Tuesday, 20 August 2013

True Blues - lessons from the 1990s

In the early 1990s I participated in an academic study about Conservative Party membership. The research, carried out by Professor Patrick Seyd, Paul Whitely and Jeremy Richardson, was published in 1994 by Oxford University Press and was entitled True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership. 

If any readers are interested, the research paper (316 pages) is still available for £95.00 from HERE. I am pleased to say I received a complimentary copy, which I still have.

Thirty four carefully selected Conservative Associations were invited to participate in the research, which was endorsed and supported by CCO at 32 Smith Square (as it then was). The research included a detailed (40 page) questionnaire being sent to all paid-up members in the selected constituencies, with follow-up face to face interviews with a cross section of respondents, as well as with local officers, councillors and agents. The published report examined just who joined the Conservative Party, why they did so, what motivated them and the socio-economic profiles and aspirations of our members. It was fascinating, and probably the only detailed study ever undertaken. I believe the authors undertook similar research covering membership of the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats.

Re-reading the report in light of recent headlines about declining membership, two things struck me.

Firstly, Association staff were asked to inform the researchers of how many paid-up members their local Association had. They were then asked to send a membership list. Interestingly, in all but 5 Associations, the number of members "quoted" was higher (often significantly higher) than the actual number submitted on the membership list. In many cases, the "assumed" number of members was 50% higher than the actual, and across the 34 Associations membership was overestimated by 20%. Given these figures were produced at a time when all associations were computerised (either Silverjay or BlueChip then) there was no reason for such a rose-tinted estimate. It does, however, make one wonder just how "optimistic" the 1950s figures of 3 million members must be, given such records were kept on paper lists and index-cards in the homes of 10,000 branch membership secretaries.

The second interesting detail was that my own Association reported 2,400 members. This seems an amazingly high figure compared with today's membership numbers, until one considers the whole picture. Within the constituency we had three Conservative Clubs, and each of these clubs insisted that club members were also paid-up party members. The largest of the clubs added £2 per member to the fees, which they passed on to the Association. Another added £3 per member and the third insisted that members enclosed their party membership card with their application form. Between them they added 2,000 members to our total (in those days there was no minimum membership fee).  How many of those 2,000 would have been party members is they didn't have to be to gain access to cheap beer, bingo and billiards? Interestingly upon the introduction of £25 minimum party membership the clubs dropped the party membership requirement, fearful of losing club members. Following this 95% allowed their party membership to lapse!

Looking back, it could accurately be reported that membership of this association fell from 2,400 in 1992 to 300 today - a drop of 88%. In reality, there were never 2,400 members to start with. I would estimate that the real membership figure (excluding those who joined because they had no choice if they wanted to drink cheap beer) was probably 600.

None of the above should be taken as complacency, but it should be taken into consideration when addressing the problems we face. Membership is in decline and must be addressed, but the decline is not universal. In Tonbridge & Malling we will almost certainly close the year with a small increase in membership. A handful of other Associations show similar improvements.  The Party needs to ask what those Associations which are growing are doing differently to those which aren't, and use that as a starting point for our renewal.

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