The swivel-eyed loons in the Conservative party are revolting. And they are right to revolt.

18 May 2013

Clearly it is not a good idea for the Prime Minister’s chums to call members of the Conservative party “swivel-eyed loons“. No, not even at a “private dinner party”. I suspect that the identity of the “senior Conservative” who is “socially close” to David Cameron will be out by close of play Sunday and that he – it seems most unlikely it is a she – will, as James says, be removed from whatever position of responsibility he currently enjoys. I also suspect most voters will have no idea who this man is even once his name is revealed. That doesn’t matter.

Adrian Hilton wrote a good piece at ConservativeHome last year detailing his experiences with falling Tory membership in Beaconsfield. But what is the point of being a member of the Conservative party when, in general, you are offered responsibility without power? As Hilton put it:

 [T]here was a time when being a member of the Conservative Party was an active democratic pursuit – we could freely select parliamentary candidates, propose motions for conference and even participate in debates from the floor. It was a festival of genuine political participation: we didn’t all agree, and neither did we have to pretend to: democracy is messy. The “broad church” was open to many shades of opinion, and some of those “shrill” nonconformists even managed to be selected for parliamentary seats. One even became Party Leader and Prime Minister.

Sadly, all of these processes are now controlled by the centralised oligarchy, and members are left with the façade of engagement. Candidates are imposed, selections are rigged, and the annual conference is no longer a vibrant celebration of democracy with halls packed to standing: it is a technocratic rally to demagoguery, and a poorly-attended one at that (at least by Party members). No contentious “big issues” are discussed or debated and no corporate wisdom is gleaned from the membership: their function is simply to applaud when prompted and cheer when instructed. It is little more than window-dressing and sophistry for mass media consumption.

Of course we understand why the leadership likes it this way. It causes less trouble. But it’s a very good way of killing a movement. Treat people like fools and incompetents and soon incompetents and fools will be the only people left to join your party. Engage with them and you have a chance of reversing that decline. Better still, you might consider trusting them, even if only occasionally. Instead the Tory party prefers a top-down, centralising philosophy that is, in many respects, the kind of structure that Conservatives exist to oppose. Trusting people means tolerating their capacity for making mistakes sometimes (and learning from those errors). But since Central Office is hardly a blunder-free zone how much worse would it really be if local associations – the little platoons! – had more influence on their party?

As Paul Goodman asks, if the party is dying whose fault is that? It does not have to be that way. Some associations have seen their membership rise. Meanwhile, north of the border the SNP now claim 25,000 members. That’s comparable (if accurate!) to a UK-wide party having a membership of something close to 300,000 members. Or roughly twice what the Tories currently claim.

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Now the SNP membership make mistakes too (they chucked my friend Andrew Wilson out of parliament, for instance) but they are also given some opportunity to influence party policy. The SNP’s conversion to supporting NATO membership was backed by the party conference after a spirited and close-fought debate (granted the leadership prevailed largely on grounds of expediency). The point is not the result, in this instance, but the process. The members were (for once) involved. There was something old-fashioned and decent about this.

Of course it helps that the SNP is also a movement with a clearly defined cause. Nevertheless it also demonstrates that it remains possible to recruit members and activists. But you have to use them as something more than stuffing-envelopes and door-knocking fodder.

Be that as it may and no matter how ill-chosen his words, Cameron’s chum is not necessarily wrong about how constituency associations are pushing MPs to the right. James Kirkup quotes one MP:

Some party insiders fear that a shrinking membership is putting MPs under increased pressure to reject some Government policies. One Conservative MP privately confirmed that he would vote against gay marriage under pressure from local members. He said: “I don’t have a problem with gay marriage because the state has no business in our private lives. But I’ll vote against it because if I don’t I’ll lose half my association.”

He’s not alone. Gay marriage has cost the party members in (I think) every constituency in Britain. That does not make it a bad policy but it demonstrates, again, that it is better to win the argument than to impose something of this sort upon the party and expect everyone to fall into line because the thought of Prime Minister Miliband is enough to trump all other concerns. There comes a point at which people simply say Sod it, I’ve had enough.

The bigger problem still, however, is that the Tory party increasingly does not look very much like Britain or, especially, England. Worse still, it frequently – and despite all the talk of modernisation – does not seem comfortable with modern England. This is, for sure, in part a feature of the conservative temperament but it does make it harder for the party to recruit new members and harder for it to retain existing members. It is caught in a cleft stick.

This is the worst of all possibilities. Old members are dying or leaving and there are no new members. On the politics of gay marriage the party membership appears to be on the wrong side of history. Cameron has made a fine conservative case for gay marriage but he’s neither convinced his party nor persuaded the public that he’s in favour of gay marriage for the right reasons. Too many people think it’s just a stunt to demonstrate that the party is pretending to change without really doing so. Again, the worst of all outcomes: the people who dislike the policy will never forgive Cameron and the people who support it are unlikely to give him much credit for it. This is the pity of Cameron’s predicament.

There are times when running against your own base makes sense. It rarely hurt Tony Blair (though it probably did hurt the Labour party) but it’s not a good idea to reinforce, even in private, the electorate’s suspicion that your party is, on the whole, populated by rum coves at best and maniacs at worst.

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Show comments
  • William Reid Boyd

    In all seriousness, I think part of the problem is that today’s grassroots activists are the young aspirants of yesteryear who joined the Young Conservatives aspiring mainly to find a mate. Thus not so many gays back then and no incentive to join today. I gather William Hague runs the successor to Young Conservatives. Why not start some kind of internet dating service (guys, dolls and in-betweens all welcome) as one of the perks of membership?

    Pretty thin-skinned lot the political class in England has become lately. What exactly is up with them? Surely not the suspicion that they are no longer regarded with the same deferential regard as back in the days folk married on the basis of their political convictions?

  • Graham Cresswell

    Apparently I am a mad, swivel-eyed loon. Can someone enlighten me as to whether this is because I believe…

    1. that the British should govern themselves democratically, or
    2. that the British should control their own borders, or
    3. that the welfare state should protect those who fall on hard times and that we should neither permit nor encourage welfare dependency as a lifestyle choice, or
    4. that the education services should produce people who can compete in the current global economy, or
    5. that education should be the key to social mobility and not trap the poor in deprivation, or
    6. that the NHS should exist for the taxpayer and not for its employees, or
    7. that there is too much government for us to remain competitive, or
    8. that there is too much tax for us to remain competitive, or
    9. that there is too much “health and safety” for us to remain competitive, or
    10. that there is too much “political correctness” for us to remain competitive, or
    11. that marriage is a matter for churches not governments and I couldn’t care less if gay people get married or not, or
    12. that socialism has never worked anywhere in the world and has only ever been sustained by tyranny and coercion, or
    13. all of the above?

  • allymax bruce

    Anybody that disagrees with me, is, (and I quote), a ‘mad swivel-eyed loon’ !
    I Luv it; this should replace the degenerate terminologies of bigot, racist, and homophobe !

  • allymax bruce

    When I wrote my ‘against’ s-sm submission to the Scottish goverment, I posted it up as a blog for all to read it. I got a comment on it saying that my thinking/stance is outdated, and would consign me to the wrong side of history. I thought that was amusing; the retort was obviously from a homosexual, that was arguing ‘for’ s-sm, and obviously didn’t grasp the fact that the Bible IS history; obviously doesn’t understand the term, “it is written” !
    As for the CoS they are in denial; their congregations will move to the Free Church because of their sublimation of God.
    But hey ! I’ve always said, God hears in the heart, not in a building!

  • ScaryBiscuits

    The bigger problem still, however, is that the Tory party increasingly does not look very much like Britain
    What’s your evidence for this, Massie?. From my experience of local Tory associations they are great deal more like modern Britain than David Cameron or most journalists.

  • James Masters

    Political correctness has been on the up in recent years but it does not follow that anyone opposed to it is ‘on the wrong side of history.’
    I personally don’t care that much if gay people get married. However, underpinning the gay marriage movement is an attempt to enforce the view that homosexual relationships are really no different from heterosexual ones, and anyone who thinks they are is a ‘bigot.’ I suspect that in a hundred years’ time people will see this for the silly nonsense that it is.

  • Remittance Man

    On the issue of gay marriage, like many younger conservatives I really don’t have an issue with it. What bugs people like me is the ham-fisted way Cameron made it a cause celebre and thus undermined his leadership even further.

    Gay marriage wasn’t in the manifesto nor the coalition agreement, it benefits a tiny percentage of the population, was bound to cause ructions and has all the appearance of opportunistic politics rather than committed belief. All this at a time when there are far bigger and much more crucial issues facing the country. Finally, quite frankly, even if the bill passes is likely to cost the Conservatives far more votes than it will gain them.

    It also forced Cameron to act dictatorially and reinforce the view hat he was an isolated figure concerned only with issues that matter to the metropolitan, bien pensant, dinner party set.

    It’s a stupid issue and one which could have been so easily avoided.

  • john pandya

    I think the only time Cameron becomes alive is when he insults his own grass roots…
    thank God the man has at last found his vocation….

  • Big Harry

    Its actually much simpler than that. Gay marriage is being introduced by hook and crook as it is going to be enforced by the EU, and that is why Cameron is pushing it, they just cant admit that it is an EU enforcement, for obvious reasons. Even the media have supported the code of silence around this enforcing of EU rule on this country, even this article leaves the impression it is Camerons policy, it is not it is EU diktat he has to impose on their behalf. We are no longer an independent country. That is the crux of the matter. LibLabCon want the EU rule to continue, the people do not. Our laws are not ours, our borders are not ours, you know the rest of the list. The people want their country back, the three main parties want to give it away to Brussels, protecting their pown self interest of course. They are playing to the BBC and Guardian who represent a minority view, veru much a minority view. A couple or three elections will see the end of the political status quo in this country, and the result is not going to be pretty for some people. Sadly its already probably too late, Labours 13 years and deliberate policy of changing the face of this country saw to that. No wonder they hamstrung the treason laws.

  • robert_thorneywood

    Far from being on the right side of history, the gay marriage laws are a throwback to ancient Athens, where homosexual relationships enjoyed greater esteem than heterosexual ones. Even then, however, they were not called ‘marriage’. You can legislate to change the definition of a word, but you cannot change its meaning.
    Gay people have a right to equal dignity and respect, but this legislation is misconceived.

    • MikeF

      Not quite. What was permissible in ancient Athens was a form of ritualised paedophilia in which a sexual act formed part of a sort of mentoring relationship between an adult man and an adolescent youth. Homosexual relationships between adult males were regarded as unseemly though they were not illegal. One place where active sexual relationships between adult males were regarded in a more positive light was Sparta where they were seen as reinforcing the bonding necessary to produce a militarised society. Indeed the military ‘platoon’ rather than the family was regarded as the basic unit of socirty to which all else was subservient. But either way there was nothing about ancient Greek attitudes to homsexuality that made them a model for any sort of supposed modern ‘liberalism’.

      • robert_thorneywood

        What you say about Sparta is interesting. I agree that Greek society isn’t a model for modern liberalism, but it is evidence to refute the neoliberal claim that people who acknowledge a traditional definition of marriage must be prejudiced against gay people.
        On an interesting aside – you are correct about the age imbalance in Greek homosexual love, but I believe the differences of age and beauty between Pelops and Poseidon, Harmodius and Aristogeiton etc. are actually reflected (in a non-paedophile way) in many gay relationships today, where there is often a ‘twink’ (slim, androgynous) and a ‘bear’ (grizzled, masculine).

  • Stewart Edwards

    Well I resigned my membership of the Conservative party when Maggie was in power. In fact I was so disgusted at the news televised young conservative conference where young tories had rioted and wrecked the place, that I sent my membership card to Maggie along with a heartfelt letter explaining my disgust. Perhaps suprisingly I got a reply. Roll the years by and I can’t help but wonder if any of those rioters are in our government today. I hope not, but from the havoc I wouldn’t be suprised. Anyhow my point – ok I vote LibDems nowadays but given the state of politics I am thinking hard of who to vote for in 2015. There is no obvious choice for various reasons. But if the Conservative Party can sort itself out – by which I mean showing that its policies work fairly and and expected or even in some cases work at all, then I could be persuaded to at least think about voting Conservative again. And you never know possibly even rejoining the only political party that I have ever been a paying member of. And there is the question to ponder, i resigned due to the behaviour of people who could well be in government today. And it is that (my) generation who are in government now. And what is happening today – as explained in the Alex’s article – party members are leaving, remaining unhappy, UKIP are loving it, and many on welfare are coming to positively hate our government (and to be fair when professional people – doctors continue to resign – presumably, given they have gone public, in disgust they might have good reason). So perhaps the problem is my generatiuon, perhaps we need to reflect on why my generation of politicians simply areny working as well as perhaps they could. Now as I want to enter the dark and dirty world of politics I need to take a shower!

    • terence patrick hewett

      It is not suprising that you got a reply from Thatcher. The 8 year old son of an Irish Catholic friend of mine wrote to her and he got back a 2 page handwritten letter. Just one of the reasons why Thatcher won so many elections: but then, she wasn’t a posh boy.

  • Edward Harkins

    There is an aspect of Alex’s article that goes right to the heart of what, IMO, has been a long-growing crisis at the heart of what remains to be called UK democracy. Leaving aside that singular and truly weird ‘thing’ about the Conservatives grass roots (and many back benchers) and gay marriage, almost everything that Alex describes about the disempowerment and suborning of the party membership and its role can surely be applied to any of the other ‘mainstream’ parties.

  • leoinlisbon

    ‘On the politics of gay marriage, the party membership appears to be on the wrong side of history.’ How do you ascertain if you are on the wrong side of history ? By reading the Guardian ?

  • Franklin_Delano_Roosevelt

    I am a “Hardworking person”.
    Note the word Work. Workers work. No the Tory party is not the party for working people.
    It is the party that stands for the exploitation of working people and if it fails, it exports the jobs elsewhere where it can succeed.

    • The Sage

      I am no supporter of the Conservatives, but to suggest that the party stands for the exploitation of “working people” is complete and utter tosh.
      Even if this were the case, nobody needs to be exploited in this country by any employer as there are plenty of laws against and, if you don’t like where you work, then get a job somewhere else.

      • David Julian Simpson

        I am afraid you are wrong, the Conservatives have just changed the law, making it virtually impossible (unless you have a bit of dosh) to take your bosses to an industrial tribunal

        I suggest you “mug up” on the latest employment laws

        • The Sage

          Truly excellent news, then, and not before time. Thanks for the update.

        • Alexsandr

          just leave and get a new job

      • Amergin

        The Conservative party is now and always has been an exploiter of the working class. If you believe otherwise you have little understanding of the last 350 years or so when the Industrial Revolution began.

  • MichtyMe

    Your genealogy and youth enable me to say, yer a braw loon Alex.

  • Richard Thomas

    The trouble for the Conservative leadership is that the membership you describe reads uncomfortably like the profile of a large part of the UKIP support. Does it then trim to them and face the risk of another election defeat? I fear the clear blue water that once was sought is infested by sharks now.

  • John_Page

    This is fine at a high level but what of the MPs who ARE increasing their local memberships? Douglas Carswell, for instance, will talk to anyone who’ll listen. Come on, Spectator, tell us what those MPs have in common. It’s called journalism.

  • Mr Creosote

    I take a fairly dim view of marriage anyway and see no reason why gay people should be denied that particular ball and chain. Marriage and the state should be entirely disconnected and Cameron should spend more parliamentary time on the things that matter – if he did this, party membership would not be falling away at such an alarming rate.

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