Another reason why Conservative Party membership is in decline?
A source who was at the meeting has exclusively passed me some of the most alarming information that came up. Apparently Andrew Feldman (Party Co-Chairman) reported on a study CCHQ has carried out... In a “mystery shopper” exercise, CCHQ wrote to over 300 associations under the guise of being a person who wanted to join up, and asking how to do so.And so Tim Montgomerie (another splendid chap, of ConservativeHome) chalks this up as 'another reason why Tory membership is in decline'.
Over half of the letters received no response at all, which is bad enough. Weirdly, a handful who wrote back saying the applicant would need to pass a membership interview before they could join the Conservatives. Most worryingly, though, around 10% wrote back to the pretend applicant saying they were “closed to new members”.
We have not been given the precise methodology of the survey or the details of the results: one should be wary of appeals to confidentiality in research. Notwithstanding, His Grace has a few issues with both the data as presented and Mr Montgomerie's conclusion.
Essentially, we know that out of 300+ associations, 150+ did not respond; a 'handful' referred to a membership interview; and 15 (or fewer, depending on what they mean by 'over half'), said they were 'closed to new members'.
We are left to assume that around 150 associations responded properly and professionally to this survey. Considering the dire and impoverished state of some and the complete non-existence of others, that is laudable statistic.
Since association officers receive no training, and even fewer are supported by a professional agent, it is unsurprising that a small number are unaware of basic procedures like admitting new members. While 'closed to new members' is a bizarre response, one wonders what phrase precisely was used, or whether this was some sort of impression gained by someone at CCHQ. It is highly unlikely that 15 independent associations responded with that precise phrase, and it may be that weak associations (where there is no agent or officers, let alone an executive) simply have no administrative mechanism for dealing with new members.
It would be a great pity if this survey were to be used by anyone as justification for diminishing the independence or standing of local associations, for clearly a very great many are doing an excellent job. Before he became Prime Minister, David Cameron called for a ‘radical decentralisation’ which does not constitute some romantic attachment to the past, but one which is designed to revive civic pride by initiating ‘a massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power: from the state to citizens; from the government to parliament; from Whitehall to communities. From Brussels to Britain; from judges to the people; from bureaucracy to democracy’.
Decentralisation is contiguous with subsidiarity, which should not involve a centralised power-base determining what freedoms and competences it thinks appropriate to devolve to the lower levels: it should be ‘bottom up’, that is, the communities should decide which powers to grant to the centre. The Conservative Party might here draw on Burke’s most famous dictum:
To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections. It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country, and to mankind.And yet we observe the centralising tendencies of CCHQ on a number of levels. At the same time as the Prime Minister is talking of devolution, decentralisation and localism, it may be observed that he has done more than any Conservative leader since the nineteenth century to centralise the internal workings of his own party: many of the powers which used to be held by local associations are now exercised centrally by a ruling élite.
So, before this survey is used be that élite to diminish the independence of local associations or to denigrate the efforts of the majority by tarnishing their professionalism with the failings of a few, consideration might be given to the fact that the Party has over 100 outstanding associations; membership might be in decline because the Party in government is not pursuing policies which inspire new members; and the Party has removed so many members' rights, there is no longer any point in joining.