To stay or to status quo

Britain is a conservative place, they say, so when in doubt the electorate will tend to stick with the status quo.  For the EU Referendum, the assumption has been that the Remain campaign has the advantage.  We’re all too confused by claims and counter-claims about the pros and cons of Brexit, so in the end we’ll settle for what we know.

Recognising this conservative bias, the Leave campaign is trying hard to reshape our definition of the status quo.  Staying in the EU, they claim, is the riskier gamble, because the EU is changing so radically.  The status quo is a free trade zone with cooperation between European states on security, the environment and other supra-national issues.  We can have all that by leaving the EU, they promise.  Leave = Status Quo.  On the other hand, if we vote to stay in the EU we will be subjected to a process of ever greater political integration and ultimately we will find ourselves in a very different (and possibly unpleasant) place.  Remain = Leap into the Dark.

It is a bold campaign that seeks to redefine the status quo, but so far the Outers are doing a good job of it. The response from the Remain campaign should be: “Possibly.  But if the EU status quo really does change that much, we can always vote to leave at a later stage.”  We should be judging whether we want to be part of the EU as it is now, not as it might be in some version of the future.

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A healthy decline in support

English: David Cameron at a Conservative Party...

David Cameron at a Conservative Party Reception (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

British newspapers have got very excited at the revelation that Conservative party membership has declined by nearly half since David Cameron was elected party leader.  Says the Telegraph:

Douglas Carswell, the Conservative MP, has previously warned that the party is “haemorrhaging” members because of David Cameron and his “remote clique” at Westminster.

A 47% decline does sound absolutely terrible.  But before we lay the blame entirely at Mr Cameron’s door we should look at the longer term trend.  Membership was 2.9 million in 1951, 1.2 million in 1981, 311,000 in 2001, 253,600 in 2005 (when Cameron was elected leader of the party) and 134,000 in 2012 (figures from the BBC and ConservativeHome).  Decline is quite normal.  On average during the 1951-81 period, membership declined by 56,667 members per year; since 2005 it has declined by 17,086 members per year.  David Cameron could truthfully claim to be losing far fewer members, in absolute terms, than Mrs Thatcher or her careless predecessors.  This more flattering truth can be seen in the levelling off of the downward membership trend:

Tory Membership 3

The relative picture is less pretty.  The compound annual growth rate (decline rate?) for 1951-1981 was -2.9%; under Margaret Thatcher and John Major it was -6.53%.  It is now -8.71%.

Tory Membership CAGR 2

So it is true that under David Cameron Tory membership has almost halved.  It is also true that Cameron is losing far fewer members per year than his predecessors did.  And it is also true that, on an annual percentage basis, Cameron’s membership decline is slightly worse than Thatcher’s.  But it’s worth remembering the value of the Cold War and the perceived threat of Labour socialism as recruiting sergeants for the Conservative Party in earlier times.  If one could weight the relative annual membership declines under Macmillan, Thatcher and Cameron according to the perceived dangers inherent in a Labour government, the current leader might come out rather well.