Membership has been the base on which popular backing for the Conservative Party has been built for time out of mind. Some believe that it is indispensable to that task, together with the local Association structure. Others think that both are out of date in the age of Facebook and Twitter, and that the Party should be looking for supporters rather than members. Grant Shapps's column on this site today sees him enter the debate publicly, and suggest that membership isn't the be-all and end-all for the future.
Those who've joined Team 2015 don't have to be members. Some came via the Party website, others via advertising on Facebook. (Shapps is fond of pointing out that some 800,000 on that network identify themselves as Conservatives.) They will get the same chance to meet the Party Chairman or leader as those who've signed up to Team 2015 and are members.
Shapps has drawn from his own experience in Hatfield, which he refers to in his piece: "I was…stunned to discover I needed to sign a thousand thank you letters to folk
who’d directly helped in my re-election campaign – far more than the number of
members in my Welwyn Hatfield Conservative Association." (Labour has a similar scheme.)
He adds: "Here’s the thing. Not every person
signed up to Team2015 is a member of the party. This project is of course open
to our members too…but they don’t have to be. That’s also how it worked my own seat.
Many of those who came out to work in the constituency aren’t members – but
they still want to get involved in their own way."
Some members will be suspicious of any move that can be seen as by-passing the Association structure. My instinct is that reviving membership by slashing the minimum fee – £25 a year is a big ask for some people – and simultaneously giving members a bigger say in party conference and policy is a route worth taking. (Douglas Carswell is fizzing with ideas on the subject.) But the Party clearly also needs to try new means of finding support, and online recruiting will certainly be a part of it. Shapps's initiative may mark an important moment.