Andrew Thorpe-Apps is a trainee solicitor and Conservative activist from Chelmsford, Essex.
Whilst other parties have seen membership surges over the last year, Conservative membership has remained stagnant at around 150,000. A decade ago the figure was closer to 300,000.
People today are reluctant to join political organisations. They may simply be more individualistic than previous generations. But they are also more discerning. People want to know what is in it for them.
For those of us interested in growing our party’s membership, we need to ask ourselves what we are selling and how best to sell it. If we expect members to join our party, post leaflets and canvass, we need some goodies to offer in return.
The problem is that our current offering is less than appealing. Ask even the most seasoned Tory why a new member should join and they will talk about having the opportunity to vote in leadership elections, selecting MPs or attending party conference. Important though those things are, they are not enough.
We need to make four changes:
- Shift the focus from traditional branches to interest-based clubs
- Remove financial barriers to membership
- Create genuine forums for debate
- Increase competition and rewards to encourage volunteers
Shift the focus from traditional branches to interest-based clubs
The traditional branch is in long-term decline. Even successful branches tend to have few committee members below the age of 50, hardly inspiring for a 20-year-old prospective member.
The branch structure suited a time when travel and communications were limited. But with new technology there is no need to be bound by geography.
Instead, we should create groups and clubs that bring together people with common interests. Constituency associations should have Tory snooker clubs, tennis clubs, dance clubs, poker clubs etc.
In this way we can attract people who are broadly Conservative-leaning but would never consider spending two hours attending local branch meetings.
People want different things from their party membership. Some want serious political meetings once a fortnight. Others want social meetings once a month with a bit of political gossip thrown in.
The problem with the branch structure is its rigidity; it cannot cater for a wide range of interests and wants.
This is not to say that traditional branches do not have a role. There are many successful branches that hold terrific events and raise substantial funds. They should be encouraged.
But until we are able to offer a range of clubs, we will not reach out to the thousands of potential (and younger) members.
Remove financial barriers to membership
Successful businesses get people interested by giving away ‘freebies’. As a party we are adept at getting money from wealthy donors, but we fail when it comes to getting donations from small business owners and professionals.
We must remove the financial barriers to such people joining. There is far more potential value in inviting them to events where they will donate and, hopefully, be inspired to help out during elections.
Many pay their annual subscriptions and believe nothing further is required of them. We need to get more out of our members by properly engaging with them.
The full membership fee is currently £25, with a special rate of £5 offered to those under the age of 23. We should create a flat £5 annual fee for everyone. This sum is sufficient to cover the costs of administering the database and sending out membership cards.
The real value of members comes during elections. A loss of subscription monies will more than be made up for by having extra volunteers in the field. The main job of political parties is to win elections, not simply to accumulate funds.
Create genuine forums for debate
To attract and retain members we must make volunteering engaging, stimulating and fun. Members should spend more time doing things they enjoy, whether that be debating current events, discussing policies or attending functions.
Currently, many members feel like mere cash cows or leaflet fodder. Unless we feed the ‘political animal’ inside us all by offering opportunities for genuine debate, then people will continue to feel there is little point in being a member.
An updated Conservative Policy Forum has a role to play here. As it stands, topics are handed down by CCHQ and there is little sense that the notes we send back following CPF discussions have any bearing on policy.
The CPF needs to be more organic. The topics that are debated in a constituency party should be those that are relevant to the local area. Ordinary members of the public should be invited along to ‘town hall’ style meetings. Guest speakers should also be invited.
If reclaimed by the members in this way, the CPF has huge potential to inspire the political animal.
Increase competition and rewards to encourage volunteers
One way to attract younger members in particular is to increase competition. Those who succeed in signing up new members, making calls and raising donations should be rewarded. Rewards could include meetings with MPs, tours of Parliament and award ceremonies.
In the run-up to the General Election, CCHQ awarded gold, silver and bronze awards to the most active volunteers, with top performers invited to special receptions in London. Constituency associations should follow suit with their own versions of this.
To attract more members, we need a stronger and more flexible product. To get more out of our members, we need to stimulate and encourage them and, above all, make sure they can do the things they enjoy.
None of this is revolutionary. It is what successful businesses have been doing for years. But is the Conservative Party ready to make bold changes in its quest for a membership surge? Only time will tell.