People often complain that mass membership participatory politics is over.
Compared with the 1950s, I suspect it is. I was staggered to read in Macmillan's autobiography that he had been sent a note by his agent to inform him that the Bromley Conservative Association's membership had reached 20,000 ! Even in the late 1980s my local Association had 2,500 members, although 1800 of those were affiliated via their membership of the local Conservative clubs, and I am certain their loyalty was to the weekly meat raffle, cheap beer and bingo rather than politics.
We live in a world where people tend not to 'join'. Often the high number of votes cast in the X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing are used to prove the point, however if those who participate in such phone-in polls first had to 'complete the enclosed application form and return it with your cheque in the freepost envelope provided" then I suspect the numbers would reduce to a trickle.
Whilst membership is important as a way of choosing internal leaders, it's not the be all and end all. The success of an Association should not be judged by members alone; there are many other indicators of performance which should be measured.
Take Tonbridge & Malling. The Association has around 600 members. However if you include donors (including those who buy raffle tickets or have donated to election appeals) the number increases to almost 2,000. If we add leaflet deliverers and residents who display a window poster, we are above to 3,000. Looking at this unemotionally, I would much rather have 3,000 people buying £40 worth of raffle tickets and donating to the annual election appeal than 600 members paying £20 a year. I suspect that most Associations, whilst they might not have these numbers, the proportion of members 'v' helpers/donors is similar. However, how much care do we take of of donors? Do they receive invitations to thank you events? Newsletters? Email bulletins or a Christmas card from the MP? I suspect in many cases they do not, yet their financial contribution is just as great as that of a member.
The branch structure also needs examining and supplementing (though not replacing). For previous generations the 'home' was the central focus of life. It was were you returned immediately after work, close to the school attended by your children., near the shops were you bought your groceries, the pub where you enjoyed a Sunday lunchtime pint and where your neighbours were also your friends. , It was perfectly natural therefore that strong local roots were developed and the ward in which you lived was an important factor.
For good or bad, this has changed. For many people, home is simply where they sleep. Most of the younger activists I know work in the City or new media around Soho, socialise in Hoxton or Clerkenwell and spend weekends with their mates in Brighton. Expecting them to be enthusiastic about a branch structure based on geographical boundaries would be (and is) anathema to them. These groups are just as tribal as previous generations, but their tribes are self selecting, based on shared interests and peer group influences, not an arbitrary council boundary.
This is why in West Kent we are experimenting with branches based on shared interest rather than a ward boundary. 'Young Graduates', 'London Commuters' and 'Self employed and SMEs" and so on. If a group of 30 Conservative voting commuters wish to meet up in a Indian restaurant near Charing Cross and enjoy a curry and a few beers with the local MP, sharing their experiences whilst raising £200 for the Party, is this a bad thing? Is that get-together, the friendships made or the money raised any more or less valuable than the traditional branch hot pot supper? If, as a result of those friendships, some of these commuters come out and knock on doors and deliver our newsletters, should we turn up our noses and say "but you don't come to the local branch meeting every month" or should we welcome them with open arms?
Yes, we should cherish our members and support our branches, and continue to build them by encouraging those who wish work in that way, but we must also seek ways of involving all those millions of others who give us their votes but would never dream of attending a Bridge Lunch or a monthly branch meeting. And we must endeavour to do on their terms, not reject them as they refuse to join us on our terms.