At best, membership of the Conservative Party has halved since David Cameron took over leadership of the Party in 2005.
Many have defended and dismissed these figures as being a modern cross-party trend and many have blamed Cameron’s distant, seemingly anti-conservative leadership. Neither analysis gets to the heart of what is happening.
In the Bow Group’s last conference edition of Crossbow conservative authors came together to bemoan the politics of the third-way, and offer the beginnings of an alternative – a return to primary colours conservatism, with ideas, democracy and genuine expertise at its heart. We could not, however, have predicted such a stark beginning to the shifting of the political plates that the last year has witnessed. When Party membership was at its peak, big ideas mattered and the difference between political parties was never so clear; public vs private ownership, state control vs personal liberty, traditional vs “progressive” values. We are often warned by the current Conservative Party leadership of the dire socialist republic that awaits us if Ed Milliband succeeds Cameron as Prime Minister in 2015, but the last 3 years have proven that there really is no discernible difference, at least to the general public, between any of the major political parties.
It is this failure that underpins the results we are now seeing: membership of all parliamentary parties at rock bottom, confidence in all major Party leaders at a historic low: a citizenry broadly apathetic to politics as a whole.
The British public and the few remaining Party members will only tolerate the status quo for so long.
The question for the next 25 years of the British political party is not funding, be it state, union or private donor, it is existence itself. Unless the political party changes radically and moves purposefully into a new era, the public and rapidly decreasing membership, once relied upon to be the leafleters, donors and voters, will shrug.
Moving beyond the populist politics of the third way will be a painful process for British politics, its cultural norms are deeply set in Westminster and its death throws will be as ugly as the demolition of any establishment. Those that have based their political careers around this model that are expectantly advancing along the traditional conveyor belt to power are likely to be disappointed, those that placed power before principle are likely to be defeated, and parties that place establishment as a defence against ideas are likely to be destroyed.
The Conservative Party can survive, but its grave is now marked: If the Party cannot envision a future where its ideas are as distinct from others as they were in the post-war era, then it won’t have a future at all. As is often the case, this great challenge to the future of the Conservative Party comes with the greatest of opportunities alongside. UKIP’s rise has proven that if a party sets out clear, distinct and forthright ideas, the public will respond, and will swiftly buck the trend against political malaise.
When Peter Lilley was Chairman of the Bow Group in 1973, battling against the mediocrity of Heath’s leadership, things had to get worse before they got better, but the darkest of nights produced the brightest of days: Thatcher rebuilt and re-energised the Conservative Party, she set ideas at its heart, and inspired a generation to come.
As a country we also face greater challenges today, our role in the world is yet further diminished, our economic model based on borrowing has collapsed, our society is more divided than ever. These challenges will not pass swiftly, and the solutions to them will be varied and often violently opposed.
Conservative ideas work and conservative leadership inspires, there are millions of lost conservatives in Britain currently turned off by political parties that want to be part of a genuine conservative movement. We have the tools in thought and ideas to rebuild Britain, and the Conservative Party can again be our vehicle to do so, but we will have to make great changes within the Party, before we can make them without.
I hope that you will enjoy this edition of Crossbow that aims to explore the internal issues in the Conservative Party, how it lost its base, and how it can win it back.