The fading of the true blues: The Conservatives need local activists not national razzmatazz, says Patrick Seyd

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THE HEALTH of a democracy depends not just on high voter turn-out in elections but also on citizens participating in politics between elections. One essential feature is an active and enthusiastic party membership. Once people believe that politics is purely a matter for those who sit at Westminster or in local council chambers democracy is in trouble.

People often think that declining membership is a problem only for the Labour Party. True, the Conservatives still have nearly 750,000 members against Labour's 250,000-plus. But the party is now losing 60,000 members each year. Further, morale and activism are as low as they have ever been.

Activism matters to political parties. The idea that either party could secure victory in 1996-7 solely by effective public relations emanating from Smith Square or Walworth Road is wrong. Contrary to what many academic psephologists tell us, general elections are not won and lost solely in television studios and advertising offices.

Research we have carried out at Sheffield University, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council and based on a national sample of 2,500 Conservative Party members, suggests that local association campaigning has a sig nificant impact on election results. For example, after taking into consideration the social and political characteristics of particular constituencies, we estimated that a 10 per cent rise from the 1987 general election level of campaigning will increase the party's share of the national vote by 1 per cent. Such a figure may sound small but it could make the difference between winning and losing a general election. It is roughly the same figure, for example, as the latest British General Election Study attributes to the 'leadership effect': the greater appeal of John Major to voters against Neil Kinnock in 1992. So more election posters, election leafleting and canvassing do pay electoral dividends. And the effect of a reduction in campaigning is even greater - for example, a reduction of 10 per cent on the 1987 level of campaigning would lead to the loss of 47 seats.

The Conservative Party, we found, is an old and inactive party. The average age of the members is 62. Almost half are aged over 66 while only 5 per cent are under 35. If we assume that the average life- expectancy is 75, the party stands to lose more than 45 per cent of its membership over the next decade. Two-thirds of the present members attend no party meeting and more than three-quarters devote no time to the party, not even in delivering leaflets.

So, despite a membership approaching 750,000, the Conservative Party has only 150,000 activists. Labour, by contrast, has a far higher proportion of activists to members. A similar study we conducted of Labour Party members reveals a figure of 120,000 activists. Both parties have a problem of declining activism but the Conservatives' is more acute: 25 per cent of members say they are less active now than they were five years ago.

So it is not just Conservative ministers and MPs who are open to the accusation that they are too remote from the electorate. The members, too, are becoming socially isolated from potential voters. This may explain why John Major thought his 'back to basics' campaign would revive the party's fortunes. It was indeed popular among party members, of whom 60 per cent believe that 'divorce has become too easy these days, and the divorce laws should be tightened up'. But if Mr Major thought this was a reflection of popular views he may well have been mistaken and his members, to judge from our research, were in no position to act as ambassadors to a wider constituency.

The Government's own actions have made it difficult for either party to provide incentives for increased participation. Some people will join parties in the hope of influencing local politics. But restrictions in local authorities' powers have reduced the incentives for joining Conservative as well as Labour parties. Quangos are unlikely to provide the same range of incentives as the multi-tiered local government of the past.

Other people will join parties because they want to influence national politics. Here, the Conservative Party seems especially weak. It hardly provides a vehicle for anybody who wants to contribute to Conservatism in practice: 43 per cent of the members believe that the 'party leadership does not pay a lot of attention to the views of the ordinary party member'. And 50 per cent believe that 'the Conservative Party leader should be elected by a system of one party member, one vote'. They want to participate in electing their leader in the same way as Labour Party members are now doing.

We found that Conservative Party members, contrary to what many outsiders believe, are not overwhelmingly 'Thatcherite'. They may have liked Margaret Thatcher's style of leadership, but a significant number have 'progressive' views. For example, eight in every ten believe that the Government should spend more money to get rid of poverty. Many of the progressives, aware that they were not 'one of us', withdrew from active involvement in party politics.

The next Conservative Party chairman, therefore, faces an enormous task in reviving activity and commitment among the membership. Though some people may be more than happy for the Conservative Party to wither - thus hastening its departure from office - weak parties are ultimately bad for British politics. A thriving civic tradition is important to the political and economic stength of a nation: a dwindling and demoralised Conservative Party membership could be symptomatic of a wider and worrying national condition.

The author is a senior lecturer in politics at Sheffield University. 'True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership', by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson, will be published by Oxford University Press in October.