Conservatives - Who’s party is it anyway?
Author: Joe Wright
Published on Aug 01, 2012
It will come as little surprise to most readers to find that membership of all political parties is declining. Indeed, it has been steadily falling to the point where there are 80% fewer party members than there were in the early 1960s. For the Conservatives, this has been all too obvious in the last few years, with a 35% drop in membership (258,239 in 2005 to roughly 170,000 today, some sources claiming a drop of almost 50%) since David Cameron took charge of the Party. It is a startling decline in grass-roots support.
There are, of course, plenty of feasible explanations for these numbers. Conservativehome, the popular Tory blog, suggests the unpopularity of the messy compromise on policy from the coalition government, unhappiness with the leadership of David Cameron and the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009. All are possible contributors, but none explain the long term trend in general membership decline, not to mention that this dramatic dip began five full years before the Conservatives and Lib Dems entered office, when they should have been riding high the unpopularity of Labour.
Of course, there is the usual explanation among politicians and the media that apathy toward politics is well and truly setting in, and the party membership numbers are just another indication of this. Decline in membership, however, is an issue that carries very serious and more immediate ramifications for politics than low voter turnout and general public apathy.
Not only does it mean parties must increasingly rely on smaller sources of funding, polluting politics by inviting undue influence from a select group of donors, but it also severely constricts a party’s ability to find new talent from more diverse backgrounds. Membership is also one of the only ways people with no connections to the political class can enter politics, people who can be far more representative of the wider public. Political views also need to be ‘reality tested’ before they can be forged as party policy and party members are a good way of feeling the pulse of the nation. Without a solid base to help form party policy, policy formers become out of touch and stunted for ideas. They become responsive rather than proactive.
People who join political parties are politically engaged, far from apathetic. They are not simply nailing their colours to a flagpole. A ‘top-down’ model of policy forming completely disregards this. It reduces membership to a mark of support. The Tories showed that they were in part aware of this problem when they implemented a process for members to select their candidates for local elections and a ‘policy forum’ to ‘give members a voice’. Labour have tried something similar by introducing something called PiP, Partnership into Power, which is a process of consulting members on policy at party conferences.
People, however, won’t become engaged with politics unless they feel there will be a real, tangible outcome to their involvement. The above approaches presume potential members will believe that those with power to decide policy will listen to them. For a cynical public, this is simply not good enough. If political parties want to inject some life back into local politics then they need to let members have a substantive say over what the party will prioritise. Otherwise, it is simply a waste of time.
The Lib Dems have discovered this with their use of party conferences. Motions are put forward by local party branches or any 10 conference reps, then amendments are recommended by a panel. Finally the conference votes as to whether the motion should be included in the party manifesto. It is a simple and direct approach, making the conferences worth attending and not simply political rallies.