What drove Theresa May to break off from a trade trip to the Middle East to chuck a half-brick at the National Trust over some Easter bunnies? Maybe Dame Helen Ghosh, the Trust’s Director General, knows. When the two worked together at the Home Office, they got along like a house on fire: there were flames, some screaming and eventually someone (Dame Helen, as it happens) left the building through a window.
Given that history, it’s probably unwise to suggest that Mrs May might learn something from Dame Helen and the Trust instead of battering them, but I’ll give it a go anyway. The lesson is about members. The Trust has lots of them: more than four million, in fact. They cough up cash and even when they’re not eating expensive scones in the café of some stately pile (Full disclosure: I spent most of my teenage weekends selling said scones for the Trust), they’re proclaiming their affiliation to the world: school-run SUVs practically come with NT window stickers as standard.
Mrs May’s Conservative Party doesn’t have four million members. It probably has fewer than 200,000, but the Tories aren’t saying. The last authoritative estimate of membership was done last year by Tim Bale of Queen Mary University of London: he put it between 130,000 and 150,000 before Mrs May’s coronation. 'Sources' have since suggested that as many as 50,000 new Tories signed up during last summer’s excitements, but there’s not much to suggest the party has bucked the trend of long-term decline: there were 2.8 million Conservative members in 1953.
Obviously, the National Trust and the Conservative Party are different organisations that do different things, but the lesson is that even in our supposedly atomised, individual age, people will still join up, still agree to be part of something – and still display that membership to the world, make it part of their identity.
This can be done in politics too. Just ask Jeremy Corbyn, and the Scottish National Party. According to the House of Commons Library, Mr Corbyn’s Labour has 517,000 members. The SNP has 120,000, a smaller number but a bigger achievement, given that there are 4.4 million adults in Scotland.
If the Conservative Party isn’t putting on lots of new members, does it really matter? The party won the 2015 with its shrunken membership: money and national organisation can make up for local manpower sometimes. And all those Labour members are doing nothing for Labour’s standing; indeed, they’re actually making it worse, by keeping in place a leader who makes the party essentially unelectable.
But it would be a mistake to assume that membership doesn’t matter. What counts is what sort of members you have, as next month’s local elections may well prove. The talk among Labour MPs is that that many of the teeming Corbynite legions talk a good fight online, but aren’t so keen on getting out to knock on doors and turn out voters. You can probably write the headlines of the local election results now: more Labour turmoil, with the Liberal Democrats the biggest winners.
After 2015’s nadir, the Lib Dems are feeling quite perky again: they now have something approaching 90,000 members (their highest total since the early 1990s) a string of council by-election wins, and some seriously wealthy new donors. For some, the signs of a Lib Dem resurgence at a local level (their national polling number remains stuck at barely ten per cent) is proof that Britain is prepared to reject Brexit, that any party that openly opposes EU exit can make real electoral gains. But while Brexit may motivate many Lib Dems, my hunch is that what matters at least as much is something generally overlooked by us chattering Westminster types: organisation.
Part of the reason some Tories are quietly concerned about the Lib Dems is that the Lib Dems are quite good at not just recruiting people to their cause but deploying them on the ground. Pavement-pounding and leaflet-dropping have always been a central part of the Lib Dem experience, along with Glee Club and misleading bar-charts. That makes them tough local opponents. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Lib Dems’ ground-level resurgence is a bigger check on Tory thoughts of an early election than all those Corbynistas liking each other’s posts on Facebook.
Westminster these days can often feel like one big, emotionally-unstable Twitter spat, so it cannot be said enough that there is more to life – and politics – than social media. Much more.
En Marche!, the techno-savvy and rather hip movement-cum-party that could well carry Emmanuel Macron to the French presidency next month likes to stress its mastery of online conversation and voter data. Yet its foundations are in some very old-fashioned politics. It began by recruiting a few thousand volunteers who were sent out to knock on doors and have conversations with complete strangers.
Guillaume Liegey, the former McKinsey consultant who helped create EM!, puts great faith in human contact, arguing that personal conversation is still the best way to obtain the data he feeds into his algorithms – and to change someone’s mind. 'We want to force our members to go out of their inner circle and their neighbourhoods and engage with different people', he said earlier this year.
Prof Bale has been doing some research into the Lib Dem angle here, and discovered something fascinating: people who strongly support the party without being full members are more likely than their counterparts in other parties to get out and get involved in ground-level campaigning – thanks in large part to the encouragement of full Lib Dem members. In effect, because they’re more engaged, Lib Dem members act as what military types call 'force multipliers', meaning the party can pack a bigger electoral punch than those national poll numbers imply.
Perhaps Mrs May will one day decide the Conservative Party also needs a bigger, more engaged membership, the sort of people who display the Tory logo on their windscreens and persuade their friends to come out leafletting with them. Or perhaps that persistent, alluring talk of a new party of the centre will become a reality. But anyone with aspirations to build a 21st century political movement with genuinely broad appeal should stop typing and start knocking on doors.
James Kirkup is Director of the Social Market Foundation