Tuesday, 19 March 2013

The membership conundrum

"Political party membership appears to be in terminal decline in the UK - so can anything be done to reverse the trend? And does it matter?" asked Brian Wheeler recently.

Indeed the trend has become apparent since figures began to be reported more accurately as part of new legislation introduced in 2002 requiring parties to submit detail financial information to the Electoral Commission. However according to the official parliamentary briefing compiled at the end of 2012 this is a continuation of a process which began almost as soon as records began.

Of the three major parties Conservatives counted 177,000, Labour 193,300 and LibDems 66,000 members as of end-December 2011. Approximately 1% of the total electorate currently hold a party card.

This compares with a peak of about 10% in the early 1950s when Conservatives claimed almost 3m members, Labour 876,000 and the predecessor Liberal Party about 1/4m. 30 years ago in 1983 total membership measured 3.8%.

Even the well-publicised 'rise' of Ukip is at odds with its' own membership figures - despite successes in European elections and consecutive second places in parliamentary by-elections numbers are down from a peak of 25,000 in 2004 to 16,000 today, a loss of 9,000 in nine years, more than a third. The fortunes of other smaller and regional parties, including the Greens and SNP, show equally volatile membership numbers.

Of course we might expect a tendency to exaggerate figures and inflate the appearance of one's own popular support across the nation, but the direction of travel is unmistakable.


Under Tony Blairs' opposition Labour talked of becoming a mass-membership organisation once more with the aspiration of reaching 1m members, but a peak of 405,000 in 1997 declined again under his premiership to the point which the renovated Trimdon Labour Club (from where he triumphally declared victory in 1997, 2001 and 2005) finally closed its doors in 2011.

Similarly Ed Miliband managed a small bump in membership following the Refounding Labour report produced on his initative to make the party 'welcoming'. With a call to turn local organisations into something more akin to community action groups by forging links with the voluntary sector he nevertheless attracted criticism on several fronts for diluting membership by opening up voting procedures to various supporters networks and pushing affiliated trade unions to garner the party additional sign-ups.

David Cameron also made waves when he became tory leader. He did this by undertaking a  membership drive via campaign groups such as the Taxpayer's Alliance, while opening policy formation processes and instigating the use of 'open primaries' to select candidates.

Less pronounced was the euphoric effect of Cleggmania which surrounded the LibDem leader and his appearance in (particularly the first) televised leadership debates during the 2010 General Election. Although a fresh impetus of new members joined the LibDems, the subsequent disillusion caused by entering coalition government and the inevitable succession of policy controversies (from tuition fees, to NHS reorganisation, the botched electoral reform referendum and secret courts - to name but a few) has caused unrest with many older activists and ordinary members alike, with latest membership figures showing a decline to 49,000.

Over at LibDem Voice Bernard Gowers reports his personal response to engage more closely with the wider liberal movement, advertising his Liberals Together collaborative blog.


According to many, party membership is now 'atypical', and several prominent activist-bloggers I've talked to recently have each independently agreed, going so far as to say we must all be 'weird' by definition.

The trend is not exclusive to the UK alone. Since the 1980s data shows consistent declines in most developed countries.

In Germany 2.3% of the population are now party members, in France the figure is 1.9%. In pure numbers Italy has the most party members - 2.6m - but even this represents only 5.6% of voters and a significant drop over time.

Scandinavian countries had some of the highest membership levels during the 1960s and 70s, but has seen the largest falls since, bringing them more in line with the average figures. Of European countries only Poland and Latvia have lower proportional numbers of party members than the UK.

Meanwhile, within wider society the reverse is true. People are happy to sign membership forms and direct debits funding feel-good campaigns organised by professional groups like the Caravan Club, RSPB or the National Trust - the former symbolically reaching 1m members for its centenary, and the latter reaching 4m in 2011.


Clearly there is something happening here which we need to understand.

For the democratic process there is a risk that weak political parties will be overcome by opportunist extremists and populist demogogues with wealthy backers, or that global corporations will begin to monopolise outlets for debate and this could have serious negative influences on policy-making processes.

Indeed, some might argue that this is precisely what is happening now, with the decisions that caused the financial crash and now in its aftermath.

But while a weakening of general partisan identity with society could leave a gap to be exploited by ruthless political criminals, it also reflects a longer-term process of softening between opposing poles of political thought, as debating issues like nationalisation/privatisation, or nationalism/internationalism, reach a point of gradual resolution through the accomodation that follows stalemate.

Just as it becomes increasingly rare that anybody is prepared to fully commit themselves to one project for life, you may be aware of a cultural distaste for the aggressive confrontation which characterised the great ideological struggles of the past.

And at the same time this does reflect what may be described as 'the silent victory of freedom', that there is a greater tendency for people to become 'floating voters' since they aren't rigidly bound by various group interests (such as clan, class or company), and the parties themselves increasingly form a pragmatic consensus around what good can be achieved.

Nevertheless self-imposed restrictions on the political class will reduce political choices - while one local constituency once saw a record number of 22 candidates, in many local elections across the country it can be unusual to find more than two candidates who are prepared to put their names forward, and even that may be a push.

Because we must remember what happens without robust and rigorous elections as the ultimate process of holding your representatives to account.

While the dogmatism of political parties as a substitute for religions ends in decisive exclusivity, if politics becomes nothing more than an occasional pastime, and parties dissolve into indecipherable independence or passive neutrality, then the values of humanity will have been thrown away and the spiral into social decline and ultimate disaster will automatically follow.

Political parties are cultural institutions which embody and uphold the values of civilisation - they form a vital link in the chain of social engagement, and without the participation they afford everyone becomes a loser.

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Policing, Paramilitarism and what to do about America's addiction to gun violence

With Vice President Joe Biden due to make his recommendations for gun control as early as Tuesday US gun culture is firmly under the spotlight.

Following the shocking events of Sandy Hook and Webster contributions were quick to be made on both sides of the debate: proponents of legal reform suggested, starting with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, that a right to bear arms did not extend to convicted murderers having access to assault weapons with large magazines. Meanwhile staunch defenders of the constitution responded with the argument that "The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun" - preferably one in every schoolyard, at least according to the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. As one commentator described it, "it’s the hubris of Bloomberg versus the humbug of LaPierre."

Brits, as many across the world, watch this bizarre political debate with bemusement. The cultural links which make our special relationship tell us that our two countries are not so different as to require opposite approaches, yet we may take pride in having an unarmed civilian Police force on our side of the Atlantic and justify this with remarkably low levels of violent crime, gun-totin' Americans confidently assert aggressive self-defence as the best form of protection while pointing to persistent levels of violence requiring vigilence.

Indeed, preemptive strikes and escalation are normalised by habit throughout American society, from foreign policy to primetime entertainment. US drone attacks within the allied airspace of Pakistan only began to hit headlines when the phrasebook of war added 'collateral damage' to it's lexicon of grief, while, closer to home, SWAT (Special Weapons and Tactics) deployments have also started coming under increased scrutiny - not least because of the 1975 TV series or the overblown 2003 movie remake.

Philadephia established the first SWAT squad in 1964, followed by LA in 1967, primarily in response to civil order challenges including regular rioting and the rise of heavily-armed and politically-motivated urban guerrilla movements. By the early 1980s, as such groups evolved into criminal gangs, most major US cities were using these special response units to prosecute a vicious 'War on Drugs'.

In 1994, as part of a shake-up which saw the implementation of a national SWAT strategy, the Pentagon was permitted to donate military surplus to local Police - in 17 years these 'donations' included 112 armoured personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters, more than the actual military force of many a medium-sized country!

And while the 1999 Columbine High School killings marked "a profound shift", according to University ofMissouri criminologist David Klinger, things really began to change after 2001 when funding streams for otherwise prohibitive equipment costs were justified in the light of the 'War on Terror'.

In the decade since the Dept of Homeland Security was set up in response to the September 11th attacks it has allocated over $34bn in grants to state and local governments. SWAT teams were a natural beneficiary, aided and incentivised equally by federal anti-drug grants and asset forfeiture policies. Soon towns with populations of less that 20,000 had their own SWAT units to help the fight against the 'War on Crime'.

A further boost to the programme of domestic militarisation came in 2009 when arms manufacturers benefitted from federal cash in the economic stimulus package after Police departments were given leave to make large request for updated hardware, under the guise of a new economic ‘war’.

Backing this up, Peter Kraska, a criminologist at the University of Eastern Kentucky, found that 3,000 SWAT deployments per year in 1980's became more than 40,000 by 2001, and estimates this may now top 60,000. Baltimore was a crime hotspot long before The Wire got there, so a 1,000% increase in Maryland SWAT deployments in 30 years indicates a clear cultural, as well as tactical, shift.

Over the last six months of 2009, SWAT teams were deployed a total of 804 times in the state of Maryland, or about 4.5 times per day - which the Baltimore Sun calculates were used to execute basic search or arrest warrants 94% of the time.

Separately, the National Tactical OfficersAssociation analysed 759 deployments from across the country in 2006, finding two-thirds were for basic warrants.

SWAT teams have also been used to crack down on neighbourhood poker games, enforce alcohol and occupational licences, even being deployed to catch student loan cheats. And in Anaheim earlier thisyear nine days of peaceful protests against police brutality were broken up in scenes that looked more like a prologue to Call of Duty - a disneyfied Baghdad.

In two heavyweight papers Kraska measured the growing militarisation of US Police forces and examined the converging trends which changed the nature of domestic security. He identified the gradualerosion of the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, which led, via a redefinition of criminality and crime control, to 'unprecedented' coordination and normalisation of the relationship between US military and civilian police forces.

Professor Kraska notes the failure of agovernment to clearly demarcate between the police and military can be seen asa clear indicator of repressiveness and therefore of a lack of democracy - a failure encapsulated by division over the meaning of 'state militia' in the fabled Second Amendment. As he says, "The problem is that when you talk about the war on this and the war on that, and police officers see themselves as soldiers, then the civilian becomes the enemy" - and then the civilian inevitably starts to fight back.

And so, in the disconnected world where Police and People co-exist in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and emnity it should be no wonder that both sides are so anxious not to concede any political ground, and the otherwise unintelligible 'right to bear arms' is twisted into a national obsession and patriotic duty, defended in equal measure by both state and individual who are set against each other as a result.

Is there any middle ground on which the two sides can meet?

In fact, yes, there is - and if you've read this far the source may come as a surprise: it was the Police themselves.

Last April the 70 members of the North American Major Cities Chiefs Association debated and agreed to collectively support a national Firearms Violence Policy.

Download it, read it and share it.

Insist it is adopted federally, in full - immediately.