Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London. He is the author of The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron, and co-runs the ESRC Party Members Project (PMP), which aims to study party membership in the six largest British parties.
Don’t be surprised if, as the Tories roll into Birmingham over the weekend for their annual conference, we get an announcement from either James Cleverly or Brandon Lewis that the Party has increased its membership since March this year, when the Chairman revealed that it stood at around 124,000 – a much higher figure than many had previously guessed at.
Producing that figure was no mean feat, requiring staff at CCHQ to reconcile data from a variety of more or less reliable sources before an accurate estimate could be released. Apparently, though, the exercise should soon become much easier as the Party finally completes catching up with its competitors by moving to a truly national membership system.
Whether, once it does so, we will see the Tories regularly put out membership totals in the same way as, say, Labour, the Lib Dems and the SNP do, remains to be seen. Although most parties (apart from the Conservatives) now routinely report year-end figures to the Electoral Commission when they file their accounts, they have no obligation to do so.
It could be, then, that, like some football fans, they only sing when they’re winning. As a result, if and when the surges those parties have been boasting about for the last three years eventually come to an end, we might hear rather less from them on the subject – and the same will probably go for the Tories.
Still, getting membership properly centralised should have some serious advantages. For one thing, it will (or at least should) make joining much easier for potential new members. For another, it’s likely to make it administratively easier for the party to retain those members – as well as giving it a much better idea of where it needs to concentrate its recruitment efforts between elections and its campaign forces during them.
There is, however, an important caveat that CCHQ (and indeed local organisers) might want to bear in mind – one revealed by recently-released research conducted as part of the ESRC-funded Party Members Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University.
Statistical analysis of survey responses provided by members of six parties – the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the Greens and the SNP – suggests there is a positive relationship between being initially recruited into, and feeling part of (and indeed, ideologically close to) one’s local party, on the one hand, and getting involved in on-the-ground campaigning come election time on the other.
CCHQ, then, needs to make sure, then, that any centralised joining process rapidly results in a welcome – ideally a personal follow-up – from a new member’s constituency association. Our own more qualitative research suggests, by the way, that other parties could learn a lot from (yes, you’ve probably guessed it) the Lib Dems in this respect.
Still, even if the system currently being developed and rolled out by CCHQ doesn’t get this right straight away, then all is not necessarily lost. Our statistical analysis also suggests that, although people whose initial joining experience is national rather than local might not do so much campaigning ‘in real life’, they will on online, on Facebook and Twitter – something that the Conservative Party badly needs more of its members to do.
Mind you, there is still a slight qualification worth mentioning. There are a couple more things positively associated with being willing to get involved in online campaigning.
The first (which also plays a part in real life/offline stuff like canvassing and leafleting, incidentally) is feeling you’re a little more radical than your party is nationally. The other is being a big fan of your party’s leader. If ConHome’s readers are anything to go by, the former should present no problem. The latter, however, might be a touch trickier!