Miles Windsor sets out his ideas for arresting the terminal decline in Party membership
Membership of the three main parties has been in steep decline over the past two decades. Labour Party membership has dropped from 311,000 in 1990 to around 187,500 members today. Liberal Democrats peaked briefly in the early 90’s at around 101,000 before falling to today’s figure of 49,000. However, the Conservative Party – previously enjoying a large grassroots membership base of up to 2.9 million (1951) – has seen its membership decline most dramatically from around 1 million in 1990 to around 134,000 today.
Politicians who wish to brush off concerns about membership numbers point to the general decreases in membership across political parties, but this neglects to take into consideration the increases in membership seen within minor political parties such as UKIP , whose membership rose from 10,000 in 2002 to around 40,000 today, and the Green Party, which is up from 5,268 in 2002 to around 13,000.
The reduction in engagement in political parties on this scale should concern us. A large proportion of the UK population feels deeply disenfranchised and wearied by our politics. Most of the electorate sees no opportunity to have a real democratic voice or contribute to policy – there is a popular perception that even the privilege of voting is irrelevant to the outcome of elections. Many see the three main political parties offering little which is distinctive or inspiring, toeing the middle (or
indeed left-of-middle) way. The public often views its political leaders as an over-paid, out-of-touch, elitist clique with little knowledge of, or interest in, the lives of ordinary people. What can be done?
Embrace Authentic Conservatism
Conservatism isn’t easy to package in one tidy idea. It houses many traditions. The Conservative Party shouldn't be bullied into denying our identity as a party on the right of the political spectrum, nor should we erode the principles of conservatism in any misjudged attempt to broaden appeal. Conservatism, adequately communicated, appeals to a vast and diverse proportion of the electorate. It doesn't need mending or dragging leftward under the guise of 'modernisation'. We should be communicating a clear, inspiring and conservative vision for Britain.
We cannot do this with catchphrases, buzzwords and sound bites. The leadership of the party must establish a clear, overarching vision and a coherent set of plans to achieve that vision. Activists need a uniquely conservative cause behind which they can rally. People sign up to causes which they believe to be righteous and beneficial. It should be the case that people who believe in conservatism as the best set of philosophies and principles for the benefit of Britain, and who wish to see a conservative government implementing conservative policies, join the Conservative Party to support and promote this outcome.
Improve policy debates
The Conservative Policy Forums are a great idea but in reality they are little more than isolated debating clubs. Constitutions should allow members to petition local associations for debate on specific policy areas. The debate should seek to facilitate the attendance of the local Member of Parliament and he or she should be asked to state with reasoning his or her policy position. The debate would be followed by a vote. A brief report on the key points made in the debate and the vote would be recorded, posted on the association’s website and sent to the office of the Conservative Party Chairman for comment. This process would empower party members to engage in policy discussion and contribute to the debate in a meaningful way.
Reform the Party Conference
Conferences are now, primarily, trade showsfor lobbyists and cash cows for the hosts. The Westminster Village moves en masse to some province of the country for a few days in a year to make a demonstration of how connected they are to the UK as a whole – whilst locking out the local community with security fences and a police presence that makes it feel like you’re in the more hostile parts of the Occupied West Bank. Inside, the small minority of political groupies in attendance have no vote and little opportunity to speak on policy or party direction. Party Conference should be a vibrant festival of politics, a hive of philosophy, debate and fellowship. It should be easier and more affordable to attend and a more interactive and engaging programme should be designed by members. It should look more like the Hay Festival – or even Glastonbury – than the current set-up!
Encourage authenticity in politicians
This is one of the most valuable yet underrated assets in a politician’s arsenal. Voters value authenticity and have a keen awareness of when it is absent. It is often absent from the utterances of the biddable political classes, selected and promoted for their willingness to say and do what they are told. Authenticity is why Boris Johnson enjoys extraordinary popular support – even affection – in spite of his privilege and comical appearance. It is why Nigel Farage – the beer-swigging, cigarettesmoking, plain-speaking Ukip leader – is a pied piper for disillusioned Tories.
The party should be encouraging independent thought and lifting upindividuals who communicate our shared vision with authenticity and integrity. This could be achieved through changes to the whipping of our politicians, the people we promote to positions of leadership in the party and the people who are encouraged to conduct media appearances. As with so many organisations, the true strength of the Conservative Party comes from its grassroots. When those at the top are willing to listen to those outside their coterie, they might be surprised at the wealth of wisdom, understanding and hard work that becomes available to them. What is required will be difficult for party bosses because it means relinquishing a certain amount of control. If they are brave enough they will be rewarded by those they empower and the electorate.
Miles Windsor, a political strategist, is on the Conservatives Candidates’ List
This article was originally published in Crossbow, the Bow Group Magazine - Conference 2014 on 27/09/2014. Published online 21/07/2016