Why the Tory membership crisis matters

Conservative Party received more money from dead donors than living members last year

Tory party delegates at Conference
(Image credit: Oli Scarff/Getty Images)

The crisis in Tory membership has been laid bare by official data that shows the party received more money from dead donors than it did from living members last year.

Party accounts filed with the Electoral Commission show the amount of money the Conservatives generated in membership fees dropped 43% in 2017 to just £835,000. Meanwhile, the Tories were given £1.7m in 2017 in the form of bequests.

The figures stand in stark contrast to membership income from Labour, which grew 12% to £16.2m last year, and the Liberal Democrats who saw their revenue from fees rise by over a third.

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Under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, Labour was reliant on a small number of wealthy donors and “even [Labour leader Jeremy] Corbyn’s critics have been surprised by the way his popularity has turned around the party’s funding model”, says The Guardian.

By contrast, The Daily Telegraph says the huge reduction in Tory membership fees “raises major questions about the health of the party’s grassroots” and “is likely to spark major concerns about the future of the Conservative Party and reignite calls for more to be done to recruit new members, particularly in younger generations”.

While the exact number of Tory members has not been made public, it is believed to be around 100,000, fewer than the half a million members who make up the Labour rank and file.

The data also comes “amid ongoing concern within the Conservatives about the party’s dwindling activist base, not to mention a new entryism threat from supporters of the Brexit-backing Leave.EU group”, says The Independent.

Yet while the Tories’ dwindling membership has been labelled “embarrassing” by former party chairman Grant Shapps, the 100,000 or so, predominantly ageing, grassroots members still retain an inordinate amount of power.

Under party rules, anyone who has been a member for more than three months can vote for their preferred candidate from a shortlist of two, selected by Conservative MPs in a series of ballots.

This has raised fears that the roughly 88,000 Leave.EU members could swing a potential leadership contest, and therefore the next prime minister, in favour of a hardline Brexiteer candidate such as Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg.

On yet another front, the chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, John Strafford, has written to the Tory party board urging a rule-change so that any MP with the support of a mere 20 parliamentary colleagues can go forward to a final ballot of the grassroots members.

The reason, says Matthew D’Ancona in the London Evening Standard, is that Brexiteers fear Tory MPs “might contrive to exclude Boris Johnson (or his understudy, Jacob Rees-Mogg) from the final pair of candidates put forward to the membership”.

Since William Hague changed the Tory leadership election rules 20 year ago in a bid to keep out Europhile rival Ken Clarke, “the spirit of the age has shifted even farther towards direct democracy and populism” says D’Ancona. “Strafford’s proposal — which would all but remove Conservative MPs from the selection process — is in keeping with this zeitgeist”.

That said, “in findings that will offer some relief to the prime minister”, an ICM survey for The Guardian found that voters believe the Tories would be more likely to lose the next election if Theresa May was replaced by Johnson or five other potential successors.

The only scenario deemed likely to improve Tory prospects, according to the poll, was if the party was led by an unspecified person who was “quite young and able [and] not currently in government”, potentially raising the prospects of Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson.

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