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Why can't we be told how many members the Conservative Party has?

By Paul Goodman
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Screen shot 2013-08-03 at 07.32.21CCHQ'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.

Consider, for example, the Party's failure to campaign consistently and effectively among Britain's ethnic minority and faith communities.  MPs, researchers, press officers and money have come and gone with each new leader.  Church leaders introduced to one team of Tory MPs and staff have been left bewildered when, without explanation, it has been replaced by another - or sometimes by nothing at all.  There has been no planning or investment for the long term.  That Messina's appointment is a bit of a coup (though he won't be working in Britain) and the party's campaigning among ethnic minorities in improving (Alok Sharma, the Party Vice-Chairman responsible, has been working hard) doesn't mark an end to this dismal trend.  If you doubt it, read Gavin Barwell's stark analysis on this site recently.

"In some safe Labour seats, we have simply ceased to exist," he wrote.  "And in many Conservative/Labour marginals, our membership is so small that it is difficult to raise funds for campaigning or find enough people to deliver our literature".  This will remain the case until the leadership commissions an overhaul of the Party structure as radical as that which Disraeli tasked John Gorst with delivering.  Such a project would examine whether membership works in the modern age; what the minimum rate for joining should be; the role which members should play in making policy and selecting candidates, and how the Party uses social media.  Releasing a Party membership figure would be part of this process - a painful but unavoidable step, if it is to face up to its problems.

Consider the future.  Labour's membership is about 200,000.  Ed Miliband wants trade union members be able to opt into Labour Party membership.  There are roughly six million members of trade unions in the United Kingdom.  Were even a paltry five per cent of them to join Labour as individual members, its membership could climb to three times that of the Conservatives.  And if Labour's financial relationship with the unions is changed, the old bargain whereby the two main parties' left each others' sources of finance alone will end.  CCHQ's relationship with big donors won't survive such a shake-up.  All in all, there is no time like the present for David Cameron and CCHQ to face up to the fact that the Party is dying on its feet, and act to revive it. Releasing the number of members who voted last week would be a cathartic start.

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