyton Crosby should first drop his other clients, and then take complete charge of the Conservative campaign machine - as Tim Montgomerie and I have recommended from the outset. The next day, the Daily Telegraph reported senior Conservatives as saying that there is a "working assumption" that this will happen, and that the strategist is “not averse” to working exclusively for the Party in the 15 months before the next general election. Boris Johnson, for whom the Crosby did such effective work, has recommended that the Party kill the fatted calf, push the boat out and do "whatever it takes" - in other words, pay the strategist enough to make it worth his while to put his other clients aside until June 2015.
Yesterday's publication of Crosby's terms of engagement and statement by the Cabinet Secretary can thus be read as part of a holding position. Crosby confimed that he hadn't discussed tobacco with the Prime Minister (as was obvious from the start) and that he hasn't used his position as a campaign adviser improperly (ditto). Sir Jeremy Heywood said that the strategist hasn't influenced policy on alcohol or energy either, and repeated Downing Street’s assurance that he does not meet civil servants. He also published the Party's terms of engagement with Crosby. These bar him from lobbying the Government or claiming privileged access.
The Andy Coulson saga involves a trial. The Lynton Crosby controversy does not. This helps to explain why the latter is a classic Westminster Village story, with its complex calculations about conflicting interests and chinese walls. (David Cameron's strategist is a Party and not a Government employee, and even then only a part-time one.) Boris Johnson's dismissal of the whole business as a "storm in a teacup" will have reflected Downing Street's hope that the Crosby story is only still running because the lobby has little else to write about at the end of the Parliamentary term.
However, the story won't go away forever or even for long, whether this hope is realised or not. Any enterprising journalist can simply look at Government policy on the one hand, dig around about Crosby's business interests on the other...and then write his story. Number 10 will want to close this drip-feed of allegations down, rather than take the risk of them not reverberating beyond the village. I wrote earlier this week that there are only two ways of doing so - either sacking Crosby, or promoting him: in other words, getting him to drop his other clients until 2015, which would involve, as Boris puts it, killing the fatted calf, pushing the boat out and "doing whatever it takes".