The EU referendum experience was denounced from all sides as bad for British politics (see Jeremy Brier’s fluent denunciation of it on this site for an example), but it has none the less done party membership no end of good.
The Liberal Democrats have reportedly put on 15,000 new members. Labour’s membership is currently at 500,000 or so – though this admittedly has more to do with pro and anti-Corbyn feeling than with Brexit. And the Sunday Times claims today that “nearly 50,000 people have joined the Conservative Party since Theresa May became leader, swelling the ranks of grassroots Tories by nearly 40 per cent in just six weeks”.
Who are they? The paper dubs the phenomenon “May mania”, and says that “the Conservative correspondence unit has been inundated with letters from lapsed members returning to the fold”. But our columnist Andrew Kennedy, reporting the rise on this site last month, painted a more complex picture.
The West Kent campaign director described the surge as “the most intense period of recruitment I have ever witnessed”. He found that almost 80 per cent of those signing up in the area were brand new; that more seem to have voted Remain than Leave; that 75 per cent joined partly “because I wanted to vote in the leadership election” (they will have been disappointed); that 75 per cent also felt that” I have always been a Conservative and wanted to help secure a future victory”. 66 per cent reported that they “have an interest in politics that was aroused by the EU referendum”. Five per cent were former supporters of UKIP.
My best guess is that there will be a drop next year, as some of those who joined hoping to vote in the leadership election don’t re-join, but to a higher base than previously. This was 149,800 when we last reported a figure, itself an apparent rise from the 134,000 the year before (when we saw the returns in detail). There had previously been speculation that the total was below 100,000, and Grant Shapps did well in helping to persuade David Cameron that membership figures should be released – thus provoking the inevitable headline report that membership had nearly halved under his leadership.
Some Associations are holding special events to welcome new members. For example, the Wycombe Association will be holding one next month for the 120 new members who have joined this year to “listen to their views”. There will be others elsewhere.
More will doubtless emerge in due course about the distribution. It would be bracing to believe that the influx of new members will solve the problems of which Clarke-gate was a symptom, but not all will become active, and the campaigning gain to the Party will be limited if the bulk of the gain is piling up in the so-called “safe” seats. We will doubtless hear more when McLoughlin decides what to do with the so-called Feldman Review.
The new Party Chairman will proclaim the rise to the rafters during October’s annual conference. Perhaps he should hold a special welcome session for new members while he’s at it.