The Primrose League was a broad-based mass membership organisation which peaked in the early twentieth century. Its aim was to spread Conservative messages of fighting for Queen and Country whilst promoting free enterprise. In 1910, there were nearly 2 million members at a time when there was an electorate of only 7.7 million. Fast forward 41 years and there was nearly 3 million members of the Conservative Party. In recent years the membership of the Conservative Party has dwindled and the most recent figures show there are roughly 124,000 paid up activists. We face an existential crisis as a party if we do not start attracting more members. With over half the Conservative Party’s membership being over 60, we need to think about the next 20 years and who will be knocking on the electorate’s doors to spread our message.
Jeremy Corbyn must be praised for his ability to increase the Labour Party’s membership to over half a million. The Conservatives will always find it difficult to build such an enormous movement as we are the Party of making tough decisions in government, not standing on a street corner in perpetual protest. Nevertheless, we shouldn’t be scared of building a mass movement with true democratic discussion, debate and policy input. If we are to dramatically increase our membership we need to improve the Party’s image, reform party structures so that the membership has more influence and of course we need to show the Conservative Party is for the many.
The current Conservative Party is a diverse group of professionals ranging from former postmen, to nurses, to charity workers, to doctors and many more fantastic representatives. But there is still a long way to go to make the Conservative Parliamentary Party more representative of the country as a whole. Although the Conservatives truly believe that ‘it is not about where you are from but where you are going’, the public will not believe this statement if they see MPs that in too many cases have attended the same school, university or come from the same profession. If we are to strengthen our membership base and reach out to all parts of the electorate we need to tackle this concern.
Robert Halfon has proposed a visual change that the Conservatives should enact. He propositions that we change the Party logo by swapping the tree for a ladder. The ladder signals aspiration and opportunity which is the very definition of what the Conservatives believe, which is a truly meritocratic Britain where hard work and talent prevails.
If the image of the Conservatives is to change, we need to open up the Party. Open primaries are one way of doing this. The local electorate choosing the candidate beyond the franchise of the membership has led to strong independent voices being elected. This sort of system can lead to more open debate and all political parties being in touch with local voters.
Conservative Party structures should be democratised to make it more open to new members. During William Hague’s spell as leader he adopted the ‘Blueprint for Change’ in a bid to democratise the party structures. This gave members a vote when choosing the leader and opportunities to vote on party policies. Regrettably this direction of travel did not continue in the subsequent years and the Conservatives are now seen by academics and commentators as the most top-down and least democratic of the main political parties. If the Party Chairman was elected by the membership every 4 years then this would go a long way in answering the Conservative Party’s democratic deficit. An elected chairman would empower the membership and ensure its voices were heard by the Party hierarchy.
We need forward thinking initiatives from within the Party to allow members to have more of an input on policy. This means promoting and expanding the Conservative Policy Forum and make members aware that they can join when they sign up to the Party. At the time of writing, the Conservative Policy Forum has 2,231 Twitter followers. This figure should be at least 20,000 and this would be achievable if such forums were perceived to have a real influence over policy. If members believe they have a genuine say in the Party, then an increase in numbers and engagement would naturally follow.
As well as utilising the modern forms of communication with voters through the Party’s sophisticated databases, we need to be turning the 13 million Tory voters into members. The Conservatives use social media and advertising to target voters at election time, however this tool should be used to attract new members on a more regular basis. More traditional methods of attracting members should also be used by the Party. Public meetings called by the local MP to discuss local and national issues across town halls up and down the country should be the norm. These meetings could lead to more local people joining the Party as the electorate will feel much more engaged.
Setting out an inspiring vision, coupled with a true focus on the ‘just about managing’ will help attract many more members back to the Conservatives. As a party, we need to stop playing it safe and propose a radical manifesto. We need to introduce policies which will empower young people to buy a home at a time when they think it is impossible. We need to show that welfare reform is more important than welfare cuts by making Universal Credit more generous. We need to give shareholders the power to veto executive pay-outs when undeserved; this could go a long way to take on the crony capitalists. But before much of the electorate will consider joining us, we need to win hearts and minds. That means debating with our opponents. That means answering questions, not reeling off bland vacuous slogans. That means getting out there and meeting real people.
You can purchase the author’s book for more proposals for reform here.