How wonderful to hear of a surge in applications to join the Conservative Party. The defeatist, conventional wisdom is, or until recently was, that the days of mass membership organisations are over.
Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters showed that is not quite true, and are doubtless one reason why people are joining the Tories. “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle,” as Edmund Burke put it.
Fear of socialism was long a powerful reason for people to join the Conservatives, and now it is back. Corbyn’s unbearably humourless, self-righteous, anti-British, pro-terrorist, hard-left, Old Wykehamist claque is a nightmare for Labour moderates, but a recruiting sergeant for the Conservatives. I admit, incidentally, that not all his supporters were educated out of their wits at Winchester, but it seems a surprising number of them were.
Anna Soubry is worried, however, that the new recruits might take over the Conservative Party. It suits vainglorious demagogues who hung upon the fringes of the Leave campaign to boast that this is exactly what they intend to do. And it is of course right to bar from membership anyone who would bring the party into disrepute, often because of misconduct which is already well known at national or local level.
But to have belonged, in the past, to another party, is not evidence that a prospective member is disreputable. The Conservatives are a broad church, not an exclusive sect, and have always been ready to welcome well-intentioned converts from Labour and the Liberal Democrats. The same welcome should be extended to UKIP, which at various points attracted alarming numbers of Conservative activists and voters. If they now wish to return to the fold, healing a rift which threatened to make the Tories unelectable, so much the better.
The best answer to Soubry’s fear of a takeover by fanatical Eurosceptics is dilution. The Conservatives should not be dominated by single-issue fanatics of any hue. As Jacob Rees-Mogg told the Guardian, “You want being a member of the party to be a completely normal thing that sensible people do, not something that is done for one particular policy, however important that policy is.” It should be like running the church fete or raising money for the RNLI.
So people should not join the party with the narrow aim of electing a particular individual its next leader. That happened in the Labour Party because Ed Miliband changed the rules, allowing any MP who could get nominated by a mere 15 per cent of the parliamentary party to run for the leadership. Corbyn was allowed on the ballot paper by various foolish Labour MPs who wanted to broaden the field, and only discovered too late that pitted against three insipid centrists he would romp to victory.
The Conservative rules are different. They provide for MPs to narrow the contest down to a short list of two, between whom the membership then chooses.
This means that no leader who is regarded by the great majority of his MPs as totally unfit to be Prime Minister can come through and win. In 2005, the last time these rules were allowed to play out in full, in the final round of parliamentary voting David Cameron got the support of 90 MPs, to 57 for David Davis and 51 for Liam Fox, and in the run-off against Davis, won among the membership by 134,446 to 64,398 votes.
The last membership figure released by the party, 124,000, shows how much it has shrunk since 2005. At the end of last winter CCHQ instituted a membership drive which, as Paul Goodman, the editor of ConservativeHome, has pointed out, accounts for some of the new members who are now joining.
In May, when I interviewed Brandon Lewis, the party Chairman, for ConHome, he was resolute about not reducing the current membership fee of £25, which to many people sounds expensive, and is certainly a lot more than some members of modest means paid only a generation ago.
But he did also say that “we’ve got a lot of people round the country paying two or three pounds as part of their membership of a Conservative Club”, who are often under the impression they are fully paid up members of the party. He hopes that when it is put to them that full membership means making out a monthly standing order for only £2.09, they will feel encouraged to take that step.
As Lewis recognises, being a Conservative ought not to mean one is just asked, at frequent intervals, for money. It ought to be enjoyable. This was recognised by no less a figure than Lord Randolph Churchill (father of Winston), who in 1883 founded the Primrose League, which soon became the largest political organisation in Britain, with a membership of almost two million, a story very enjoyably told by Alistair Cooke, now Lord Lexden, in A Gift from the Churchills.
When the serious-minded wife of an Oxford don put it to Lord Randolph that Conservative supporters needed some solid political education, he replied: “No, the only way is to amuse them: they’re quite incapable of anything else.”
His serious-minded successors have completely forgotten the need to amuse people, which is one reason why they have so many fewer members.