The Tories in Bournemouth: Under-40s targeted in drive for members

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JEREMY HANLEY, the Tory party chairman, will this week seek to stem plunging membership with the launch of a nationwide campaign aimed at attracting the under-40s and a new 'officer corps' of potential local leaders.

The bid to restore confidence in the face of a dwindling and ageing membership will take the form of a pack of glossy campaign literature complete with slogan, to be kept under wraps until his speech on Friday.

Both Mr Hanley and Sir Basil Feldman, chairman of the National Union, the party's voluntary wing, insisted yesterday that returns from constituency associations showed membership of three-quarters of a million. But the figure is widely believed to be nearer 500,000, possibly even lower.

Sharon Spiers, a member of the of the Charter Movement, a pressure group for democratic reform, last night described the membership figure of 500,000 as 'absolute rubbish'.

'It's more like 300-400,000,' she said at a fringe meeting in which National Union officers were criticised for persistently ignoring the views of constituency and branch workers.

While 500,000 still puts the Tories ahead of Labour, fast approaching 300,000 members, and the Liberal Democrats, just over 100,000, it represents a serious decline to just one-sixth of the number claimed in the 1950s.

Party managers insist that erstwhile members of political parties now join single-interest pressure groups instead. But they are also aware of the haemorrhaging of activists caused by the wipe-out in the local elections.

Conference representatives blamed Government unpopularity for the falling rolls. Ted Gale, chairman of the Hayling Island branch of the Havant constituency, said: 'It is probably their way of protesting.'