The Conservatives were given a reality check today in the form of new Electoral Commission data on the financial health of political parties in 2017. Under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour managed to break previous records and raise just under £56m in a single year – beating the Conservatives by nearly £10m. Adding insult to injury, the Tories received more money from the dead (in the form of bequests) than from the (living) Tory grassroots, with income from membership fees nearly halved. Where Labour received £16.2m in membership fees last year, the Tories managed a paltry £835,000.
This touches on a wider issue for the Conservative party: its relationship with the grassroots. This week William Hague warned that the Conservative Party mustn’t change the rules by which its leader is elected. He was tapping into concerns echoed among parts of Tory high command that the party could be vulnerable to a sudden influx of new recruits – ‘the very thing that happened to Labour in 2015’ – who would try to change the party’s direction of travel. The thinking is these new members would veer towards the Ukip end of the spectrum.
As Isabel says on Coffee House, Hague’s warning shows how much has changed in British politics over the past few years. Ideas that were very much in vogue in 2015 are now widely trashed. Where once it was considered a no-brainer that parties should make it easier and cheaper for members to join and even give them more say over policy making, now parliamentarians are running scared of just that. But despite scepticism over the pros of mass membership, the Conservatives need to tackle their numbers problem.
As Labour’s mass movement grows – thanks in large to pro-Corbyn grassroots group Momentum – Tory membership is on the decline and MPs report that the activists they still have are growing increasingly disillusioned with the Prime Minister and her Brexit proposals. To compete with Labour at the next election, the Tories will need to reconnect with their grassroots. After all, the dead aren’t much good when it comes to knocking on doors.