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How to boost party membership

by Paul Goodman

The focus since Christopher Shale's very sad death has been more on his paper's analysis than its recommendations - and also on his friendship with and closeness to his local MP, David Cameron.  But his suggestions shouldn't be lost and should be probed.  From behind the Times paywall this morning, Rachel Sylvester claims that Shale's memo was drafted with the help of Andrew Feldman, co-Party Chairman, and Stephen Gilbert, the Political Secretary at Number 10.  Hence its title, "Operation Vanguard": the Prime Minister's local association would lead the way that others would follow.

Sylvester's information backs up Jonathan's article on this site in March, revealing that Downing Street and CCHQ were planning to execute a U-turn on membership: for the first time in at lest ten years, increasing the membership of local associations is to be a priority.  Jonathan reported that Lord Feldman had written to all Conservative MPs and associations, setting them new membership targets: for those with Conservative MPs, the target is to be 5% of the local Conservative vote at the 2010 General Election, and for those without Conservative MPs, the target is 3% of the local Conservative vote at the 2010 General Election."

Were the ideas contained in the Shale memo the right way forward?  Essential to them was the division of potential new members into "politics heavy" and "politics light" people.  The former are "really interested in politics".  The latter - and the memo quoted Andrew Cooper, Downing Street's Director of Strategy and "Chipping Norton resident" - are "not that bothered".  Requirements on them should also be light: they should be asked to "share our values, give us their vote and not support our opponents...When we ask them to join we’ll promise that membership isn’t a slippery slope to political activism – and we’ll make sure it isn’t."

Instead, members would receive in return for joining the right to go to new light-style Association events, such as an evening with a non-political celebrity, a visit to a prison, a trip to the White House, and a "Bring your own sandwiches" lunch timed for Prime Minister's Questions and sited in a local country house.  The memo was titled: "Great reasons to join.  No reasons not to", a slogan whose neatness might have led me to suspect the involvement of Downing Street and CCHQ even if the memo didn't say clearly at the start that "where this document differs from others on this subject it does so with CCHQ’s support".

Could the Shale memo suggestions, and other similar ideas, boost local Association membership?  My guess is that the answer is yes.  Would they be likely to unearth "politics light" people who in due course would become "politics heavy" people - leafletting, canvassing, serving as Association officers, providing local council candidates.  Again, I think the answer is yes.  But there is surely a limit to what can be achieved by transforming local Associations (or local Labour Clubs, I presume) into offshoots of the events management business.

After all, the purposes of local associations are to support the local Conservative MP and candidate (if any), to help support and select local Conservative Councillors (if any), and generally both to back the party nationally and advance conservative ideas and beliefs.  This needs a core of "politics heavy" people: to change the figure of speech, they're the petrol in the tank without which the car can't move.  Were I such a person but not a party member - and there are a quite a few of them around - I'd want to know what rights I would gain, and not just what events I could attend, by joining the party.

Would I have a vote in a leadership election or local candidate selection?  Could I go to and speak at party conference?  Could I get involved in policy formation and, if so, how?  Is the party's constitution online on the party's website for all to read?  As we know, party members are entitled to do some but not all of these things, and the answer to the last question is no.  I've twice asked on this site: whose party is it anyway? Readers' responses were mixed: some demanded party democracy, others raged against schlerotic Associations, some lambasted Merlin, others wanted open primaries...there was no consensus.

It may be that while the age of single issue group mass membership has come, that of political party mass membership is over.  But one conclusion is certain.  Downing Street champions the Big Society - decentralisation, localism, giving power to the people.  It's understandably wary of repeating in the future what happened to Labour in the past, when that party split during the 1980s, as its militant members dragged it to the fringes of British politics.  But it can't preach abroard what it isn't practicising at home.  If it really wants to increase membership, it will have to take some risks.

These should include: the right of local parties to select their Parliamentary candidates (with no repetition of the imposition of shortlists); freedom of local parties to select candidates for the European Parliament without the imposition of central lists; the right of Parliamentary candidates to produce their own election literature without interference; a prominent slot at the coming party conference for the Conservative Policy Forum, so that the manifesto process for the next election can be explained and debated; at least one debate at that conference which has been balloted by the membership.

Would all this guarantee higher Association membership? No.  Does something like it represent the only chance of reviving an ailing voluntary party? Yes.


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