A spectre is haunting the Tory party – the spectre of entryism. Or so, at any rate, many would have you believe.
The Conservatives are far from the first to point the finger at so-called entryists, members of one party or political grouping who join another with the aim of taking it over and steering it in their desired direction. The prospect of the party being infiltrated and overrun by a hard-Right faction has been a source of concern for more moderate Conservative MPs, who fear they may be outvoted by entryists in the case of a leadership election.
Such fears are understandable given the openness of the campaign to take over the Tory party. Leave.EU, the unofficial pro-Brexit campaign group financed by right-wing businessman Arron Banks, has candidly and repeatedly urged its social media followers to join the Conservatives. Doing so, the group has suggested, will allow them to insert a leader more sympathetic to their cause, such as Boris Johnson or Jacob Rees-Mogg, in the event of an apparently “inevitable” leadership challenge to Theresa May.
A number of moderate Conservative MPs, including the outspoken Anna Soubry, have spoken out about the dangers of entryism to their party. “These people are absolutely dedicated to their cause. And you don’t need an awful lot of people to make a huge amount of difference – so it’s really worrying”, Soubry argued. “Some of it is people who over Europe felt they no longer support us and went off to UKIP and are now rejoining the party.”
Yet while it makes sense to speak out about the threat posed by entryism, these MPs would do well to consider that by making too much of an issue of entryism, they risk such an approach backfiring and undermining their own arguments.
The issue is that a lot of the supposed infiltrators have views on Brexit (as well as other issues) which are not particularly far removed from the current Conservative membership or even many of the party’s MPs. An overwhelming majority of Tory members voted to leave the EU while many prominent voices within the party have spoken out in favour of the most extreme separation possible in the form of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. It seems that perhaps the new recruits would not be so distinct from the values of the party as a whole after all.
In this context, right-leaning new and old members alike may view moderates as the real opportunists, playing up the threat of entryism to try and maintain power. By making out the newcomers to be extremist agitators for backing a hard Brexit, these moderates risk coming across as at best out of touch with the majority of their party’s membership, and at worse cynically trying to outmanoeuvre those on the right by stopping them from admitting new members. In line with this, many Conservative MPs have reacted angrily to the idea of a shady ‘takeover’, asking why a party with dwindling membership figures would decline the opportunity to welcome new members, with the ideas and financial contributions they would bring.
It is worth remembering the near identical situation that took place in the Labour party in 2015 as a lesson of how not to deal with entryism. When Jeremy Corbyn stood for the party’s leadership from a left-wing platform, many of the party’s leading figures made a great deal of supposed infiltration by ‘Trotskyists’ trying to influence the results of the election by supporting Corbyn.
Whether or not such infiltration took place, it was dwarfed by the number of genuine Labour members (many of whom had been in the party for decades) who backed the left-wing candidate. Large numbers of these members, including those who had been originally undecided on which way to vote, felt that the rhetoric on entryism was little more than a ploy by the party’s elite to neutralise anyone who disagreed with them, so they could remain in the ascendancy. Rather than receiving genuine counter-arguments as to why moving the party leftwards was a bad idea, they were told Corbyn was only popular because of outsiders agitating to win him power, despite themselves being insiders sympathetic to his cause. Whether a genuine fear or a cheap trick, the entryist hype backfired massively, pushing more people away from what they saw as a corrupt centre.
Whatever their motivation, those who play up entryism from the left or the right are certainly playing a dangerous game. Push too hard, and they risk alienating genuine party members and supporters who just want their opinions heard, while reinforcing stereotypes about the ‘establishment’ and its penchant for keeping power through machinations and muck-raking rather than the strength of their arguments. Sometimes, it may be more effective to play those on the extremes with a straight bat, and challenge their arguments and beliefs head on, than try to have them excluded in the first place.