It’s an eternally vexed question: how many members does the Conservative Party actually have? In the past, the true number has been hard to ascertain – due to the disparate structure of the Party, poor record-keeping, and sometimes a political decision to try to avoid the embarrassment of publicly acknowledging the way in which membership has declined in recent years. ConservativeHome successfully made the case to Grant Shapps that it was better to come clean and rip off the plaster – so numbers were released in 2013 (134,000) and 2014 (149,800).
After that, CCHQ’s culture of awkward silence reimposed itself. That allowed speculation to run rampant – at one point last year the number of 70,000 started to do the rounds on the rumour mill. ConservativeHome didn’t accept that figure – our own research suggested a best guess of “around 100,000” last September – and the Party strongly denied it.
The new Party Chairman, Brandon Lewis, is savvy enough to know that secrecy invites damaging rumour, and therefore chose to release a new figure earlier this year:124,000. That seems to us to be plausible.
That announcement was sensible, and gives a clear benchmark against which to judge progress – something the new management can benefit from if their energetic approach to rebuilding the Party machine succeeds.
We should be a little wary of how these numbers are used, though. The Sunday Telegraph published an interesting piece last weekend on the work of Lewis and his team, which included the following passage:
‘That membership, which at one stage was well under 100,000, has risen to 124,000 and is expected by senior CCHQ insiders to hit 200,000 next year.’
Hm. One can understand why it would be tempting to portray the 124,000 figure as a rise from previous lows – but there isn’t actually any evidence to stand up “well under 100,000”. Indeed, CCHQ hotly rejected such claims when they were being made last year. It’s good that Lewis has released this number, but it can only reliably be used as the starting basis against which to judge future progress.
That’s particularly true given the digitisation and centralisation of the membership list is a very recent occurrence – the 124,000 number is the first total to be generated from that system, so any earlier figures won’t have been produced using the same methodology (where they are calculations, rather than guesstimates, that is).
None of this changes the fact that it is right and proper for CCHQ to now have a policy of openness. That’s welcome, and the Conservative Party will benefit from it. But we will gain most when we are strict in our use of the numbers, and resist any temptation to flatter them.
Looking to the future, it’s remarkable to see CCHQ insiders predicting 200,000 members by 2019, as the Telegraph reports. That’s a very ambitious goal – requiring a 61 per cent increase in somewhere between 6 and 18 months. If they do it, I’ll be astounded – but applauding.