The decline and fall of the Conservative Party

The Conservative Party is fighting an uphill battle, as it is rapidly losing members. But in the face of reduced membership rights and lack of privilege, where is the incentive and who is to blame?

John E. Strafford
16 August 2013

           Flickr/UK in Canada

When David Cameron became Leader of the Conservative Party in 2005 there were 258,239 members of the Party. By the beginning of 2010 membership had fallen to 177,000. In the three years from 2010 to 2012 membership fell a further 44,000 to 133,000. My own constituency of Beaconsfield has the second highest membership of any Constituency Association in the country. Its membership in 2012 was 1,363. This year by 31st May almost 25% of the members had not renewed their subscription to the Party. On anecdotal evidence this is fairly typical of most Associations. This means that the total Party membership is now approximately 100,000, so we have lost over 150,000 members since David Cameron became the Leader of the Party. The loss of 150,000 is a net loss after taking into account new members joining the Party. Assuming that the Party got say 5,000 new members each year then the loss of members is 190,000. 

Why has this happened? What effect will it have and can anything be done to change this disastrous trend?

Membership of the Party has been in long-term decline. At the end of World War II membership was about 250,000. As a result of the magnificent efforts of Lord Woolton membership had risen by 1952 to 2.8 million. Since then the decline has been continuous. By 1979 membership had fallen to 1,350,000 and during the 1980s and 1990s it declined further to 400,000 by 1997.

The Conservative Party suffered a major electoral defeat in the General Election of 1997. William Hague became Leader and immediately set in train a reorganisation of the Party. At that time the Party did not even have a constitution. Initially, he set out a vision of a democratic Party and spoke of giving power to the members, but by the time his proposals were finalised his vision had been watered down by the vested interests within the Party. The Parliamentary Party was determined to retain its power and if possible increase it. In the end the only concession the voluntary party got was a say in future leadership elections; the Party got a constitution. We were now one Party, but the voluntary part of the Party paid a heavy price.

The Party has a constitution that cannot be changed without the agreement of an Electoral College, consisting of Members of Parliament and the National Convention, which – in turn –are mainly made up of Constituency Chairmen. In this Electoral College an MP’s vote is worth three times that of a Constituency Chairman, the real power therefore residing with the Parliamentary Party. As the Chairman and Treasurer of the Party have been appointed by the Leader, they are then unaccountable to the membership. In addition, there is no Annual General Meeting of members and consequently, there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies; the Annual Accounts of the Party for instance, are not tabled for approval at an AGM. The selection of parliamentary candidates of the Party is controlled centrally and the Party Board can and does take control of any Constituency Association, which does not toe the line. The infamous clause 17 of the constitution states: “The Board shall have power to do anything which in its opinion relates to the management and administration of the Party”, rendering the rest of the constitution meaningless.

What does a member get from membership of the Conservative Party? Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member. Firstly, there were meetings at area and national level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation; social gatherings were important in emphasising the tribal feeling, and sense, of belonging. Secondly, the Party Conference was run by the voluntary party and it had motions for debate. Votes were taken at the end of these debates and – although the results were not binding – they reflected the views of the members. Thirdly, Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous. The structure of the Party was also more beneficial as it had three distinct sections: the parliamentary party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation. Finally, there were checks and balances in the distribution of power. In 1998, all of these factors were swept away.

Is there any reason why one would remain to be a member of the Conservative Party today?

The decline in membership matters; of the approximately 100,000 Party members 10% or approximately 10,000 are activists. Today those activists consist primarily of councillors, their families and friends. With only 100,000 Party members you can no longer fight a national campaign on the ground and – as the Liberal Democrats have found – you have to target particular seats and put all your resources into winning them. This is what the Conservative Party is doing with its 40-40 campaign (they are concentrating on fighting the 40 most marginal seats held by the Conservative Party and the 40 most marginal seats held by other parties). The problem with this strategy is that it is out dated, only being based on research into the last General Election.

With the rise of UKIP we are now in an era of four party politics so which seats are marginal? In Aylesbury, a safe Conservative seat, UKIP picked up 32% of the votes in the local elections in May. Does that mean that Aylesbury can still be considered safe? Even if UKIP do not win any seats in the next General Election but do take say 10% of the votes they will have a dramatic effect on the Conservative Party. A senior member of the Conservative Party forecast the possible loss of 100 seats.

Next year we have the elections for the European Parliament. There is a consensus of opinion that UKIP are likely to have the highest vote of any of the political parties. At this point panic may well set in. Conservative Associations throughout the country will feel vulnerable and safe seats will no longer feel safe, mutual aid will be abandoned and it will be every Association for itself.

One of those moments of irony arises in the next General Election as it will be fought on an Electoral Register drawn up by individual registration rather than household registration. When this was done in Northern Ireland, 10% of the Register disappeared. The origins of political parties were as Registration Societies. Their main function was to ensure that their supporters were all registered to vote. This job will now be resurrected, except that there will not be the Party activists to carry it out.

The most important factor in the next General Election will be “feet on the ground” and at the margin it is the canvassing and the knocking up that will count the most. For that you need volunteers, the most committed of which are members.

For some years Conservative Central Office has ignored the views of members. It has treated them with contempt. This year, in order to increase attendance, non-members have been invited to the Party Conference, but the surprise came as the Central Office made it cheaper for a non-member to attend than a member, illustrating the perverted mindset of the Party hierarchy. The appointment of Jim Messina (former social media guru to President Obama) as an adviser is an indication that they believe that the way forward is to organise our campaigns as in the United States: by gathering up supporters rather than relying on members. What is forgotten, of course, is that the Presidential Election in the United States costs approximately $6 Billion, as support is bought. This is obviously beyond the reach of the financial restrictions on campaign spending.

So how do we set about increasing our membership?

It is no good re-launching the institutions that have failed to prevent the decline in membership. If they have failed before, they will fail again. What we need now is a radical approach based on participation. I have set out below some of the measures that need to be taken:

  1. The Conservative Party constitution should be capable of being altered by the members of the Party on the basis of one member, one vote and if 60%+ vote in favour of change.
  2. There should be an Annual General Meeting of the Party to which all members are invited.
  3. The Chairman of the Party should be responsible for the Party Organisation.
  4. The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party should be elected by the members of the Party.
  5. The Chairman of the Party should present an Annual Report on the Party organisation at the Annual General Meeting of the Party for adoption by the members.
  6. The Treasurer of the Party should present the Annual Accounts of the Party to the Annual General Meeting for adoption by the members.
  7. The Chairman of the Committee on Candidates should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on candidate selection at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
  8. The Chairman of the Council of the Conservative Policy Forum should be elected by the members of the Party and should present a report on the workings of the Forum at the Annual General Meeting of the Party.
  9. Motions for debate on policy should be allowed at the Party Conference and votes taken on the motions.
  10. Clause 17 of the current Party Constitution – which gives unqualified power to the Party Board – should be deleted. 

These simple changes would give power to the members and provide a check on the power of the Party hierarchy. Would they be acceptable to Central Office? I doubt it. All have been proposed before and Central Office has ignored them, so what can be done?

There is a nuclear option and that is to put down a motion of no confidence in the Leader at a meeting of the National Convention. It is inconceivable that the Leader could continue in office were such a motion to be passed. The motion would have to be supported by a sizeable number of Constituency Chairmen. Of course, the Party Board would try to stop the motion by saying it was not in the best interests of the Conservative Party. Even if the motion was placed on the Agenda, the Officers of the Convention would try to move to next business without it being debated, but if the numbers of supporters was sufficiently high these tactics would fail. 

Without change the Conservative Party is heading towards a disaster. By the time of the next General Election it will have ceased to exist as a membership organisation. It is sad for me as a Party member for the last 50 years to have to point this out, but for the country it will be a tragedy. The centre-right of politics has a majority support of the people of the United Kingdom. In the Eastleigh by-election the Conservatives and UKIP got 52% of the vote and a collapse in the Conservative Party may mean that the Labour Party takes office with all the implications that that would mean for the country. The Labour party however, for different reasons, is also facing a crisis on membership and could face similar decline. These events have great ramifications for democracy in our country. The decline of parties will only be beneficial to those sources of private powers that want to escape the disciplines of political accountability.

What has been lacking in the Conservative Party in recent years is a strategic approach to winning. With the likelihood of a hung parliament it was a mistake not to support the Alternative Vote. With second preference votes from UKIP it is almost certain that a government would have been formed that was Centre Right in outlook – a better proposition than a coalition with the Lib-Dems. By messing up House of Lords reform (which was popular with the people) the Conservative Party lost support on boundary changes, which would have helped them to win more seats.

I sometimes think that the Conservative Party has a death wish. Lack of historical knowledge, lack of experience and lack of strategic thinking mean the Party is slowly walking into oblivion. This scenario can be changed, but time is running out.


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