A major motivation behind ConservativeHome’s campaign for the Conservative Party membership figures to be published was that it would be a first step to rebuilding the party as a campaigning machine.
Only by facing up to the fall in membership would we be able to start tackling it.
It is to Grant Shapps’ credit that he did publish the numbers, and we’re already starting to see steps taken as a result.
James Forsyth reported on Sunday that a letter had gone out from the Conservative Chairman to MPs and Associations saying that:
“as a rough guide I am setting a target for Associations to increase this percentage [of Conservative voters who join the Party] to a minimum of three per cent”
I’m told that the 3 per cent figure is very much more of a rough guide than a target – particularly as it is of course harder to achieve in larger seats or those seats with a high Tory vote. However, CCHQ are also keen to emphasise that this is the beginning of a concerted effort to revitalise recruitment in the grassroots party.
In fact, membership has now risen above the 134,000 figure released to us in September – even if it’s a small rise, halting the decline is the first step in turning things round.
CCHQ recognises that membership numbers aren’t everything (as we noted when crunching the association-by-association data) and member numbers don’t map automatically to election results but it’s pretty obvious from Eastleigh and common sense that a party whose grassroots wither away has a much harder time reaching voters.
There are other reasons this letter is important, beyond the specific figures involved.
Shapps asked Association chairmen to confirm directly the number of members in their patch, which is a simple but crucial step to improving the integrity of the membership data. Due to historic IT and record-keeping problems, there are still major mismatches between local information and national data – mismatches which make it all the more difficult to properly get to grips with regrowing the grassroots.
There’s a pastoral element, too – instead of CCHQ doing its thing and the Associations doing theirs, this seems to be a move to show the party’s officers a bit more love. Various targeted and personalised letters appear to have been sent to MPs and Chairmen in different circumstances, and there was quite wide consultation about the step before it was taken.
In that respect, it’s refreshing to see some consideration expressed from the centre to the Associations, and the implicit acknowledgement that the decline in membership is a shared problem which needs to be solved together rather than handled by edict.
I gather the next steps are two-fold. There will be new materials to aid Associations in boosting their numbers, and a further drive to grow the grassroots by less conventional means.
The latter point will involve a (voluntary) expansion of the CAMS programme, by which Associations can sign up to a service which handles the admin and recruitment work for a share of the new membership fees generated. That service apparently works better when the differences between central and local data are ironed out, hence Shapps’ direct appeal for confirmed figures from the Associations
Alongside traditional membership, there will be a big push on Team 2015, recruiting volunteers who don’t have to be party members to help campaign in the 40/40 target seats. Its ranks have swelled to around 3,800 since its launch in the summer and, as we reported of the Scottish Tories’ experiments in a similar field, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be much larger.
All in all, there’s evidently a lot of work underway. There certainly needs to be if the Conservative Party is to return to the status of a genuinely mass movement, able to deploy activists in large numbers whenever and whereever they are needed.
The full debate is still to be had about quite what a 21st century political party ought to look like, and how it ought to work. With non-membership models and open primaries already being experimented with, there are questions to be answered about the constitutional and democratic rights a party member should get, too.
However, it’s good news that those experiments are happening and that these questions are starting to come up. There’s a long way to go, but it seems the gears are starting to turn at last.