Andrew Kennedy is the Group Agent & Campaign Director in West Kent. He blogs at www.votingandboating.blogspot.com.
Tucked away in Harold Macmillan’s diaries in the late 1950s is an entry about a letter he had received from his constituency agent. “Apparently party membership in the Bromley Division has just topped 22,000. This is somewhat satisfactory.”
The fact that 80 per cent of Conservative voters in Bromley were also paid-up Party members is the stuff of our modern dreams, even if the then MP should consider it just “somewhat satisfactory”. I expect that the combined membership of Kent, Sussex and Surrey does not match this figure today. It is a sad reflection of how far we have fallen that nationwide there are now just two Associations with over 1,000 members each, and only 50 with over 500.
There is much lazy thinking about membership. The most-often quoted is that the decline is a recent phenomenon which is mainly due to the present leadership’s ‘disrespect’ for members. The reality is somewhat different. The graph above (produced by the House of Commons Library) shows membership in steep and steady decline since the 1950s.
I recently had the privilege of meeting Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University, and one of the UK’s most respected authorities of political membership and engagement. We discussed the Party’s membership in the following broad tranches;
- Stage One saw the post-war peak of almost three million. This was brought about by (a) the re-establishment of a nationwide Conservative organisation which had atrophied during the war, (b) the Lord Woolton reforms, and (c) an angry reaction from a still conservative country to the defeat of Churchill by a socialist government.
- Stage Two was the steady decline over the following 30 years, in particular the late 1960s under Ted Heath’s leadership.
- Stage Three showed a slight recovery in the early Thatcher years.
- Stage Four, the fastest and sharpest decline of all, took place during the early 1990s, and was almost certainly attributable to grassroots anger over the defenestration of Margaret Thatcher and the Party’s subsequent decline following Black Wednesday and Maastricht.
Given this period of decline, membership figures under David Cameron’s leadership, both in terms of actual members and the percentage decline, have been remarkably resilient.
Last year, I discussed this issue with the West Kent Group Chairman, who works in the City. Without exception, every one of his office colleagues, a couple of dozen 30-50 year olds, voted Conservative last May. All wish to see our Party succeed and all agreed that political parties should be self-financing. Yet his own political activism was unanimously viewed as “worthy, but strange”. Despite his best efforts, the prevailing view of his colleagues was: “Why on earth would you want to join a political party?” These wealthy, Conservative-voting, free-market, wealth-creators feel that they can contribute to a Conservative Government by placing their cross in the right box or by sending a cheque. The concept of joining the Party was anathema.
In 2014, Sir John Stanley announced his retirement as MP for Tonbridge & Malling, a seat he had represented since its creation in 1974. The Association Officers thought this was an ideal time to invest substantially in a recruitment campaign. Twenty thousand Conservative pledges duly received an invitation to join, with the added bonus of being able to help choose the constituency’s next Parliamentary candidate, something which had not happened for four decades.
The Tonbridge and Malling Chairman thought it would result in one thousand new members. I was less optimistic and would have been happy with a response rate of one per cent (or 200 members). The reality was fewer than 50. If the opportunity to join a well-run, vibrant and successful Conservative Association at the time of a Parliamentary selection achieved such a poor response, then what can we possibly do to reverse the trend?
It was as a consequence of this experience that Tonbridge & Malling decided to run an Open Primary. This attracted around 700 attendees of whom over 50 per cent were non-members. After the event, I cross-referenced the attendees with our database and discovered that 90 per cent had received an invitation to enrol, but had not responded.
This large group of people were happy to register to attend, to provide their email address, to give up four hours of their Saturday, and even to contribute generously to the financial appeal. Yet none wanted to join the Party. Until we identify why, I suspect we will never address our dilemma over membership.
Since 2014 our focus in West Kent has moved away from membership recruitment and instead we have concentrated on recruiting donors and activists, achieving in many cases quite remarkable results. Our “Registered Supporter” scheme has enrolled 2,000 people, around 20 per cent of whom are now in some way active locally; another example of how people are willing to commit, but not to join. Our Chairman, William Rutherford, wrote about this on Conservative Home last year.
Most West Kent Associations now have as many donors as members. Many of these people contribute significantly more money via appeals, raffles and sponsorship than our members do through their subscriptions. And most recently a “Subscribers’ Club”, fronted by Ann Widdecombe, enrolled 800 supporters, who between them contribute £24,000 per year – more money than every new member we have recruited in the last five years combined. Over 70 per cent of these are non-members.
I would be happy to be proved wrong, but I suspect the days of mass membership are behind us. But that does not mean that mass participation is also over. One discussion we must have is what we actually wish to achieve. Do we want participation to help define policy? Or to raise funds? Or to recruit an army of activists? Perhaps a mix of all three. Whatever the reason, there may be simpler ways to achieve our goals.
Our members are valuable, dedicated and committed people, and without their generosity and support our organisation simply wouldn’t run as efficiently as it does. But they are one stream of support in what is an increasingly complex pattern of involvement. As we build the Party of the future, we need to either identify and remove the barriers that clearly stop people joining, or accept that these barriers exist, and engage people on their terms, rather than insisting that they become active on ours.