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party’s manifesto or view of the world – particularly younger voters – and this is why membership numbers are an outdated and simply inaccurate measure of any party, or leader’s, popularity.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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