We need to stop worrying about membership numbers

Lisa Townsend

In a Times article last Wednesday former MP and current ConservativeHome editor Paul Goodman argued that the Party’s refusal to release details of its membership figures made it look ‘ridiculous’. On this blog, Ryan Gray states his belief that ‘the most pressing issue’ for our associations ‘is the crisis in membership’, setting out the figures and lamenting that ‘membership is at an all-time low’.  I don’t share in the doom and gloom.

Ryan is absolutely right to point out that the Party has modernised and that we are not the organisation, or society, we once were.  But it also means that we have to accept some possibly painful truths about the reality of political party membership.  It’s down. We all know it’s down.   Let’s also remember the bigger picture: people aren’t joining the Labour Party, they’re certainly not joining the Lib Dems, or the WI or going to church every Sunday any more. Yes, UKIP have seen a healthy increase in numbers but is this anything more than the standard protest vote, often by those who left the Tories and feel the need to twist the knife?

There have been many theories over the last few months about the reasons for the decline in party membership, from David Cameron’s commitment to equal marriage or HS2; the decision not to go it alone as a minority party and the inevitability of tempering some of our more right-wing policies; or the belief by some that our Prime Minister isn’t actually a Conservative at all.

But should we be worried?  Is it the crisis some are calling it?  Does it mean the end for the Party and our electoral chances? No, of course not. As Ryan says in his own article, people just don’t join political parties any more, or at least not in the numbers they used to. They are far more likely to care about individual issues, whether it’s fracking or gay rights or the fight to save a local hospital. They care far less about signing up to one political party’s manifesto or view of the world – particularly younger voters – and this is why membership numbers are an outdated and simply inaccurate measure of any party, or leader’s, popularity. This is even more true when you consider Labour’s current woes over union auto-enrolment.

People are less likely to pin their political colours to the mast now.  Why should they? There is arguably less to divide the main political parties than ever before (Blair did a lot to cement that) so the choice is less stark than it once was.  Even if you’ve made your choice, there’s no need to sign up and pay your money to feel involved or to be privy to party policy. Everything from the popularity of sites like ConHome, dissemination of views over Twitter, MPs’ own websites and Facebook pages, as well as the use of open primaries, has made people feel closer to the process than ever before. Arguably too close – if you’ve been bombarded with politicians’ views on Twitter, 24 hour news channels and endless leafleting then why would you want to spend your evening in a drafty church hall listening to someone you’re unlikely to ask to join you down the pub, espousing their views on the sanctity of marriage?

For those who say we need activists – you’re right! We all know the importance of the leaflet through the door at election time (and beyond) and the necessity of canvass data. Getting out the vote is going to be crucial to winning in 2015 and for that we need foot soldiers. In my own association, a safe seat in Surrey, we have the kind of membership numbers that would make a small city seat weep. We can fill a church hall like it’s Easter Sunday. Branch quiz night? Bring it on. But activists?  There is already concern that we’re going to struggle to get round all the letterboxes in our own patch, let alone the target seat CCHQ have twinned us with. 

So it’s time to abandon the outdated notion that success lies in or is indicated by soaring membership numbers. MPs like Simon Kirby in Brighton Kemptown and James Morris in Halesowen and Rowley Regis are making excellent use of Facebook and Twitter and creating their own networks to get out the vote. It’s a challenge, for sure. Simon and James are both inspiring and creative and know how to lead a team – they’ve done it against the odds once and they’ll be hoping (as will we) that they can do it again. 

Politicians have done much in recent years to put people off and it’s up to all of us to start winning them back - it’s much easier to ask someone for an afternoon of their time than for a years’ commitment, particularly to a generation who don’t know what they’re going to be doing next week, let alone next year.  I think it’s an exciting time. We are going to have to be creative, innovate, try new things and accept that some of the old ones don’t work anymore if we are to keep our local associations alive – but isn’t that why we’re Conservatives?

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What is Mrs Thatcher’s legacy? Britain.

Nik Darlington 4.30pm

Margaret Thatcher did not get everything right. What politician does? But her legacy is not just a few policies here, a few new organisations there. Her legacy is the Britain we know. For how many politicians can we say that?

She changed the direction of the country’s travel. Not by a margin of degrees, but by right angles.

The Telegraph's Peter Oborne wrote recently:

"In a way that is probably hard for those who did not live through this period to understand, for the best part of that decade the very existence of the British state appeared to be under threat. Politicians from all mainstream parties seemed quite unable to cope with what appeared to be insoluble problems. Only the far Left was wholly confident of the answers, and the situation only started to clarify with Margaret Thatcher’s victory in the 1979 general election."

The very existence of the British state. Say those words again. The more you do, the more implausible it sounds - but on a certain level it is as plausible as the rising sun. Over the course of the troubled 1970s, Britain had become nigh on ungovernable. Like today, global currents were in part sweeping the country along a course it could neither understand nor control. Yet infamous “enemies within” wrecked successive government attempts to reign them in - whether Ted Heath’s industrial policies of the first half of the decade, or Wilson and Callaghan’s palliative care in the latter half.

Ken Clarke said in 1985, when Paymaster-General:

"When we returned to office in 1979 one very major reason was that we were elected to curb excessive trade union power…and the abuse of trade union power vis-à-vis employees within trade unions.  The background was that a good Government had been swept out of power in 1974 by a political miner’s strike, and the Labour Government in the late 1970s had been firmly controlled by trade union bosses."

Mrs Thatcher’s government learned valuable lessons from her Tory predecessor’s failures. In contrast to the popular perception of her as a bludgeon, she was cautious. She knew when to pick her fights. She was better prepared. And she had an answer to the economic malaise of the time.

Following the 1984-85 miners’ strike, Britain witnessed its lowest rate of industrial unrest for half a century, with 1.92 million working days lost in 1986. In 1974, the country lost 14.75 million working days and over 6 million in 1975. The alleged ‘Winter of Discontent’ contributed to almost 29.5 million working days lost in 1979 alone. Thenceforth, strike activity was in overall decline - with the obvious exception in 1985.

We can argue till the end of our days about the merits, motives and consequences of Mrs Thatcher’s policies - and people will continue to do so, not least because hers is a fascinating period of study. When an undergraduate, I took a history course named, simply, ‘Thatcherism’ (taught by one of the 364 economists, no less). It converted me from a misty-eyed admirer to an awed, respectful and yet critical supporter. It enthralled me like only a genuine watershed in history can.

It cannot ever be doubted that Mrs Thatcher stood firm to her purpose. Her obduracy on certain issues earned her enemies, but it earned her many, many more adherents. ‘You may not have agreed with her, but at least you knew where she stood,’ is the typical refrain.

The Thatcher legacy is rich and multi-faceted. On industrial policy, certainly, she made the greatest break with the immediate past - not least in that she succeeded in bringing (relative) harmony where there was discord. On many other policies, she set in train a revolution that has traversed three decades of British life: privatisation for instance (a word she hated), a liberal economy based on a powerful and flexible financial sector (and subsequently fruitful symbiosis between other professional services such as law and accountancy), and - oft forgotten - a firm hand of environmental protection.

Today we remember across the newsreels - and tomorrow across the newspapers - a great woman, and a great Briton. Meanwhile a family weeps, a country stops, and an entire world mourns.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

Just call me Tony

Alexander Pannett 2.45pm 

So Tony Blair has finally returned to British politics? 

Or at least that is what a bored media are peddling. 

In fact what he ‘returned’ to was a sports-themed fund-raising event for the Labour party. Which is ironic considering his money-raising prowess since leaving office has garnered much of the vitriol thrown at him, notwithstanding a rather controversial foray into Mesopotamia. 

For me the main issue is that Blair is clearly approaching the wrong party.  Labour under Ed Miliband is far removed from the Third Way politics and liberal foreign interventionism that Blair championed. With Jon Cruddas running policy, it will move even further from the champagne socialist days of the Islington Mafia. 

The party that Blair would find the most familiar home in is the ‘Heir to Blair’ party of David Cameron. Most of the public sector reforms that the Conservatives have been promoting find their genesis in Blair. 

Though this is hardly a new revelation. 

What does seem to me the most symbolic point is that Blair’s tanned features no longer seem to fit in with the perennially raining Britain of the present era. 

If Blair had returned pasty, penniless and sick of the multiple sequels of ‘superhero’ films on offer, then he would have had a connection with modern Britain. 

Instead, we are unsure what to make of our former master. 

But fear not. 

Blair didn’t win three elections without having a notion of the people’s mood. And like a giant metaphorical caterpillar, I am sure he will be dreaming up some new scheme to connect with his lost people and lead them out of doom-laden slavery to the tedium of never-ending crisis. 

I’m not suggesting he is actually going to start parting the Thames with a stick to shave of ten minutes of commute from Greenwich to Dalston. Or that he will climb down from the top of the Shard with a ten bullet-point plan to build more solariums around the country. 

But I do hope he does something vaguely interesting. 

He could try his hand at acting. Maybe the lead role in the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh’s new book, Skagboys? Portraying the descent into fraying moral pointlessness shouldn’t be too hard. 

He just needs to find a currently under-employed loony Scot with a ruthless temper to play Begbie.  

But where to find such a man…..?

Follow Alexander on Twitter @alpannett

Why Owen Jones is right. The working classes are demonised… By his class

Henry Hopwood-Phillips 2.00pm

The West has many words for them. The American “limosuine liberal”, the German “salonkommunist”, the French “gauche caviar”, the Italian “Radical chic”, the Danish “kysbanesocialist”, and the Swedish “Rodvinsvanster”.

The rich English language has even more; from “Hampstead hippies” to the “chattering classes”, from “Bollinger Bolsheviks” to the “Islington massive”. Most famously of all perhaps is “Champagne Socialist” a term with its roots planted firmly in Herzen, who wrote of the poor “dying of cold and hunger… while you and I in our rooms… are chatting about socialism over pastry and champagne”.

The debate on how, why and when this happened is for another place and another time. Suffice it to say that it revolves around the “Frankfurt School’s” success in the post-war period in capturing the commanding heights, the citadels of culture and academia instead of politics and revolutions, and shaping society’s values. 

I would dispute the fact Socialism ever had a working-class core in the first place however. The French Revolution had its engine rooms in salons full of the well-to-do, not on the backstreets with sans-culottes. The Marxist Revolution was fathered by academics and industrialists, not workers. Its dogmas have only gained traction amongst the working classes when it has been in the interests of the bourgeois to persuade, bribe or coerce them from above. The ratio of roots-up working-class socialist movements compared to top-down equivalents has always been pitifully lopsided. 

Marxism’s two major constituencies are nihilists and idealists. Indeed, though you might find pessimistic and optimistic working men, nihilism and idealism are forms of distortion only the indulgence of an education can afford. And education, in spite of all efforts, remains the key definitive quality that forms the border marches of working and middle class identities. A fact poignantly illustrated by David Starkey in an intimate interview he gave for the Guardian in which he revealed that the typical working class parents’ mindset was enshrined in the phrase “you educate ‘em, you lose ‘em”. 

Parents have lost them nonetheless. Lost them to an education system that is experimenting with socialist concepts the bourgeoisie framed and are now toying with. If “lions led by donkeys” was a popular leftist motif for the behaviour of generals in the first world war, it is one that would accurately describe our education system today in which all the historically conservative foibles of the working-classes have been stamped into the dirt. Its patriotism patronised as racist, its royalism denigrated as quaint, its love of cohesive community decried as tribalistic, its liberality denounced as animalism, and its respect for authority scoffed at as infantile.

Owen Jones, a man loudly ashamed of his bourgeois background, made a name for himself last year by informing us of a process involving the “demonisation of the working classes”. A brave book by any standards for a man who belongs to the class who seem to have done precisely that. 

The solution to this sad tale lies in the conservative party embracing a One Nation Toryism best embodied by men such as Iain Duncan Smith, who, instead of aping the worst aspects of the metropolitan left which takes the underclass vote as a given for its want of proper alternatives, actually takes our compatriots’ concerns seriously. This would be both the morally right thing to do and a politically astute decision, staying on message, detoxifying the brand, whilst gaining a whole new constituency.

People desire, at the very least, shades of fidelity between thought and action, ideals and deeds. But the piquant notes tucked away in these neatly coined phrases reveal more than just frustration with inconsistency. The nugget of injustice the terms are swiping at is the fact the middle-classes, loaded with bourgeois sensibilities, are perceived to have hijacked a theory that claimed the working-classes and history had each found redemption in the other.

Lord Carr’s death marks the passing of a political age

Nik Darlington 11.03am

Lord Carr, the last surviving member of the Conservative party’s talented 1950 intake, has died aged ninety-five.

Robert Carr was one of the founders of the Tory Reform Group in 1975, along with Peter Walker, who also passed away recently in 2010.

Lord Carr was a successful industrialist, Cabinet minister, leader of the Conservative party and a long-serving Wimbledon tennis umpire. But he is perhaps best known for his time as Employment Secretary during Ted Heath’s premiership, when the controversial Industrial Relations Act prompted protests and a “Kill the Bill” campaign (sound familiar?) from the powerful trade unions. The Telegraph's obituary tells the tumultuous tale well:

The Industrial Relations Bill was Carr’s magnum opus. Labour fought it tooth-and-nail, with Barbara Castle leading the attack — her own proposals [In Place of Strife] forgotten. It was the unions rather than the Labour leadership which opposed reform, but as the unions financed the party and many of its MPs, they held the whip hand. Carr was reasonableness itself in insisting that his reforms would take confrontation out of the workplace, but the Bill both coincided with and fuelled an upsurge in union militancy.

Just after its publication in December 1970, a bomb damaged the basement of Carr’s department in St James’s Square. Then two more exploded at his Georgian home at Hadley Green, Barnet. The first of these — which Carr spotted as it “flared” — blew in the front door; the second wrecked the kitchen. (A third device failed to detonate.) Carr, his wife and their younger daughter were shaken but unhurt. The bombings were the work of the anarchist and largely middle-class Angry Brigade, five of whom were eventually imprisoned for 10 to 15 years.

By the time the Bill became law in August 1971, a poisonous atmosphere ensured that it would largely be a dead letter. Few dared apply it, and when it was invoked the results were catastrophic.

A commonplace ignorance is that Ted Heath was soft on industrial relations and only the ferrous fortitude of Mrs Thatcher could break the unions. In reality, Heath was if anything too radical and tried to do too much at once (sometimes this seems a good lesson for the coalition); Thatcher learned from Heath’s mistake and held back from hitting the unions with a sledgehammer, preferring instead to chip away with a chisel. Sometimes, ennui trumps enthusiasm.

In 1972, Carr became Home Secretary, where he became convinced that prison was “the most expensive and least effective way of deterring or reforming”, a way of thinking that even today, with the prison population at record levels, Britain is still struggling to come round to.

And in 1975, he loyally stuck with Heath during the party leadership contest. When Heath lost the first ballot, he appointed Carr as the acting party leader until the second vote, which was won by Mrs Thatcher. At only one week, Robert Carr’s was perhaps the shortest tenure as leader of the Conservative party, but it was by no means the least deserving.

Tim Crockford, the TRG chairman, said this morning:

"We are all saddened to hear of the passing of Lord Carr. Robert Carr was a founding member of the modern TRG in 1975 and a long standing supporter of the group. Lord Carr had many great achievements in business and politics and remained throughout his life a true ‘one nation’ conservative. He believed passionately that politics was about service. He will be much missed."

He is survived by his wife and two daughters, to whom we give our thoughts and prayers. Lord Carr’s death means not just the passing of fond memories, but the passing of a political age.

To these young people, there really is no such thing as society

Nik Darlington 11.12am

Londoners have passed a night of relative peace and quiet, as opportunistic rioting and looting spread to other English cities.

As shock fades, the recriminations begin. Conservative MPs accuse the previous Labour government of fostering welfare dependency, failing to improve education and forcing fiscal austerity upon the nation. Labour MPs allege that coalition government spending cuts have created a context of weaker policing, youth unemployment and destroyed opportunities.

Both sides are wrong to blame each other without admitting to their own part. The deficit reduction objectives of Conservative and Liberal Democrat politicians are correct but indubitably they are creating difficult and perilous readjustments. This should be acknowledged. Labour politicians should face up to the fact of the economic mire they bequeathed, and the fact that youth unemployment stood at 2.5 million when they left office. Furthermore, a youth in Manchester interviewed on this morning’s Today programme said, “I’ll keep doing it until I get caught - the prisons are full so what are they going to do, give me an Asbo?” The Labour government filled our prisons to record numbers and introduced the utterly ineffectual Asbo.

As Robert Halfon writes this morning on ConservativeHome, “the causes go deep.” Deeper than the last government, and the government before that, and so on. Every government makes mistakes.

Blaming these riots on policies announced in the past 12 months is ignorant and intellectually lazy. Last night, the deputy leader of the Labour party, Harriet Harman, said the Government was not on the side of young people and alluded to tuition fees, the EMA and youth unemployment as causes for the discontent (see Newsnight clip below).

Showing the brazen obstinacy that has become her hallmark, Ms Harman ignored the fact that a re-elected Labour Government, which first introduced tuition fees (breaking a manifesto pledge) and commissioned the Browne Report, would have had to increase tuition fees. She ignored the fact that her government had plans to reform the inefficient EMA. New Statesmen blogger Dan Hodges tweets that if Labour continues to focus on it, the party will be out of power for a generation.

But most significantly, Ms Harman made the curious assumption that the young people rioting and looting in the streets of London and other cities have anything more than the remotest of ambitions for staying on at school or going to university.

Herein lies the root cause of the recent violence. It is found in the anger of an economic and social underclass in Britain’s cities; a collective rage borne out of disillusionment and exclusion. No single party, no single politician, no single government can be blamed for this miserable phenomenon. To ignore this demonstrates a collective dereliction of responsibility not dissimilar to that shown by the perpetrators of the past few days.

These are communities bereft of identity, responsibility and hope. A politician once said that there is no such thing as society; another more recently said that there is such a thing, it just isn’t the same thing as the state. But what the indiscriminate vandalism and cruelty demonstrates is that society is irrelevant to you, if you don’t even know of any such thing as community.


Blue Labour?

 Alexander Pannett 10.06am

It is a year since the Coalition was formed back in May 2010.  Naturally most commentators are reviewing the Coalition’s first year in government.  But what of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition? In what new direction is Ed Miliband taking the Labour party?

One new movement that has arisen from the Labour ashes is Blue Labour.  This group is attempting to rediscover an old side of the Labour movement that embraced local democracy and protected the disenfranchised from the deracinating effects of capitalism.  Blue Labour claims to uphold “flag, family and faith” and opposes the commoditising effects of globalisation.  Ed Miliband is said to be a fan.  But is the movement a genuine re-invention or a crass political ploy to re-engage with working and squeezed middle class voters. 

The concept was launched by Maurice Glasman in April 2010.  Glasman, now in the House of Lords, says that it is “a claim that practices and values crucial to what Labour is and stands for have either been forgotten, lost or wrongly downgraded in the party’s list of priorities.”  It is a celebration of democratic localism where the speculative instincts of capitalism are tempered by democratic associations that are stakeholders in a local area’s supply and utilisation of capital.  Glasman cites Germany as an example of how his vision would work.  “The German economy with its worker representation on the management board, works councils, pension co-determination, regional banks and vocational regulation, in other words with high levels of democratic interference in the economy, emerged with a more efficient workforce, greater growth and with a genuinely modern industrial sector.”  Blue Labour would place a greater emphasis on vocational skills rather than the transferable skills that bring geographic insecurity to workers.  It would allow local democratic entities to block the free movement of capital whose short term risk-taking is seen as eroding the bonds that underpin community and family life.  Capitalist notions of competition will still be utilised to promote economic efficiency but community well-being will be maximised rather than investment returns.

Unfortunately Blue Labour again demonstrates the Left’s failure to understand capitalism.  Capitalism is about allocating resources as efficiently as possible.  Any use of capital involves taking risk as any allocation of capital postulates an unknown return on an investment.  We never truly know what outcomes we are going to acquire with our exertions.  Criticising capitalism as short term and speculative is moronic.  The longer the term that you allocate capital for, whether you are a private bank or state entity, the more risk there is, not less.  Whilst I can have a fair idea of what the world will be like in 3 months, I will struggle with 3 years and 10 years is a fantasy realm.  The Left’s obsession with the mirage of risk-free capital allocation blinds them to the fact that the courage to take risk is what instigates innovation and true progress.  It is the courage to challenge society’s dominant sensibilities by embracing the unknown that brings dynamism and social mobility.  Blue Labour seeks to cut out this dynamism and maintain a staid perception of an imaginary utopia preserved against life’s opportunities.

Blue Labour also misunderstands the conservative values it wishes to ape.  Its subtle protectionism identifies with closed minded principles born from a fear of change.  However, conservatism is not conservation.  Conservatives have an open mind to life’s possibilities.  They seek opportunity and creativity which is why they favour an open, capitalist society rather than a closed, planned state.  Conservatives reject the progressive utopia of socialism because they are skeptical about the epistemological limits of centrally dictated ideology.  This does not make them closed minded but pragmatic about the limits of humanity.  No true Tory would be enthused by the negativity and closed ambitions of Blue Labour.

Blue Labour may win some electoral advantages for Ed Miliband but it will not bring his party back into power.  Its backward vision of Britain is muddled in its inconsistencies between local democratic freedom and local protectionism.  It will not be the platform on which Labour revitalises its damaged brand.

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AV referendum: Voters can distinguish the national interest from party politics

Katy Turner 5.08pm

So the battle is won. The public has shown that celebrity endorsements and unsavoury mudslinging cannot detract from one of the most important political debates in recent years.

When the referendum was announced last year it seemed that people had a taste for electoral reform. For some time, the Yes! campaign was far out ahead in opinion polls. There were numerous difficulties in encouraging people to retain a system which many believed did not express the wishes of the nation as a whole.

The Electoral Reform Society had been campaigning for such a moment for a century and the Liberal Democrats, the strongest advocates for reform, were now in Government. Momentum was working against the status quo.

Furthermore, the No2AV team knew that an apathetic electorate might also allow AV to get in on the back of low turnout (in Australia, AV had been pushed through by a tiny 7 per cent of the voting population). Proponents of reform had the appetite for change but would enough people be motivated to go to the polling stations?

Yet the tide turned against reform. No2AV surged ahead in the polls and bookmakers began paying out ahead of the result. Opponents of AV stayed cautiously optimistic, whilst the Yes! camp became increasingly despondent and nasty. In spite of divisions in the Labour party, the non-partisan No2AV campaign managed to avoid the high profile spats that plagued their adversaries - Nick Clegg was effectively banned from campaigning in the very referendum he had negotiated the right to hold. No one likes a sore loser (though some Lib Dems, such as Danny Alexander, were magnanimous in defeat).

Matthew Elliott, director of No2AV, claimed to be “astonished” at the scale of the victory, saying “this result will settle the debate over changing our electoral system for the next generation.” David Cameron called it “a resounding answer that settles the question.”

What we know is that the electorate can distinguish between party politics and the national interest. Thanks to the hard work of activists the width and breadth of the country, First-Past-The-Post remains Britain’s democratic choice, something for which we should all be grateful.

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