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John Strafford: The decline and death of Party membership - Why should anyone now be a member of the Conservative Party?

STRAFFORD-JOHN John Strafford runs the Conservative Campaign for Democracy and has held office at virtually every level in the voluntary party, including nine years on the former National Union Executive Committee. In his newly-published book, Our Fight for Democracy – A History of Democracy in the United Kingdom, he analyses the weaknesses of British democracy today and suggests how it could be improved.

The end of World War II was a political watershed with the Conservative Party suffering its greatest electoral defeat. The desire for equality and change brought the Labour Party to power. The Conservative Party responded to the challenge by bringing in Lord Woolton as Party Chairman. Woolton was to serve nine years as Party Chairman and was the most successful Chairman in the history of the Conservative Party. With party membership at about 250,000 in 1945, Woolton realised that he had to build up membership in order to once again create a mass membership Party. He believed that one of the reasons for the defeat in the General Election had been that the Party had forgotten the “little people”.  

A membership campaign was launched in 1947 and by the summer of 1948, overall membership had increased by one million to two and a quarter million. Woolton took on over 150 paid “missioners” who worked mainly in the marginals at Central Office’s expense, and visited over a million homes. The official membership campaign ended at the Party Conference in October 1948. By 1952, party membership had risen to a staggering 2.8 million.

In 1949, in Winston Churchill’s own constituency of Woodford there were 12,898 members including 1,172 Young Conservatives. City areas were not neglected, with 60,000 members in Birmingham, two thirds of them women. The young were not forgotten. In the summer of 1945 there were only 50 Young Conservative branches in the country. By 1946 this had increased to 1,546 nationally and by 1948 to 2,129 branches with no less than 150,000 members.   

Participation was the key to this success. Swinton College was opened in 1947. Its role was to educate activists, train agents and volunteers and arrange lectures. The Conservative Political Centre encouraged local discussion groups and by 1947 there were 557 of them, meeting regularly in a member’s house and all putting forward ideas and views on policy. Their views were taken seriously by Central Office.  

The strength of Party membership was not to last. By 1979 it had fallen to 1,350,000. It continued to fall and went down to 400,000 by 1997. A million members simply evaporated. The most serious losses were of suburban and county activists for whom executive power on local councils was a quid pro quo for loyalty at national elections.  

The Conservative Party suffered another great electoral defeat in the General Election of 1997. William Hague became Leader and immediately set in train a reorganisation of the Party. Initially he set out a vision of a democratic Party but by the time his proposals were finalised his vision had been watered down by the vested interests in the Party. Primarily the Parliamentary Party were determined to retain their power and if possible increase it. The Party got a constitution, but in accepting the required changes the voluntary Party paid a heavy price.

After the reorganisation of the Party, membership picked up a little, but by nowhere near as much as the Tories hoped. The total had fallen to 320,000 by 2003. Today in 2009 membership of the Conservative Party is less than 200,000.

Although the Party now has a constitution, that constitution cannot be changed without the agreement of an Electoral College consisting of members of Parliament on the one hand and the National Convention, which consists mainly of Constituency Chairmen, on the other. In this Electoral College the MP’s vote is worth five times that of a Constituency Chairman, so the real power resides with the Parliamentary Party.

  • The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party are appointed by the Leader so are unaccountable to the membership.
  • There is no Annual General Meeting of members so there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies.
  • The Annual Accounts of the Party are not tabled for approval at an AGM.
  • The Parliamentary candidates of the Party are controlled centrally.
  • The Party Board can and does take control of any Constituency Association, which does not toe the line, as the infamous clause 17 of the constitution - “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party” - makes the rest of the constitution meaningless.  

Does the decline in membership matter? There are two major reasons why it does. Of the 200,000 Party members about 10% or 20,000 are activists. Today those activists consist primarily of 10,000 Councillors, their family and friends.

Within a year there will be a General Election at which it is almost certain that the Conservative Party will form a government. Because of the dire state of the economy some very tough and very unpopular decisions will have to be taken. At the time when we will be most unpopular there will be local elections and many of our Councillors will lose their seats, not because they have performed badly, but because of the national position. The effect on Party membership will be catastrophic.

Why should anyone be a member of the Conservative Party? Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member of the Conservative Party. There were meetings at Area and National level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation. The Party conference was run by the voluntary Party. It had motions for debate. Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous. The Party had three distinct sections, the Parliamentary Party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation. There were checks and balances in the distribution of power. All of these were swept away in 1998, but the members held onto one last right – that of selecting their parliamentary candidate.

This has now gone. At the Party Board meeting in July 2009 new rules were brought in for the selection of Conservative Party candidates. Now, the Party Chairman will decide whether an Association should select its candidate by a Special General Meeting or by an Open Primary.

For each constituency a meeting will be held at a place designated by the Party Chairman at which the Approved List of candidates will be reduced to six names, 50% of whom will be women. At this meeting there will be six representatives of the local Association. The Party Chairman will have a veto on the six names to go forward to the next stage.

The real impact of this is that the Party Chairman will determine the Conservative candidates and consequently the Conservative Party composition in the House of Commons for a generation. The Labour Party looks as though it will go down a similar route. A tiny number of people will determine who sits in the House of Commons and effectively form the government of this country. Is this the way dictatorships are created without the need for bloody revolution?

There is much talk about electoral reform but when will the media and people “wake up and smell the coffee?" If our two main political parties are wholly undemocratic organisations, electoral reform is meaningless. Democracy R.I.P.


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