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The above graph shows rather starkly the decline of the “Premier League” Beaconsfield Constituency Conservative Association over the period I’ve been a member (‘Premier League’ is an epithet bestowed by CCHQ upon those associations which regularly contribute £10,000s to Party coffers – a kind of “cash for status” [with a bit of access]). Notwithstanding a few local variables (like the enforced “cash for questions” resignation of Tim Smith MP in 1997 – during which, it must be observed, association membership remained relatively stable), it is difficult not to attribute this alarming rate of decline to the policy direction and character disposition of the party leader: the less “robust” the pursuit of traditional (not to say “Thatcherite”) Conservative policies, the more people are disinclined to renew their Party membership, even in the “true blue” Tory shires.
For as long as I’ve been involved – at branch level, as Deputy Chairman and a decade on the Executive – the reasons given for the decline have consistently been ignored and brushed aside by successive chairmen: no-one wants to rock the boat, especially if they’re on the Approved List. Beaconsfield rightly puts loyalty to the fore, but occasionally confuses it with fealty: there’s just no point swearing allegiance to a central strategy which is actually anaesthetising the membership and gradually euthanising it out of existence. It appears almost purposeful.
Establishing the validity of quantitative data necessarily demands some qualitative assessment: very few members have actively resigned in protest against a specific policy, and their reasons ought to be properly researched and verified. The vast majority seem passively content to permit their memberships to lapse, often citing (if asked) some generalised disillusionment with the lack of Tory ‘robustness’ – whether in government or opposition. We are contending more with incremental indifference than forthright objection, and no number of polite letters or coaxing phone calls seem to persuade them to reconsider.
This pattern of decline is in evidence in just about every Conservative association the length and breadth of the country. Beaconsfield can still glory in having the second-highest number of members of any association, but the fact remains that this represents a loss of almost 5000 paid-up supporters (76%) over the period I’ve been a member, and the reduction continues at the rate of about 100 a year. But more pressing even than the likelihood of extinction within a decade is that, on present rates of fund-raising and income, the association is projected this year to record its first ever financial loss. When a wealthy Conservative Association like Beaconsfield is unable to cover its costs (other than by mortgaging assets), the crisis in membership really ought to be a priority concern.
Various theories for the decline have been expounded: from the assertion that the trend is symptomatic of all membership-based organisations (i.e: nothing can be done), to the observation that the fall is contiguous with the systematic diminution of membership rights and privileges (i.e: something can be done). The first of these is simply untrue: there are very many organisations (even political ones) which are managing to increase their supporters (and paying subscribers) in the present climate. But there’s an awful lot of truth in the second: there was a time when being a member of the Conservative Party was an active democratic pursuit – we could freely select parliamentary candidates, propose motions for conference and even participate in debates from the floor. It was a festival of genuine political participation: we didn’t all agree, and neither did we have to pretend to: democracy is messy. The “broad church” was open to many shades of opinion, and some of those “shrill” nonconformists even managed to be selected for parliamentary seats. One even became Party Leader and Prime Minister.
Sadly, all of these processes are now controlled by the centralised oligarchy, and members are left with the façade of engagement. Candidates are imposed, selections are rigged, and the annual conference is no longer a vibrant celebration of democracy with halls packed to standing: it is a technocratic rally to demagoguery, and a poorly-attended one at that (at least by Party members). No contentious “big issues” are discussed or debated and no corporate wisdom is gleaned from the membership: their function is simply to applaud when prompted and cheer when instructed. It is little more than window-dressing and sophistry for mass media consumption. (And please let’s not pretend the revamped CPF represents genuine engagement: it is a bureaucratic exercise run to a pre-ordained agenda and subject to the divine right of campaign strategists).
Why would hard-working, intelligent and highly educated Conservative Party members put up with this? MPs are paid to suffer being treated as fodder, and many do so in the perpetual hope of career progression and an eventual seat in the Cabinet. But the voluntary party has been shorn of any payback or reward: even lowly MBEs are no longer dished out to the deserving, for fear of some “leafleting for honours” scandal. Certainly, we traipse the streets in the rain and hang on the phone for hours because we want to see a Conservative Government returned and sustained. But when the Conservative Party ceases to be recognisably conservative in some key policy areas and procedural practices, members are left with an apparently unbridgeable epistemic distance between themselves and the Party Chairman, and so they fade away.
The threat is now existential. As Beaconsfield – the historic and prestigious seat of Disraeli – writhes agonisingly towards the final decade of its remarkable life, perhaps someone somewhere soon might care to realise that the average 75-year-old has a lot of time for cheese and wine but no interest at all in Blogger or Twitter: but the medium is still the message. And 75 is about the average age: we are breathing our final dying gasp. There’s no renovation or renewal because there’s no regeneration, and there’s no regeneration because there’s no transformation. The young generally don’t play bridge or drink Shiraz. But they do grasp the imperative of slaughtering zombies and the military principles of “Call of Duty”. They also fervently desire to debate politics, engage in genuine democracy and be taken seriously. They don’t want to be cryogenically suspended as “Conservative Future”, but become a vibrant and constituent part of “Conservative Present”.
Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron called for a “radical decentralisation” which does not constitute some romantic attachment to the past, but one which is designed to revive civic pride by initiating “a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy”.
What are we to make of a prescription for the nation which the doctor refuses to dispense in his own hospital? Under Cameron, the Conservative Party has become increasingly centralised, top-down and anti-democratic. The voluntary party is the lifeblood and bedrock of democratic politics: starve it, suffocate it, isolate and ignore it, and you might just get rid of the more atavistic irritants; the “Turnip Taliban”, the “dinosaurs” and the “backwoodsmen”. But, as sure as night follows day, this will lead to the state funding of political parties. As I say, it appears almost purposeful.