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This morning The Guardian reported that over the past year Conservative Party membership had fallen by 10 per cent. The paper made reference to a “mass exodus.”

The report refers to constituency associations that have filed individual returns to the Electoral Commission as “accounting units.”

The Guardian says:

“They show an average drop in full membership of about 10% across constituencies that have published their figures over the last two years. Labour has a membership of about 187,000, while the Liberal Democrats have increased their numbers by about 7% over the last year to more than 44,000.”

We can all have fun clicking on the Statement of Accounts section of the Electoral Commission website and searching through constituency party annual accounts. Here is our own analysis from the figures. It is an interesting exercise but does not tell the whole story.

The Guardian pick on the Romford return for the Conservatives which showed a sharp fall. They highlighted this to show the UKIP threat. I was concerned to see the figures but I still suspect that Conservative MP Andrew Rosindell will see off the purple peril. Certainly there are several other constituency associations where there has been a big fall in membership and that should be taken seriously.

But many constituency parties do not file individual returns. Many of those that do just give a figure for their membership income rather than their total number of members.

I don’t know how many of the 650 constituencies in the UK, the figure of a 10 per cent fall is based on. I suspect The Guardian used a rather small sample.

In any event the accounts for 2013 will be published at the end of July. I understand Conservative Party membership will actually have risen slightly on the previous year – from 134,000 to 135,000. This is the figure for full membership, the “core” membership – those stumping up £25 each. That increase will reflect not only the number of names and addresses sent in to CCHQ but also the money (£5) that is sent in for each subscription.

On top of that there is the membership for Conservative Future which has risen by four per cent on the year. There has been a sharp increase in the number of college branches with ambitious plans for more new branches in the coming academic year.

CF members usually pay less than older members. But they usually campaign more – which is generally reckoned to be more important.

Then there is the growth in newer kinds of association and membership, including Friends and Registered Supporters (cost = £1), which has seen lots of new people joining predominately online to show their support for the Conservative Party.

Even the broader definition of membership – which includes those in the armed forces paying at a discounted rate and the CF members – does not those who just pay a £1. Nor does it include the 350,000 members of Conservative Clubs – even though they have to sign a statement that they are Conservative supporters and some of their membership fee is passed on to the Party.

There will be more details on all these different varieties of membership announced at Party Conference. But it is matter of public record that the Conservative Party page on Facebook has 235,509 likes.  By contrast the Labour Party has 179,286 likes on Facebook. David Cameron has 710,000 followers on Twitter – compared to 326,000 for Ed Miliband. Why was this not mentioned in The Guardian?

One Conservative agent, Andrew Kennedy, recently called for the abolition of membership. I don’t quite go as far as Mr Kennedy but too much focus on it does show the wrong mentality.

In Clacton there is a huge Conservative membership. This has perversely come about by inviting everyone to come and have fish and chips – at some modest but profit making charge – and talk to the local MP Douglas Carswell.

Often those who attend have become members afterwards but that is rather incidental to their engagement in local politics. Fish and chips should be for the many and not just the few.

In my own small way I have been trying to apply the Kennedy/Carswell doctrine. When the International Development Minister Alan Duncan came to speak at a Conservative Party event in Hammersmith Grove last month – I mentioned it in my email bulletin to residents in my ward. That goes to hundreds of residents who I am in contact with, not just Party members. Why not ? If a non Party member would like to pay £20 for some drink and canapes and morale boosting comments from Mr Duncan then why exclude them? Several did. I don’t think we should operate like some sort of embattled secretive clique.

So what should we conclude?   Firstly, and contrary to The Guardian’s claims, Conservative Party membership is stable rather than falling. Secondly, that this narrow measure is rather old fashioned anyway. More important for the result of the General Election next year will be which Party can mobilise the most campaigners and most support online.

 

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