The Conservative party is being dragged kicking and screaming to admit that their individual membership has fallen to its lowest ever level, possibly as low as 100,000 people as reported in yesterdays Independent and this morning on Radio 4. The fact that the Labour party has a membership of twice that size will certainly add to David Cameron’s discomfort, but in reality this is of little consequence. If we add to these 300,000 people the 30,000 or so who are members of UKIP and then those who are members of the Greens and the other small parties we end up with a group of people who together could comfortably live in the Urban area surrounding Middlesbrough if size was all that was being considered. This group is one fifth the size of those who call the Church of England home at least once a month who would inhabit an area the size of West Yorkshire and the members of the National Trust would inhabit half of the urban area of London.
The membership of a Political Party is always a great deal smaller than the number of people who will vote in a general election, even though many of those voters are effectively life long supporters. However when an organisation that has been developed with a membership of 1M in mind such as the Conservative party was in 1990 reduces to be one tenth that size, all sorts of issues arise. At present it costs £25 a year to join the Conservative Party and as Douglas Carswell admitted on Newsnight on Wednesday, people don’t get much for that. This means that the income from members before any donations are made is a mere £2.5M. One donor in the run up to the General Election in 2010 gave £3M, and this was only one of several seven figure donation that the party received. Even in todays Conservative party, for a party official to meet all of the party members would require a 3-5 year programme of events and extensive travel to visit those who don’t attend such gatherings. For the same person to meet the people who donate 80% of the funds that the Conservative Party relies on, they could hold a few dinner parties in London over a 2-3 week period. The dynamics for Labour are similar except that they could probably meet their largest donors in one meeting!
These issues affect all of us because these political parties determine who our Prime Ministers and Cabinets will be in future generations and matters such as planning policy, foreign policy, defence and how local services are delivered. Putting so much power into the hands of a small coterie of unelected men at a dinner party is very disturbing, they are unlikely to debate issues such as local devolution, yet this is exactly what is needed to ensure that our nation and political parties are in good health. Our coalition has spoken on many occasions about the need for a small state, they refer to localism and a big society. These phrases all imply that Whitehall should become less powerful and the power that is devolved should arrive at County Halls, Town Halls and Parish Halls near you and me. However nearly every time Eric Pickles speaks about local Government he seems to suggest that these local offices are becoming too powerful and ignoring the needs of you and me. It is Eric’s attitude and his departments failure to advocate for local government that is at the heart of the frustrations expressed at a meeting two months ago where leaders of some of the Northern Cities called for a new way of having their views heard at the Cabinet table. However this is not a North South issue, despite the views of these civic leaders, the problem is as great here in the South. There is no way that their desire for a return to regional structures will be met by this government, yet if Eric and David could show they really do understand local needs, the political parties across the UK might also begin to be reinvigorated. In reality the dinner parties where party leaders meet with large donors to discuss what the parties will do, leads to power leaving Whitehall and instead of travelling towards people like you and I, it is going towards people who already have large bank accounts and other forms of power, just as medieval kings would reward their Lords, for keeping them on the throne.