While everyone in attendance is consumed by events at the Party conference, it’s easy to forget the fact that most Conservatives are not here in Birmingham. In fact, it’s common even for a fair few Tory Members of Parliament not to attend – some don’t like it, or don’t want the expense, or feel their time is better spent in their constituencies.
Some don’t attend for several years running. I gather that’s the case for one relatively new (and quite senior) Minister, who found his Government role now requires him to turn up. He therefore applied for his pass in the normal way, only to find that, well, there was a problem. He wasn’t going to be allowed in, because he wasn’t a member of the Conservative Party.
Awkward. He had to apply, somewhat abashed, to his local association to join up – rather to their surprise.
On investigation, it turned out that his membership had lapsed some years earlier. In the absence of automatic renewals or a need to apply for a conference pass, he and the association had simply never noticed. Technically speaking, he wouldn’t have been eligible to be adopted as a Conservative candidate at last year’s election.
That’s an unintentional error, albeit an embarrassing one, but it underscores some of the problems the Conservative Party has faced in recent years. If an MP can accidentally fall off the membership list, and become a man overboard without anyone noticing, then you can be sure the same has happened to many rank and file members.
Many associations struggle to properly run renewals and the collection of membership subs. Given the justified angst about how to rebuild a mass membership, it’s almost unbelievable that the Party has for so long thrown members away, through a flaw that everybody knew to be an issue. Any business knows that keeping existing customers is far cheaper than attracting new ones.
Which is why it’s undoubtedly a welcome benefit of the incoming centralised administration of membership that there will be proper support to make renewing smoother and easier (as Brandon Lewis told this site earlier in the year).
Stemming such needless losses will be beneficial, but the Minister’s experience points to a potential opportunity, too.
We talk a lot about recruiting new members, and wooing back people who have chosen to leave the Conservative Party – and rightly so – but evidently there is also a potential pool of recruits in between the two, who should be the easiest of all to sign up.
Potentially thousands of former members out there don’t even need persuading to rejoin – they already believe themselves to be current members but no longer are due to the absurdity of the old system. If they don’t hear much from the Party, they might easily assume it simply isn’t doing much to contact them. Perhaps some in this situation are even reading this article.
The work of recruiting new members and winning back genuine ex-members still needs to be done, of course, but such ‘non-member members’ are low-hanging fruit which the Party could and should snap up. Identifying them, and alerting them to their peculiar situation, would be worthwhile. More funds, re-establishing proper contact with willing activists who have accidentally become semi-detached, and, of course, a further boost to membership numbers wouldn’t go amiss.
It’s only one small task in the Herculean labour of getting our Party back to fighting fitness – readers will be all too aware of that. A year on from the Pickles review, and the ConservativeHome investigation into the 2017 General Election, the recommendations of both are yet to be fully implemented. There are various signs of positive progress, and I expect we will hear more on that front from the conference stage today, where the discussion before the Prime Minister’s speech is on preparedness for 2022.
The need for that progress to continue apace is as clear as it was 12 months ago. Reforming and modernising the way the Party functions, in the sense of the practical machine that makes the politics possible, is a short-term necessity but also a responsible gift to future generations – an inherently conservative responsibility to take on.
That applies beyond Brexit, beyond Chequers, beyond questions of personalities and leadership. Whenever the next election is – whoever fights it, against whom, on whichever policies and under whatever circumstances – our Party must be able to focus all its efforts on winning votes, rather than find itself still distracted by the need to wrestle with the legacy of its past disorganisation.