A post at Campaign for Conservative Democracy resonated with me, particularly as my late mother- and father-in-law met through the Young Conservatives.
Many of their closest friends over the years also belonged to the same association. My in-laws were active in their local Conservative Party until their demise.
Today, it is difficult to imagine such a commitment, but perhaps your parents or grandparents also had the same experience. If so, please feel free to comment below.
Both my in-laws died some years ago, during the Thatcher and Major years. I cannot imagine what they would have made of today’s Tory leadership and David Cameron.
Anyway, on now to the Campaign for Conservative Democracy’s post which republished John E Strafford’s ‘The Decline and Fall of the Conservative Party’. Excerpts follow, which trace the postwar history of the Conservative Party to 1998 and the present day.
It appears that 1998 was a turning point for the worse:
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 …
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 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 …
The result was that:
Although the Party now had a constitution that constitution cannot be changed without the agreement of an Electoral College consisting of Members of Parliament and the National Convention, which consists mainly of Constituency Chairmen. In this Electoral College an MP’s vote is worth three times that of a Constituency Chairman. The real power resides with the Parliamentary Party. The Chairman and Treasurer of the Party are appointed by the Leader, so are unaccountable to the membership. There is no Annual General Meeting of members, so there is no formal forum for members to raise questions about the Party’s organisation or policies. The Annual Accounts of the Party are not tabled for approval at an AGM. The selection of parliamentary candidates of the Party is controlled centrally. 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”, and this makes the rest of the constitution meaningless.
Compare this with the era when my in-laws were active in the party and local politics:
Prior to the Party reforms of 1998 there were a number of reasons to be a member. There were meetings at area and national level where you could raise issues of policy or organisation. Social gatherings emphasised the tribal feeling and sense of belonging. The Party Conference was run by the voluntary party and it had motions for debate. Votes were taken at the end of the debates and although they were not binding they reflected the views of the members. Constituency Associations were for all intents and purposes autonomous. The Party had three distinct sections – the parliamentary party, the voluntary party and the professional organisation. There were checks and balances in the distribution of power. All of these were swept away in 1998.
This portends ill for the future. You might have read yesterday where Labour will be working hard to increase its reach; Cameron might or might not be following the same template.
Yet, Labour has 200,000 members and the Tories have just a little over half that. Conservative Home estimates 134,000 now, although Strafford thinks it’s closer to 100,000.
Nonetheless, it was only last weekend that the polls between the two main parties began to narrow significantly. Who knows whether Miliband will get an uplift from the Brighton conference?
Cameron and his grandees also need to address UKIP eroding their votes in the European and General elections.
Strafford also points out another serious obstacle, of which I was unaware:
… the next General Election 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.
So, what now?
Strafford has several recommendations, which include — among others — reinstating an AGM and accountability of party leadership to members. However, he says all have been put forward to Central Office, where they were ignored.
With both the Conservatives and Labour facing the same difficulties, Strafford foresees this eventuality:
These events have great ramifications for democracy in our country. The decline of parties will only be beneficial to those sources of private power which want to escape the disciplines of political accountability.
We have seen this mature over the past 20 years. The major parties seem to care only about corporations and wealthy donors.
Where does that leave the rest of us and what can we do?