One of the Tory’s longest serving campaigners is predicting the party is facing ” oblivion” after losing nearly 40,000 members this summer following Theresa May’s failure to secure a majority government at the general election.
John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, in an eve of conference exclusive interview on the Tribune magazine website, says the real membership of the party has plummeted to around 100,000- way below the 149,500 figure and 134,000 figure used by the party in 2013.
Mr Strafford said: “The party is facing oblivion. If you take the fact only 10 per cent of the membership is likely to be very active they will not have enough people on the ground to fight an election – they won’t even have enough people to man polling stations on the day.
“They are keeping council seats because often the families of the councillors are campaigning with party members to get them re-elected. They simply don’t have the local resources to do this in a general election.”
According to Mr Strafford in 300 of the Parliamentary constituency parties – nearly half the MPs in Parliament – membership has dropped to 100 people or fewer.
The contrast with Labour could not be stronger – with the party already having 569,500 members and launching a further on line membership drive after their conference.
Membership could also be lower than the Liberal Democrats who have also seen a jump in members from 61,000 to 102,000.
He said a series of recent events had led to this parlous state of affairs. The leadership contest after David Cameron announced his resignation initially led to the Tories recruiting an extra 40,000 members who wanted a say in voting for the next leader and Prime Minister.
But when Andrea Leadsom pulled out from challenging Theresa May – there was no vote for the leadership- and Theresa May became PM without an election.
The situation was compounded when Theresa May called a snap election and rather than allowing constituency parties to select their own candidate – imposed candidates in seats that did not have one selected.
The bad handling of the campaign irritated party members – as many activists assuming Jeremy Corbyn had no chance were sent to Labour held seats with large majorities with the aim of toppling the sitting MP – while leaving Tory marginals undefended. One example was Slough – where instead of the Tories taking the seat the new Labour MP was returned with a huge increase in his majority.
As a result nearly all the 40000 new members recruited by the Tory leadership battle last year have not renewed their membership because, according to Mr Strafford they have found out they have little say in party proceedings or policies. Again the contrast with Labour which is devolving more power to its members could not be stronger. ” They are just not renewing their membership with some constituency parties which recruited hundreds of members finding only a handful renewing.”
The plummeting membership is one reason why some MPs are becoming restive. One with his ear to ground is Robert Halfon, Tory MP for Harlow, who this week in Conservative Home backs John Strafford’s analysis that lack of democracy is driving away members.
” I began to realise that, far from being a lunatic, John was quite sane…and it was perhaps us who closed our ears to what he was saying who were the crazy ones. For many years, he rightly predicted that a lack of democracy would lead to a loss of membership. He was right.”
The issue will be raised at the Tory Party conference fringe in Manchester next week.
On Monday the Campaign for Conservative Democracy will hold a fringe meeting to discuss how to tackle this by injecting some democracy to attract members.
The Adam Smith Institute will hold a meeting on Tuesday to address why 60 per cent of young people are supporting Jeremy Corbyn and how the party needs new policies to attract a younger membership.
How party politics have changed. A year ago it was Jeremy Corbyn whom the Tories regarded as unelectable and a joke. Now it is the Tories that are worried they are becoming unelectable and are running a party few people would want to join.