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Life of the party: Lord Woolton restored Conservative finances (©NATIONAALARCHIEF CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

As the Conservatives gather in Manchester this month for the party’s annual conference, they face what the old Chinese curse calls “interesting times”. Should the Prime Minister be put on a short leash following her poor performance in this year’s unnecessary general election? (Less than half of the party’s members reportedly wish her to remain as leader until the next general election.) If, as is widely presumed, she will not be able to lead the party in the general election scheduled for 2022, how long before the poll will her successor need to be elected to establish him or herself? Given the lack of an overall majority, will a short-term crisis force her from office and, perhaps, lead to another election before 2022 or to another referendum on the terms of Britain’s leaving the European Union?

Apart from debates on EU policy and other fraught issues, there is the inevitable post mortem on the election campaign itself. At the moment, the focus is on whether the central party organisation was given too small a role and outside consultants such as Sir Lynton Crosby had too much power. The complaint within high party circles is that the Conservative Party Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) had become “hollowed out”.

The risk is that discussion and recrimination will concentrate excessively on lessons to be gained from the analysis of short-term errors. It would be wiser to pay attention to gradual, deep-rooted, largely ignored issues of Conservative Party decline. The Conservatives’ massive opinion poll lead in the early months of 2017 derived from distrust of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, and not from deep-rooted attachment to the Tories or to Toryism.

Measuring the number of party members is notoriously hard. It is even more hazardous to attempt to assess trends over decades. So much depends on the definition of a party “member”, on the subscription required, on whether former members who are in arrears are retained on the party rolls, on whether such rolls are maintained centrally or by local party branches. In 1953, the Conservatives claimed 2.8 million members. Labour reached its peak of individual subscribers at one million in 1952. After a slump during Harold Wilson’s premiership in 1966-70, Labour was down to 310,000 members in 1974. The Conservatives admitted a fall in membership numbers but remained well in advance of Labour until the 1990s.

Despite Margaret Thatcher’s success in winning three general elections, Conservative membership fell sharply during her tenure. For years, the party headquarters concealed this. In 1994, some party officials were so alarmed at constituency atrophy that they passed comprehensive local party membership figures to me on the basis that I would publish them in The Times during that year’s annual party conference. One constituency had only two members. The second significant membership slump occurred during David Cameron’s leadership when membership halved again. This was not wholly surprising in view of the advanced age of many previous members.

It is arguable whether party members matter any more. One Conservative MP for an outer London constituency told me that membership is out of date. I understood him to say that his constituency has no local organisation at all. His own staff provides the support he needs. Certainly, the rapid growth in staff allowances for MPs and the introduction in the 1970s and subsequent increases in salaries and allowances for local councillors have had huge impacts. By 2012, MPs employed 2,750 publicly paid assistants. Because of loose rules, these staffers fulfil some of the functions previously carried out by party agents whose salaries depended on the subscriptions of party members and on (mainly local) donations. Election campaigns, it is frequently said, depend in the modern age on national advertising slogans and on the performance of the party leaders on television. Already in 1959, a Conservative grandee involved in election planning reportedly said that “elections are no longer won by little men walking up and down streets”.

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