High anxiety in the Tory heartlands

As the Conservative Central Council meets, Donald Macintyre surveys a party in crisis and John Rentoul examines the mood of the membership

Just occasionally, in this long irritable period between Christmas and Easter, you can hear the word Canada muttered by Tory MPs in the dark corners of Westminster. And the context has nothing to do with the fishing dispute with Spain. Instead it refers to the scarcely mentionable prospect that the Tories are heading inexorably for the kind of electoral wipe-out that afflicted the Conservative government in Ottawa last year. It's panic talk of course, certainly not justified even by the opinion polls; which is why you don't hear it very often.

Paradoxically, Tory MPs with marginal seats are, if anything, the most cheery. They have seen mid-term slumps before, followed in the last three terms by recoveries that have seen them re-elected. The greater apprehension is among a quite different group: those with five- figure majorities who have not tasted real electoral fear since 1979 at least, who half-believe what they read about the Tories ending up on 4 May with fewer council seats than the Liberal Democrats; and who cannot see how the party can stage a sharp enough recovery to secure their own constituencies at the next election.

This palpable anxiety, exacerbated by plain speaking among the party activists who attend their regular Annual General Meetings at this time of year, is way beyond questions of ideology. It arises from the issue that concerns backbench MPs beyond all others, including the political complexion of the next government: whether they will retain their own seats.

And what makes it worse is what looks at first sight like a chronic decline in the very infrastructure of the party itself. The party still has a £15m overdraft. Company donations have fallen by one sixth since 1988. Partly, this is a function of the recession. Partly, it is a function of the polls: if the Tories look like a loser, what's the point of funding them? But there may also be a deeper-seated reason; as big business responds more and more to an increasingly globalised economy, the return for funding a party of national government becomes less and less tangible.

All that is matched by a well-chronicled shrinking of individual party membership. The experience in all the by-elections since 1992 has been that activists stayed at home rather than canvass; supporters stayed at home rather than vote. The downward plunge in estimated party membership since the heyday of the 1950s, illustrated on this page, shows how historically fragile a basis the party now has from which to absorb such abstentionism. The Conservative Party is no longer woven inextricably, as it once was, and in some parts of the country almost apolitically, into the fabric of national life.

This is the common experience of both the main parties, and is certainly not confined to the UK. One factor is the fragmentation of the political process. People are nowadays as likely to join, and attend meetings of, the Ramblers' Association, the Chamber of Commerce, or their local over- fifties group, as they are a political party.

And the party's membership appears to be ageing. Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley's most famous statistic is that the average age of party members is now 62, rather older than that of the Labour Party even.

This is partly explained by the growth of women in the workforce, leaving daytime political activism increasingly in the hands of retired people. Much has been made of the decline of the Young Conservatives, once the centre of social mixing for the young in many suburban and rural communities, to a current figure of 5,000. This is in fact a more complex problem than one of mere numbers. A big reason for the decline has been the growing numbers entering higher education.

But the big organisational problems all this poses are for Central Councils in the future - and certainly not before the next election. Today, the concerns of representatives will be more short term. Grassroots discontent is real enough; but it is also different in character from the self-indulgent and often theoretical divisions at Westminster. Take this authentic message from a home counties ex-constituency chairman and current senior local councillor to a leading official of the voluntary party denouncing "the failure to authorise rolling stock on commuter lines; Mr [Steve] Norris's profoundly unhelpful remarks about users of public transport; our particular difficulties on [the] council with the unfair burden of handling housing benefit cases. It is proving exceedingly difficult to find people who are prepared to stand as candidates. Some of our existing councillors have resigned from the Party. All of us are pretty demoralised ..."

Or this, to a minister from the Tory leader of a council in the South- east complaining about the level of local authority settlement: "Apart from our overriding priority of economic development and regeneration, we are trying to encourage our local voluntary sector following through conservation initiatives, attracting overseas visitors, helping crime reduction and so on. Virtually every initiative we have developed in these and other areas is likely to be wiped out by savings measures now being contemplated."

Yet it should not by any means be assumed that these complaints will focus on the Prime Minister in the way they frequently do at Westminster. First, the chairmen and other senior constituency activists who attend the Central Council do not, traditionally, turn on their leader. On the contrary, sticking doggedly to old-fashioned values of loyalty, they did not, at first, like the ousting of Ted Heath in 1975. And they liked the betrayal of Margaret Thatcher, 15 years later, even less. Not only that, but Major has done a great deal to treat the constituency chairmen well, inviting them regularly to Downing Street receptions. Senior members of the voluntary party have been co-opted in much larger numbers than before on to the groups drawing up the manifesto for the next general election.

Some MPs even report a modest lifting since last year in morale and activity: meetings of 25 now attended by 35; wine and cheese receptions attended by 50 last year, but by 75 this year. These are thin straws in the wind, of course; but there is still precious little sign yet that the grassroots are seriously rebelling against Major himself.

Instead there is irritation, report MPs, at the faithless attacks of the Tory press; and Jonathan Aitken's attack on the BBC last weekend will have struck a real chord with the core supporters. Many of them like the Prime Minister's sterling defence of the union with Scotland. And many of them detest, contrasting them with their own stoical loyalty, the antics of squabbling MPs and ministers. But what they will want from Major's speech tomorrow, more than anything else, is a message to shore up their ebbing belief that the party still retains its capacity to recover.

DM

Representatives of local Conservative Associations meet in Birmingham today for their spring Central Council in a mood of unprecedented gloom. The party's membership and organisation is in its worst state since the Second World War, and since the last General Election the decline has accelerated.

But what to do about it? There are two camps among the local party bigwigs gathered in Birmingham. To borrow terms from another political party, they might be called the "modernisers" and "traditionalists".

The modernisers want to reform the Conservatives' organisation. In particular, they argue that the decline in membership can only be reversed by setting up a national membership system. But this has far-reaching consequences for the nature of the party - presently not even a legal entity, but an alliance of autonomous constituency associations. It would mean adopting the model of other modern parties, which in turn implies giving party members more say. Demands for "one member, one vote" democracy, which would have seemed outlandish a few years ago are now spreading to respectable parts of the party.

The modernisers' demands are summed up in the motion from Luton North: "This Council feels most strongly that the position of chairman of the National Union should be democratically elected on the basis of one member, one vote, of all paid-up members of the Party."

The chairman of the National Union, Sir Basil Feldman, heads the so- called "voluntary" party in the country. He is appointed by the party leader. But Sir Basil's job is only the first target in the modernisers' sights. Their real objective is to elect the party leader him or herself.

Councillor Mike Flint, vice-chairman of Luton North Conservatives, says: "The leader of the party is selected only by a small group of MPs. Our motion would at least be a step along the road to democracy. Otherwise we shall remain a feudal party ruled by the Westminster leadership, with us peasants out in the country knocking on doors."

The ground-breaking survey of Conservative Party members carried out by Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd at Sheffield University shows that, surprisingly in such a historically deferential party, a majority of them think they should have the power to choose the party leader in a one member, one vote ballot.

Mr Flint is not embarrassed about copying Labour. "In some respects the Labour Party are ahead of us, aren't they? They also have a rule that parliamentary candidates have to go through a proper reselection process. We don't go through that yet, so you can get a second-rate MP who has a freehold for life. Unfortunately, the other parties have shown the way."

Mr Flint is an ultra-moderniser, and Luton North is the seat of the troublemaking MP John Carlisle. But several motions from the mainstream of the party also ask for a national membership list, and the party establishment has selected one of them for debate - in a closed session this morning.

Moderate modernisers are focusing on a demand for at least half of the national party's Board of Management to be elected by secret postal ballot of constituency representatives. But as in the Labour Party in the 1980s, this indirect democracy could be the start of a slippery slope to one member, one vote.

Traditionalists are just as unhappy about the state of the party, but recoil from new-fangled ideas imported from rival parties. Apart from the displacement activity of bashing the BBC, their remedy is that the leadership should listen to members. The most succinct motion is from Wokingham: "This Council calls on Her Majesty's Government to listen to the voting Conservative grass roots in order to ensure it does not become Her Majesty's Opposition."

Old-style Conservatives are impatient with ministers who seem to lack direction and conviction. But they cleave to the patrician model, and prefer to call for the pulling up of socks rather than the reform of systems. But "listening" is derided by the modernisers. "The only way that the grass roots will be listened to is when the grass roots have power," says Mr Flint.

Michael Osborne, the "traditionalist" chairman of the Witney association in Oxfordshire, says: "I am very worried about people who get excited about getting more power in the party for their particular views. Some of the views of the membership in the country are not what you want to see represented."

He is against the idea of the members choosing the party leader, a decision which "can safely be left to Members of Parliament - they do know whether an individual is up to the job".

But one senses an ebbing of the tide of deference in the party. Professor Whiteley and Mr Seyd found a remarkable disaffection in the past two years among party members from all the icons of the established order - the monarchy and all politicians included. As with the Labour Party, it may be that the modernisers' time has come. JR

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