Politics is an expensive game. You might get paid three times the average salary once you’re in Parliament, but you can spend so much on your way there that only those with a fair bit of their own dosh have a good chance of making it. In this week’s Spectator, I examine how the exorbitant cost of being a candidate is preventing many fine potential politicians from making Westminster more representative of the country it is supposed to represent. But it’s not just expensive for those who want a taste of power: if you’re a party member, you can shell out around £700 to attend autumn conference – and once you’re there, discover that you’re not really all that welcome. The lack of power accorded to party members these days means that whatever the rise in Tory party membership that Grant Shapps is expected to announce in the autumn, the Conservatives will struggle to return to the really good old days of mass membership.
Some argue that mass membership just isn’t possible in this day and age, when voters are less tribal and it’s considerably less normal for young middle class types to join their local Conservative association to find a spouse as well as talk politics. But not everyone agrees. Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP who has long campaigned for his party to use technology to rebuild its membership base, is encouraged by the latest membership figures to the extent that he genuinely believes it could – if the party does the right thing – grow big grassroots once again. He says:
‘This rise in membership is because the party is finally getting the digital side of things: Grant Shapps gets it and he is an excellent thing for the party. And I think it is now easier to recruit mass memberships because people are willing to sign up to things online, and the beauty of the internet is that it is cheap and it costs no more to register hundreds of members than it does one member.’
But you can’t just endlessly tweet online membership forms at people and ask them to part with their £25 which in return makes them a campaigning dogsbody and someone who has to fork out hundreds of pounds to not be asked their opinion at conference. The party’s membership model needs to change so that members who care enough about Conservatism to join the Conservatives feel as though they have real influence. Giving them a proper say over policy would be a start: Carswell suggests policy debates online (although not in a format that allows constituency parties to tell HQ that they’re terrible while watching journalists rub their hands together with glee).
Constituency associations do wield a fair amount of power over a sitting MP, and that seems to be increasing, as some decide that the MP is doing a little too much sitting and not enough running around and should be moved on. The phrase ‘I’m in so much trouble with my association at the moment’ is something you increasingly hear in the bars and tearooms of the Commons after unpopular votes, and MPs say it with genuine fear. But Carswell thinks the party should allow those who have become members online to have a say in voting for shortlists for any Conservative representative in their area, from district councillor to MP. This means that the association MPs fear so much will not be a small clique of people pressuring their MP for the wrong reasons, as was the case in Crispin Blunt’s constituency. And it will mean that quite soon after joining, a Tory member will feel as though they are really involved.
This isn’t just about making members feel loved so that they stick around and push more envelopes through doors, though. The Tories could make better policies if they really involved their members, even if this could at times be inconvenient. Of course, they don’t want to go all Lib Dem and have endless votes on standing orders about a goldfish policy (I write this partly to provoke Mark Pack, who likes to point out at quite some length that the famous goldfish policy was in part adopted by the previous Labour government. The Lib Dems can at least slap ‘winning here!’ diamonds on fishbowls, then). But there have been instances where an inconvenient vote by the party membership has improved Tory policy so much that the party has boasted about it for years afterwards. Members are currently useful to the party in that they shove leaflets through doors and provide custom for those fabulous food and clothing stalls at conference, but they could become a great deal more valuable.
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