By Harry Phibbs
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This morning there are reports that both the Conservatives and the Labour Party have problems with Party membership. For Labour the problem is a flood of new recruits. In Falkirk West the local Party until recently had fewer than 200 members. But there has been an influx of 100 members of the Unite union – in an effort to ensure the selection of a left wing candidate. In Ilford East the same union has offered to pay the Labour Party membership sub for those members who join.
By contrast, the problem for the Conservatives is not enough new recruits. Interviewed in the Daily Telegraph this morning Eric Pickles, the Communities and Local Government Secretary and also a former Party Chairman says:
“We need to listen to the grassroots — we need to listen to them intently. But the party has also got to spread its roots and widen its reach. Get into parts of the forest that they’ve retreated from. Our membership is a tad elderly. It would be nice if we could get some younger people in. It would be very nice if there was a concerted effort to do so.”
Mr Pickles believes a larger membership would help the Party "stay connected" and to be "immersed in the community."
In its leader column the Daily Telegraph backs this call. We must "rebuild the party as an organisation that better reflects the communities it seeks to represent.":
In the early Fifties, the Tories boasted three million members; today that number has declined to around 130,000. In many parts of the country, the local Conservative Association still sits at the heart of parish life – but the Tories could do a better job of increasing participation and embracing people from different backgrounds. It needs to counter the charge that its higher echelons are a “chumocracy”.
What could be done to achieve this? One useful first step would be to end the routine obstruction of those wishing to join. A mystery shopping exercise a couple of years ago, reported by Mark Wallace, showed that of those who applied to join the Conservative Party over half had no reply, 10% were told the Party was closed to new members and some were told that an interview must first be passed.
That response to new members is quite unacceptable. CCHQ with its empire of area agents is keen to enforce rules when it comes to selecting candidates. A constituency association must choose someone from the approved list, they must choose their candidate at a particular time. The implication is that should this rule be defied the association would be closed down. Yet why is there no minimum standard for accepting new members?
There should also be accountability about constituency membership. Each association should be obliged to send an annual return to CCHQ with its membership list.
This would allow the Party to communicate with its entire membership nationally. They could send them a magazine. This could probably be financed by advertising and so need not be drain on Party funds. (There used to be a magazine in the Hague era called Heartland – although its reliance on ads for hearing aids and stairlifts was a worrying sign of the demographic that was identified.)
A central membership list would also alert the Party to target seats with a particularly low membership. At present we just don't know.
The Conservatives could recruit more members nationally. Why not advertise in such journals as The Spectator and the Daily Telegraph? Or via the Countryside Alliance? Or (ahem) certain appropriate blogs and websites? There shouldn't be an objection in terms of budget as the general idea is that such advertisements would generate more revenue in subs and donations than the cost of placing them.
It is not all gloom. Conservative Future is doing rather well with over 18,000 members.They have thriving city wide branches in places such as Manchester and Sheffield where combining with the University branch for campaigning and events allows "critical mass."
Teeside Conservative Future includes within their thriving membership James Wharton, the 29-year-old Conservative MP for Stockton South. Where constituency associations have offered encouragement – such as Richmond Park and Romford – there are branches with hundreds of members each.
The new Chairman of CF, Oliver Cooper, is bringing in a new arrangement where those who sign up for membership at fresher's fairs this autumn become full Party members by filling in a direct debit online for £5 and providing their home as well as college address.
Mr Cooper believes that over time this will mean thousands more student members are retained when they graduate. It will also mean that while they are still students they can be invited to come to events by their constituency association when they are back home over the holidays.
This is important not just in terms of the numbers of members, but having members with the energy and confidence to campaign. Those who have run a stall at a freshers fair will find setting up a stall at a shopping centre as something they take in their stride. This is the good humoured, outward looking campaigning zeal which allows the Conservative Party to "stay connected" as Mr Pickles put it. Mr Cooper says that CF members are told when canvassing to ask Conservatives voters to join. A piece of "best practice" which is too seldom followed.
There is broader benefit to the Conservative Party having a national membership drive than funds or greater election activism. When thinking about its message to persuade staunch supporters to actually sign up, it will also think about those with staunch Conservative views who have drifted off to UKIP and how to win them back.
Margaret Thatcher's death, with all the media discussion and debate surrounding it, reminded many people of why they were Conservatives. For some it clarified it for the first time. I understand that it prompted many to rejoin the Conservative Party or to join it for the first time.
A recruitment drive would show that for all the constraints of coalition government and requirements of modernisation that Conservatives have retained self belief.