To strengthen the Tory Party, start by weakening it

The Tory Party, as currently constituted, will not survive the sea change in our culture

Cameron has the technology - will he use it?
Dan Whitfield
On 14 May 2013 11:10

Hold your horses. While David Cameron’s Conservative Party was spared a shellacking in the recent local elections, dire arithmetic and unfair constituency sizes mean the Tories are still unlikely to win the general election in 2015. The party hasn't won one of those since 1992.

This grim reality has prompted earnest soul searching on the Right. Is the rise of Ukip good or bad for Ed Miliband? Should Ukip be treated with respect or scorn? And should David Cameron move to the right, or remain in the centre?

But these questions, important though they are, obscure one overriding point: the wretched state of the Conservative Party. Membership has fallen by half since David Cameron became leader in 2005. His merry band now numbers a paltry 130,000 members.

Mercifully for the Tories, it is not just the Conservative Party that is in the doldrums. British trade unions are seeing membership nosedive, as is the Labour Party. Professor Mark Wickam-Jones of Bristol University recently revealed that party membership in Gordon Brown's constituency has plummeted from nearly 1,000 members in the mid-1990s to just 162 in 2010.

Why is it these venerable 20th century institutions are struggling to survive in the 21st? And what can be done to halt the decline of the party of Disraeli, Churchill, and Thatcher?

It is not, as some claim, simply a case of changing policies. This decline predates the House of Commons taking up Cameron's divisive gay marriage proposals, the reason most often cited for the drop in Tory membership. And, as the American Republican Party shows, still robust despite the troubled campaign of Mitt Romney last autumn, people will stick to a party in spite of what they believe are the wrong policies and the wrong candidates.

The problem, rather, is that membership of the Tory party has become worthless. Candidate selection and decisions over party policy are restricted to a chosen, cloistered few. Members are charged with raising funds, but are never asked their opinion on how best the money should be spent. They are given responsibilities (deliver this leaflet, knock on that door) but no power. It is a depressing combination.

In the 20th century party membership on such terms was tolerable. But the world has changed and the Tory Party has barely noticed.

Ours is now a culture which venerates individual choices and individual tastes. We can vote on which celebrity should leave the Big Brother House, or alternatively vote for our favorite act on Pop Idol. And if neither of these options sounds palatable to you, go online and enjoy the quadrillions of websites designed to cater to all our various and sundry whims.

One of the principle reasons social media networks are so popular is that they empower ordinary users, giving them the chance to broadcast their thoughts, feelings, and opinions to a wide audience.

In a world such as this, it is laughable to suggest a person would deliver leaflets urging the election of a candidate they themselves didn't support, or the taking up of policies they themselves don't believe in.

Admittedly, the rise of social media comes at a cost; it allows narcissists to flourish and promotes egotism and self-obsession. But the fact remains that unless the institutions of old – political parties, the Church, trade unions, Rotary Clubs – respect and nurture the thoughts and feelings of their members, as online communities do, they will surely die.

When viewed in the context of the rise of these new online communities, what is astounding is not that people are fleeing the main parties, but that so many of them are sticking around. People rightly wonder: if Simon Cowell and Mark Zuckerberg can feign interest in our opinions, why can't David Cameron?

How then can the Conservative Party adapt to these changed circumstances? First, the low hanging fruit: enable people to join the party online, and perhaps allow members to vote for Association offices online too. Currently, members can join, but not renew their membership via the web.

Second, allow for party members to have a say on how the money that they raise is spent. The recent resurrection of the Conservative Policy Forum, which enables party members to provide input on the content of the next election manifesto was a good first step forward; now let's do something similar with party management and expenditure.

Finally and most importantly, allow for open primaries in candidate selection. The numerous benefits of this system have best been described by Dan Hannan, and was experimented with before the last election in Totnes (a process which resulted in the wonderful Dr. Sarah Wollaston being elected MP). The Coalition Agreement called for 200 open primaries before the next general election, but like so many promises with this government, the pledge has been quietly abandoned.

True, open primaries allow for non-party members to select party candidates, but the process forces local Associations to engage with local citizenry, and gives members supportive of a particular candidate something concrete to fight hard for.

In short, decentralize the Conservative Party. Make Central Office weaker, so that the local branches may grow strong.

Irrespective of how the Party responds to the current membership crisis, one thing is clear: the Tory Party, as currently constituted, will not survive this sea change in our culture. It will either become more decentralized and responsive to its members, or it will cease to be relevant in people's lives and become a plaything of the professional political class.

Sadly, it is the latter course which David Cameron is currently set upon.

Dan Whitfield is a British copywriter living outside Washington, D.C.  A veteran of over a dozen political campaigns in both the UK and US, Dan now works for one of America’s largest conservative direct mail agencies

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