Why the Conservative Party Needs Mass Membership
In 1955, the Conservative Party had nearly 3 million members. Today, it has 124,000. The decline has been extreme, constant – and of a far greater magnitude within the Tories than any other Party. Labour’s membership, for example, reached a historic high of 1 million in the early 1950s, and is around half of that today; a great decline, to be sure, but an order of magnitude lower than that experienced by the Conservatives.
Many commentators argue that this falling membership matters very little. Most former members of the Conservative Party, they say, were ‘social’ members who had little real interest in national political issues. Besides, the generation of post-War Tory ministers who governed the country – largely Oxbridge-educated public-school boys who had been officers during the war – were hardly the types to be swayed by ordinary members of the Party, no manner how numerous they may have been. According to this view, there are only two reasons it could be in the Tories’ interest to increase their membership: financial gain and the potential for infiltration.
Both these factors ring hollow. In the era of £20 million campaigns, the potential income to the CCHQ from even hundreds of thousands of members – no more than 20% of total membership dues, the rest going to local associations – would be nearly negligible. The hypothesis of infiltration – i.e. of a concerted effort by the opposition to enrol enough new members into the Party to overwhelm it – is simply, as Robert Halfon MP recently put it on Twitter, ‘bonkers’; it does not merit serious consideration, never mind a concerted campaign to attract ‘genuine’ new members.
The real reasons mass membership is so important for the Conservative Party are not ones of convenience – but of principle. Three in particular stand out: maintaining a direct connection with the voters; improving the cohesion of communities; and strengthening the Conservative Party as an organisation.
It is somewhat ironic that, as mentioned above, the Tories’ membership numbers were far higher fifty years ago, when much of the Party hierarchy was dominated by aloof middle-aged men, than they are in today’s far more open and democratic Party. This increasing democratisation at every level, from local associations all the way to Mathew Parker Street, is tangible; leadership elections, internal polls, or town-hall meetings scarce existed until a few decades ago. Yet now that there is more than ever for members to debate, vote and decide on, there are too few of them left for this to happen effectively.
This is more a problem for the Tories than for the opposition. Labour, for example, can always – and especially now, with the overtly Marxist Jeremy Corbyn and his lapdogs at the helm – rely on ideological dogmata; but the Conservative Party is a pragmatic one. There is rarely an obviously ‘correct’ Conservative solution to a problem – or, more accurately, every wing of the Party is convinced that there is exactly one truly Conservative solution, that they’re in possession of it, and that everybody else in the Party is ignorant or misguided. Only through debate and internal democracy can these different opinions effectively be reconciled, and new solutions to problems be found. This is only feasible with a substantial membership. For a party that has no ideology to serve as its God, vox populi vox dei est.
A healthy membership serves an important community role, too. Local party events are a seldom way for people of different ages, occupations, and social classes to come together. This is especially true in rural districts. It is here that Conservative support tends to be strongest, and membership as a percentage of the population is therefore greater. These are also some of the most rapidly aging places in Britain – and with old age all too often comes isolation and a sense of impotence. The local party branch can at once offer a chance to socialise with one’s neighbours, to engage with – and, ideally, contribute to solve, local issues.
The question of party identity may seem comparatively trivial. The Conservative Party has, after all, existed with the same name and the same basic principles at its core for over two centuries. The chances of it changing drastically, never mind disappearing entirely, may seem slim. Yet the increasing polarisation, over the past decades, of the Party’s different wings is cause for concern.
The Tories were never a monolithic entity – but only since Thatcher’s day has there been such drastic differences in economic policy; only since Major, such conflicts between Europeanists and Eurosceptics, and only since Cameron such a distance between social liberals and conservatives. Conversely, the rapid rise and fall, in only the past decade, of the Liberal Democrats, and then of UKIP, testify to the state of flux in which Britain’s party system as a whole currently finds itself.
In this situation, it seems plausible that one wing of the Party could, through a natural surge in popularity or a particularly able leader, gain the upper hand and re-make the Party in its image. Mass membership would render this far more difficult both by virtue of sheer numbers, it being far more difficult to convince or overwhelm three million than it is one-hundred-thousand members; and through the relative centrism of most such new members. If most current paid-up members of the Party are highly engaged in politics, and have strong opinions on most political issues, this will cease to be true if mass membership were to be restored. There simply aren’t millions of Britons with strong and well-defined centre-to-right political views. Most new members would, thus, necessarily be ‘casual’, relatively centrist, and more loyal to the Party itself than to one of its wings.
Mass membership, then, is key to the Conservative Party’s continued success. The ways to achieve this are manifold – but a subject for another time. But if the Party is to remain in-touch, united, and a force for good locally, it is essential that it has many more members than it does today.