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.