ConHome carries an interesting article about the Conservative Party's new membership drive. Since David Cameron became leader in 2005, membership has fallen from 258,000 to 177,000 - although the leadership points out that there are over half a million registered 'friends and supporters' of the party (a figure which includes things like Ulster Unionist Party members, I think). After an apparent dalliance with the idea of moving away from the membership model entirely (!), they have instead decided to try to rebuild our membership base. The aim is to recruit 5% of the Conservative vote in any constituency with a Conservative MP, and 3% of the vote in any constituency without one. Nationally, the figures work out thus:
Conservative Vote in Constituencies Won: 7300678
Conservative Vote in Constituencies Lost: 3403076
Membership in Constituencies Won at 5%: 365034
Membership in Constituencies Lost at 3%: 102092
Total Membership: 467126
Membership Dues (at £25): £11,678,150
Not the most inspiring figure in the world, but it'll be a considerable what we have at the moment if its achievable. For a while I was worried that Cameron might emulate Ed Miliband's policy of allowing registered 'supporters' to participate in party votes etc., at a stroke completely removing any reason to join the party other than seeking candidature, so seeing a renewed commitment to membership is encouraging. However, as touched on in the ConHome piece, the party really needs to look at why membership has continued to drop off over the years.
The linked article has several suggestions, including the very high membership fee (£25 compared to £10 for the Liberal Democrats and Labour), but I think the key one is the lack of benefits to being a member of the party. Local associations are gradually losing their role in candidate selection, the youth movement has been stripped of any independence, and - most symbolically, I think - the membership have no say whatsoever in policy decisions, and conference has been reduced to a trade show with speakers.
If membership does vanish, then the effects on our party (and more broadly the British party system as a whole) could be drastic. Membership supplies two things to a party: funding and manpower. Given the unacceptability of surviving purely on the good graces of millionaires - or unions, in a fairer world - the Conservative Party would probably have to shift to supporting state funding for political parties, with all the problems that entails that I've discussed elsewhere. State funding could be needed not only to cover the party's current costs but to hire professionals to do the work currently done by what remains of the voluntary party, including canvassing and campaigning.
The lack of influence members have is, in my view, the key to the long-term revival of the party as a membership organisation. A freer hand in choosing candidates and determining policy would do more to revitalise membership levels than anything else. The leadership seem to have the same idea, having recently re-launched the Conservative Policy Forum to give members a say in the direction of the party. Given my experience, it probably won't be nearly active or influential enough to reverse the membership decline by itself, and the party should continue to empower its membership before it evaporates altogether.
It goes without saying that if you're not a member of the Conservative & Unionist Party and would like to be so, Dilettante urges this course of action upon you and directs you to the party's recruitment page.