Tory grassroots are 'old and alienated'

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The Independent Online
THE TORY party is ageing. Almost half the members of its constituency parties are 66 or over and the average age is 62, new research shows. Two-thirds of members attend no party meetings and morale is low.

So great is the alienation from their masters in Westminster that half want a leadership election system similar to the Labour Party's new one-member-one-vote mechanism.

The findings were compiled by Patrick Seyd, a senior lecturer in politics at Sheffield University, and will make grim reading for John Major as he prepares to appoint a new party chairman. On the evidence of the survey the successor to Sir Norman Fowler as party chairman will have a tough job to restore morale after a succession of electoral rebuffs.

Mr Seyd and two colleagues conducted a random survey of 2,500 Conservative Party members in 1992, following a similar exercise involving the Labour Party. Based on his survey evidence, the Conservative Party has 150,000 activists as against Labour's 125,000.

Of Tories polled, only 5 per cent were under the age of 35. Recent figures indicated that of Labour Party members, 22 per cent were under 35.

A trend that will alarm potential candidates for the Tory chairmanship is that activism is declining, with a quarter saying that they are less active than five years ago. Three-quarters devote no time at all to party activities.

Senior Tories yesterday said they recognised many features from the survey, including the finding that 43 per cent per cent believe that the leadership 'does not pay a lot of attention to the views of the ordinary party member'.

It is likely that this feeling motivated the 50 per cent of those who agreed that 'the Conservative party leader should be elected by a system of one party member one vote'.

Last week Teresa Gorman, Conservative MP for Billericay, called for the chairmanship to become an elected position. Such a move would, she argued in a newspaper article, be the best way of restoring the enthusiasm of 'Essex Man' for the Conservative Party.

Yesterday Eric Chalker, a leading member of the Charter Movement - Conservative Party members committed to greater openness - warned that 'if the Conservative Party refuses to care for its members, they will cease to care for it'.

He said: 'The great strength of the Conservative Party since the reforms of 1945 has been its grassroots. This was once valued but it is so no longer. The implications are very serious for the party and for society.'

He said the Conservative Party was almost the only organisation untouched by the trends towards internal democracy encouraged by Tory governments and added: 'In the Conservative Party nobody who has any real authority is elected.'