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The Tory party is in trouble.
As a (reasonably) long-standing and (reasonably) active member this admission causes me some pain, but there’s no hiding it. The world’s most successful electoral machine is sputtering badly.
The Conservative Party supplies very little in the way of information about its membership – a shyness itself pretty revealing – but it is a safe assumption that numbers are now comfortably below 100,000. In the 1950s membership ran into millions, and although statistics are elusive, it is reasonable to assume that not all were of pensionable age. Most are today.
This matters. Parties without broad memberships, including a spread of ages and backgrounds, are prone to capture by sectional interests. Nor is it desirable that their policies are determined by professionals relying on focus groups and polling.
These techniques are clearly useful, but relied on alone tend to produce pick’n’mix platforms lacking strong and coherent values. Policies need to be debated and determined by people who have experience of the world outside the bubble, and fewer of our politicians now have that worldly wisdom. Tories need that, because the party is all about empiricism, not ideology.
Lack of active members matters even more in an age where every person can have a political platform. The way in which Labour is out-gunning the Tories on digital media is not to do with the relative skills of MPs or of consultants: it is simply that their Twitter mobs and Facebook fanatics are bigger, more vocal, and more motivated than ours. To adapt Napoleon’s saying, moral fervour is worth a lot more than money.
This is a reflection of the Corbyn effect. Whatever the politics of it, we have to salute a man who virtually alone reversed the decline in party membership in the UK and made proper politics Glastonbury-friendly. It’s astonishing.
It’s a powerful challenge to the Tories. – a party which has frankly never been very good at democracy. It was after all a former Tory PM who reflected that he would rather take advice from his valet than the party conference, and although that was a long time ago, the attitude persists.
The role members play in determining party policy is minimal, other than in electing any future leader – mention of which responsibility in conversation with a Conservative MP or party staffer is likely to produce more dread than excitement. Fair enough too: given how small and undiverse the membership is, how on earth can it be trusted to come up with decisions policies that might appeal more broadly? We end up right back in the artificial world of think-tanks and focus groups.
What the Tories cannot do is ape Corbyn with a sort of political version of dad dancing. The downside of Corbyn’s Labour is that there are lots of new members but not much more diversity of view or values. It’s a party that seems to care more about identity politics in Islington than poor people in Preston.
The only way the Tory party can revive is to be a new sort of party. That means making membership easy and flexible – indeed throwing open decision-making to non-members or part-members too. Annual subscriptions, committee meetings, stuffing envelopes, social events, conferences? These activities and structures haven’t changed since Baldwin, indeed before. Why are they still the only game in town?
It means creating flexible structures that enable Tory supporters to give their views on party policy. Not all will be palatable to the professionals – but is that a bad thing? In the end you have to fight for principles, not suppress ideas.
Apart from lobbyists and lunatics, no-one goes to the Tory Conference any more (in contrast, Labour in Brighton was like a fiesta and the conference hall was genuinely exciting). So either scrap it or – better – throw it open for people to debate, contribute and vote online.
Let’s remember that right up until the last election we were being told that Corbyn and his party were hopelessly unelectable because they had been captured by a militant faction and couldn’t connect to voters. Yeah, right. They came very close to winning.
There’s a lesson there, and if the Conservatives are to stand a chance, CCHQ – and its nine new vice chairs – need to learn it, fast.