The slow, strange death of the Conservative Party

Michael Brown, who was a Tory MP for 18 years, goes around the country in search of positive omens for Michael Howard, but finds a party rotting from the roots
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The Independent Online

"The Conservative Party is dying. Why would you want to give it the kiss of life? What we have to do is to kill it and replace it." Those words, used by Robert Kilroy-Silk at this weekend's UK Independence Party conference, will reverberate around the hall in Bournemouth as Michael Howard prepares for his first - and maybe his last - conference as party leader.

"The Conservative Party is dying. Why would you want to give it the kiss of life? What we have to do is to kill it and replace it." Those words, used by Robert Kilroy-Silk at this weekend's UK Independence Party conference, will reverberate around the hall in Bournemouth as Michael Howard prepares for his first - and maybe his last - conference as party leader.

The day after the next election, Mr Kilroy-Silk will probably find that the Tories, in Parliament, will still be alive although severely wounded. What we may be witnessing is the slow, strange death of the Conservative Party. This has nothing to do with UKIP, the Liberal Democrats, leadership, policies, or rows about Europe, but much more to do with the death of the party's infrastructure in those constituencies which once returned Tory MPs, but which by the subsequent election in 2009, will have had no party representation in Parliament for more than 12 years. There is a feeling that this is a party rotting from the roots.

The evidence is patchy and anecdotal but is powerful nevertheless. Take Cleethorpes, which I represented until 1997. Where once I had a full-time paid party agent and constituency office, the current candidate, Rachael Lake, must make do by sharing facilities with nearby Grimsby, five miles away. This means that there is no listing, from directory inquiries, for a Conservative Party in Cleethorpes and a number from the party's official website proved unobtainable. No one was returning calls and anyone seeking to join the party in Cleethorpes would have required patience and considerable powers of investigation. All of this may account for the fact that Mrs Lake, excellent candidate though she is, has yet to get more publicity in the local daily evening paper. So far, she has had four hits in the local press since her selection, six months ago. Shona McIsaac, the current Labour MP who had a two-year run-in before she defeated me, was in the paper three times a week and was as well known as me by polling day, thereby eliminating any advantage of my incumbency. The only time I make visits to the constituency these days is to attend funerals or memorial services. In the true sense of the word, party members and activists are dying and the party finds it difficult to replace them with new foot soldiers. When reporting the constituency at the 2001 general election, I noted that all the party workers I met were working for me in the 1983 election. By 2009 far too many of them will be selling raffle and Tombola tickets for that great Tory cheese and wine party in the sky. Nearly every village once boasted a local branch where members "would get a car for old Mrs Jones who is house bound". Now the rural villages and towns, which make up the bulk of the Tory vote, have to cluster around a single branch centred on Barton-upon-Humber. In Cleethorpes 20 years ago, every ward would have had a nominal branch - although I freely concede some were very inactive between elections, but they could be cranked up quickly to rake in last-minute postal votes and provide polling-day tellers and a smattering of canvassing. Even if it was just a husband-and-wife show in a solid Labour area, it provided an address for the candidate to visit and meet the neighbours. As an MP I could maintain the foot soldiers' morale by invitations to Westminster. All would get the prized parliamentary Christmas card and some might even get a box of House of Commons mints. Four out of the five of my constituency chairmen during my 18 years were included in the Queen's honours lists - encouraging contenders actually to want the thankless task.

But with no prospect of personal recognition, today's party workers in Labour seats have only the incentive of trying to get their candidate elected.

In the bell-wether constituency of Basildon, a similar story seems to be unfolding. This has long been regarded as a barometer seat, where "Essex Man" delivered his fatal blow to Neil Kinnock in 1992. Boundary changes altered the seat and David Amess, the former MP, decamped to Southend West, but Basildon and East Thurrock remains a good indicator of the Tory Party's overall performance.

Angela Smith, who was the Labour winner in 1997, is defending a 7,738 majority and at the next election she will be challenged by Aaron Powell, a councillor for the London Borough of Redbridge, who was selected in November 2003 and moved to Basildon in February. Despite his attempts to make himself well known in the community, a council employee said that the name "does not ring any bells" and Tony Archer, councillor for Billericay, said he did not know the new candidate. But Mr Powell is feeling guardedly optimistic about the seat and points out that the European elections were won by the Tories with a 3,500 majority. But less than a fortnight ago, a by-election for a district seat and for an Essex county council seat, following a Tory councillor's death, resulted in Labour gaining the district seat and the Liberal Democrats gaining the county ward.

Martin McNeil, the editor of the Basildon Evening Echo, said: "I think they [the Tories] were surprised to lose ... the Labour MP is fairly well entrenched, though she works with a predominantly Conservative council. Who will win the seat in the general election is not easy to predict." The by-election loss is an indication of the rusting away of the local party infrastructure.

In Margaret Thatcher's old seat of Finchley, boundary changes and Tory unpopularity in 1997 combined to give Labour a 15 per cent swing. Rudi Vis, the current Labour MP, still managed to get re-elected in 2001 with a majority of 3,716.

Here there is a sparky new Tory candidate, Andrew Mennear, a member of Camden council who has already built a high profile and has the incentive of good results in the Greater London Assembly elections. But if he loses, by the following election the local infrastructure is unlikely to undergo renewal.

Party bosses play down old-fashioned campaign methods of foot-slogging and cheese and wine parties, pointing to the voters' disengagement with politics between elections and their indifference to irritating door-knocking by canvassers - who hate the job anyway.

They point to new technology, mail shots and telephone canvassing as more effective. But unless a local organisation is maintained, a party can rarely win. In any event, money is required. Here further evidence suggests that, after next year's general election the Tory Party will be nearly bankrupt. Already the donations, which revived momentarily after Mr Howard took over, appear to be drying up as donors wonder whether they are simply blowing their money to the wind. The Tories will beg or borrow enough to run the forthcoming campaign but they will be in dire financial straits thereafter.

If there is no perception of any long-term progress, both moneymaking activities and political activity at local level go into a tailspin. After an initial blip in the polls - coinciding with Labour woes surrounding top-up fees and the fall-out from the Hutton report, the Tories have gone backwards.

On the face of it, the fourth place at last Thursday's Hartlepool suggests that Mr Howard is doing worse than Iain Duncan Smith. Certainly it seems impossible for them to win the next general election and the mood of despair among Tory MPs is as bad as last year. It was assumed that a change of leader would safeguard all the 166 seats currently held and that the party could only win seats.

But the UKIP factor suggests that a number of incumbent Tory MPs, already worried about the Liberal Democrats in second place, are also in danger of losing. The same risk from UKIP in marginal Labour seats threatens to prevent Tories from making some gains. But it is not all gloom. The very advance of the Liberal Democrats against Labour, demonstrated at all the recent by-elections is a secret weapon for the Tories in a number of constituencies.

Take Hove or Hastings & Rye, in East Sussex. These were safe Tory seats lost in 1997 to Labour, where the present Tory candidates, Nicholas Boles and Mark Coote, believe that Labour switchers - because of disillusion over Tony Blair's leadership and the war in Iraq - can, by voting Liberal Democrat, help the Tories win. These Tories could therefore get elected without necessarily gaining a single Tory vote - provided, of course there is no nibbling effect from UKIP.

Professor John Curtice of Strathclyde University supports their claim. "Even if the Tories are going nowhere, merely by standing still in some constituencies, this will be good enough to gain some seats under the capriciousness of the first-past-the-post electoral system," he said.

So there is some evidence to suggest that while some sitting Tory MPs may lose to Liberal Democrats - also thanks to switchers from Labour to Liberal Democrat where Labour are placed third, more tactical voting - in seats represented by the likes of Oliver Letwin, Theresa May or David Davis, all members of the Shadow Cabinet, this can be compensated for by gains in Labour marginals.

The Tories claim that a poll in the crucial 130 top target seats puts them ahead although this does not seem to square with other polls. But there is enough evidence to show that the Tories will still be the largest opposition party after the next election and an arguable case can still be made that they will end up with more seats - I'll stick my neck out and go for 50 - than they do now.

But that would still leave them with less seats than Michael Foot's Labour Party won at the 1983 general election - so thereafter it may well struggle to survive. If it does die, it will be slow, painful and lingering death.