William Hague’s warning today that the Conservative Party mustn’t change the rules by which its leader is elected shows quite 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 and commentators are running scared of just that.
Why? Hague seems to think that there is little hope of encouraging healthy mass memberships today, writing:
‘A highly mobile and digital society is not conducive to the growth of most mass membership organisations, which had their heyday at a time of fewer distractions and stronger community roots. A small membership is then at risk at any time of being swamped by a sudden influx of new recruits – the very thing that happened to Labour in 2015.’
This sounds a bit like saying that the wrong kind of leaves ended up on the line. So what if members you personally disagree with join your party? While the influx of Corbyn-supporting members to the Labour Party has left moderates feeling left out, surely a man twice elected leader who at least reversed the party’s decline in the 2017 election deserves to keep those members? Similarly, if a Brexiteer leadership hopeful like Boris Johnson attracts more members to the Tory party, then why shouldn’t they join up?
The fear, of course, of those ‘moderates’ in the Labour and Conservative Parties is that an influx of members will still be so unrepresentative of the general population that it will actually pull their organisations away from the vast majority of voters, making them less likely to win an election in the future.
But this wasn’t a risk considered by those – including me – who thought nostalgically of 1950s mass membership parties whose grassroots forced their leaders to be bolder on big issues such as housebuilding. That’s the problem with a trendy ideas: it’s far too easy to get swept up in a wave of enthusiasm to support them, rather than wonder whether they might not be as good as they are cracked up to be. The problem is that while opening up memberships seemed trendy to politicos, there is still very little that is trendy about being a member of a political party.