The Tories will never again have a membership numbered in the millions. That is the working assumption on which William Hague, and other senior Conservatives, proceed. As he wrote this week in The Daily Telegraph:
“A highly mobile and digital society is not conducive to the growth of most mass membership organisations, which had their heyday at a time of fewer distractions and stronger community roots.”
Nobody can accuse Hague of having willed this outcome. When he was elected Leader in 1997 by the party’s MPs, who had just shrunk in number to only 165, he had ambitious plans, which included giving all members of three months’ standing a vote in leadership elections, after MPs had whittled the short list down to two:
“I believed at the time that giving a vote to members would help to enlarge the membership and make it more representative of the country, and aimed for a million members of a revived grassroots organisation. The sad reality is that, since then, the total number of Conservative members has halved, and earlier this year officially stood at 124,000.”
We cannot know whether it is going to remain at that sort of level. But it is certainly true that various organisations which used to have memberships in the millions, including political parties, trade unions and the churches, have seen precipitous falls in numbers in recent decades.
So for the time being, the Conservative Party has to be run as an organisation that does not have a mass membership.
What are the implications of this? Does the drastic shrinkage in the once proud Voluntary Party mean the party now belongs, effectively, to the Leader, and becomes his or her property? The mighty National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, founded in 1867, already seemed diminished when it was renamed, during Hague’s leadership, the National Conservative Convention, and the official suggestion that the Convention acts as “the parliament of the Voluntary Party” is a pious theory rather than a description of reality.
One doubts, however, whether Iain Duncan Smith would think the party ever belonged to him. The Leader remains condemned to lead the party to success, or else he or she is replaced. There is no exception to this rule, though there have been differences in the amount of time, and number of setbacks, the Leader is allowed while moving, supposedly, in the general direction of success.
The question of who the party belongs to is an important one. The Leader can appoint as many members of the Party Board (officially described as party’s “ultimate decision-making body”) as he or she wishes. Central Office, renamed in 2004 as Conservative Campaign Headquarters, is not the power it was, and the Party Chairman, who has always been appointed by the Leader, is no longer a big figure in his or her own right, in the way that Willie Whitelaw, Cecil Parkinson, Norman Tebbit and Chris Patten were big figures.
I cannot resist noting – having just glanced through a list of all the Chairmen since the creation of the office in 1911 – that although many of them, including Lord Hailsham, Rab Butler, Iain Macleod and David Davis, have been contenders for the leadership, only two have managed to get there: Neville Chamberlain and Theresa May.
While David Cameron was Prime Minister, his friend Lord Feldman served as Chairman: an arrangement also followed by Stanley Baldwin, who from 1926-30 had his friend J.C.C.Davidson as Chairman. I think it would be hard to show that in either period, the Conservative Party organisation was independent of the Leader.
A mass membership does confer the sense, which must be of psychological value, that the party is rooted in British society. It makes it easier to think of it as an institution which belongs to the whole nation, and not to whoever happens just then to be Leader.
The two-party system has long been a vital part of our constitutional arrangements, for it means there is generally a Leader of the Opposition who can take over if and when the Prime Minister suffers a catastrophic loss of confidence. In that sense, both the Conservatives and Labour have an obligation to the nation, and not just to their members, to choose leaders with the potential to be Prime Minister, which means leaders who can command the confidence of their own MPs.
The larger the membership, the greater the number of people who can turn out to campaign for the party. And as Guido Fawkes points out, the latest figures from the Electoral Commission show that Labour, with a much larger membership, is now raising more money than the Conservatives.
From the foundation of the Primrose League in 1883, right up to the heyday of the Young Conservatives after the Second World War, the Conservatives were very good at recruiting members, and often well ahead of other parties in this respect.
A large party ought to be less vulnerable to a takeover by an influx of new members with a particular agenda. As Labour discovered, that can happen very quickly once a party has become hollowed out, and if it adopts the wrong rules. The speed with which a new movement like UKIP can get going, when the existing parties are seen to be unresponsive to popular concerns, is likewise a warning to the Conservatives – though it could also be taken as an encouraging sign that members will flock to the right rallying cry.
But Hague suggests, correctly I think, that even mass memberships can be unrepresentative of wider public opinion. The late T.E.Utley made the same point in a splendid piece published in The Daily Telegraph on 23 September 1985:
“Consider the democratic festival which we are now enjoying in this country, the annual party conferences. All of them have essentially the same theme – the attempt of (in some cases very roughly) sane members of the political establishment to prevent their rank-and-file supporters from going mad.
“Those who voluntarily go to party conferences are quite the most unrepresentative sections of the community: they either want political office, or just like the sound of their own voices, or are the representatives of vested interests who are seeking to capture the State…
“…in so far as the ‘grass roots’ prevail on these occasions, the result is a most unrepresentative party manifesto – simple, ideological, often cracked. It has nothing to do with the hopes and fears of ordinary people. Ordinary people are then obliged to choose between one or other of these documents. They do so with misery, scepticism and reluctance, but it is assumed thereafter that they have agreed whole heartedly to every item in the programme. That simply adds insult to injury.”
Hague’s contention, amply confirmed by the Labour Party’s recent experience, is that it would be folly to change the Conservative Party’s rules for electing a leader, in order to give the membership a greater say. The task of choosing the final two runners must remain with MPs, who know them better than the members do. One Jeremy Corbyn is more than enough.