On the Guardian website today (1 October 21013) there is an article by Aditya Chakrabortty (The incredible shrinking Tory party). Even allowing for the fact that the author probably is not a Conservative – by birth, by inclination or by station in life, it contains some interesting details about the Conservative Party which prompts some thoughts about parties in general and party funding in particular.
So first the details:
“Who comes to our party conference”
He quotes statistics from the party’s Conference Sales Pack (page 7) which tells prospective exhibitors and sponsors, “Who comes to our party conference”.
It is rather a corporate jamboree and one has to wonder why the corporate sector feel that they have to almost match party members “man-for-man” – presumably they think it is worth it. Which is worrying when you look at the audience in the coverage of major conference speeches. Predominantly elderly (nothing wrong with the old – but this party seems to have few new blue shoots ready to take over) and predominantly supine just “receiving the oration” – more like a funeral than any other gathering that I can recognise. Are these really the people who these corporates are paying thousands of pounds to influence (see the Conference Sales Pack), or is it more “behind the scenes” access that is being bought?
£20,000 plus VAT will enable you to sponsor the “Blue Room” a private lounge area which will be available for the Cabinet and Government Ministers, senior Party Officials, Commercial, International and Party guests – ” to include access to lounge and complimentary passes”
- £15,000 plus VAT will enable you to sponsor the “Parliamentary Lounge” a private lounge area will be available for all Conservative MPs, MEPs, Members of the House of Lords, Welsh Assembly and Scottish Assembly Members who attend conference – ” to include access to lounge and complimentary passes”
- (from) £5,000 plus VAT will enable you to sponsor “Events” to have access to the best and most exclusive events that take place at conference such as “The Party Chairmen Reception – 500 invite only guests”
Yes folks that last event is the Party ChairmEn Reception – a reception for Party Chairmen – the men who chair individual associations; this has to be the opportunity of the conference to meet the local burghers who chair the selection committees that really terrify the MPs.
Pity we cannot get similar data for Labour Conferences – particularly of the Blair era when I suspect the corporate sector would have sought lobbying opportunities – they do not have “party loyalty”; they go where the profit opportunities are.
“Who is the Conservative Party”
Of all the mainstream parties, it is the Tories that have retreated furthest and fastest from being a mass party. In 1953, the party had 2.8 million members. By 2001, that was 311,000. Under Cameron, the figure is 134,000. And that’s if you believe the numbers from Tory HQ; some observers, not all hostile, think the total is on the verge of dropping below six figures. As well as withering, the grassroots are ageing: the average member is now 68 years old. The party “for hardworking people” is in reality the party of OAPs.
At the last general election, more than half of all Conservative funding came from the City, according to extensive research by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. That’s double the amount when Cameron won the leadership in 2005, and financiers made 25% of Tory donations. By financiers, I’m not referring to the high-street giants that you bank with. I mean Adrian Beecroft, Michael Farmer and Lord Stanley Fink: hedge fund speculators, private-equity barons and other members of what is sometimes called the shadow banking industry.
The Guardian website 1 October 2013 Aditya Chakrabortty (The incredible shrinking Tory party)
So is the Conservative party the ageing “party in the hall” or the “sum of its funders”? In the past decades we have seen three major changes:
- The death of “the canvass” (when did you last have an earnest party member knock on your door, have a chat and then ask “and can we rely on your vote next Thursday?”),
- The rise of the free election mail which no longer even has to be personally addressed by party members at “labelling parties” in local committee rooms,
- Elections being decided on a sort of “National Sentiment” set by the London-based media which means that national projection of party leaders and national spin-doctoring is far more important than what happens in all the constituencies outside the marginals. And in the marginals all parties spend with an inventiveness (relative to the spending rules) that would be admirable in any other context.
It is now money not manpower that counts. In fact with an emasculated membership it is far easier for the “leadership” to dance to the corporate sponsors’ tune and get away with it.
This is probably also true of the Labour Party – their membership has fallen off a cliff – as has the membership of the wider “Labour Movement” as Thatcher’s children no longer think of themselves as working class trade unionists who “are Labour” but as middle class people who “may vote Labour”. I think Ed Miliband is concerned about this and is seeking to re-engage a wider membership – but at the risk of losing the money. Unless he can also change the nature of political campaigns back to manpower-based rather than money-based he may end of not just with the worst of all worlds, but no world at all.
The Liberals have probably suffered a desperate loss of manpower support as previous “protest politicians” shy away from having to defend “a record in government”. Have they gained sufficient influence to attract more money from the corporates or has their soul remained unsullied as the corporates have decided that the Liberals’ influence is transitory at best?
So what does this mean?
Well, what I suspect many of us have suspected for a long time.
The “electorate” are a cloak of respectability wrapped around a political system that is dangerously mortgaged beyond its means to corporate lobbyists.
That party policies are made with an eye to party funders rather than the good of the nation and that “we” don’t matter unless we can deny a party a majority. And for those swing voters in marginal seats (probably less that 100,000 across the entire country) money will be spent dressing up corporate desires in sound-bites, photo-opportunities, flash election broadcasts and deceptive leaflets to just persuade “those plebs” to put their “X”s (the mark of illiteracy) against the name of one corporate sponsored drone rather than another.