“Cameron’s charm fails to halt slide in party membership”

So writes The Independent:

David Cameron’s charm offensive has failed to attract new members to the Tories – or keep hold of tens of thousands of people who were already in the party when he arrived.

Local Conservative parties have lost almost a quarter of their rank-and-file members since Mr Cameron took over in late 2005…

The total membership in more than 200 constituency associations – barely a third of the overall number – who provided relevant figures to the elections watchdog fell from 185,000 to 145,000 between December 2005 and December 2008. The constituencies experiencing falls include “safe” seats, the bases of shadow Cabinet members and target seats that must be taken if the Tories are to win the next general election…

Many of the local parties blame the economic climate for the plummeting figures. They have added “unofficial” members, including those paying for regular dinners with MPs, to their full lists.

You can read the full story here.

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12 Comments

  • What are the Liberal Democrat membership figures over the same period?

  • Liberal Neil 7th Sep '09 - 9:47am

    That’s interesting because back in July the Tories were quoted as saying the following:

    “The Conservatives, meanwhile, claim there has been a significant increase in the number of people joining them.

    Tory chairman Francis Maude said his party had more members than its two main rivals combined, but he did not reveal precise figures. ”

    I guess we now know why he didn’t reveal those ‘precise figures’.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/5190232.stm

  • Derek Emery 7th Sep '09 - 10:29am

    Shouldn’t all three major parties ask themselves why less than 2% members of the public are members of their parties in total.
    There is obviously a huge gap in terms of their policies and the public for such massive disinterest. Perhaps the parties consider themselves to be better than the public and that the public should fall in line with their thinking. I suspect this is never going to happen. These figures are falling for all parties I understand. hen if ever do the parties question themselves whether they are representing the public’s views? When the combined figure is 1% or 0.1% or what. Perhaps they do not need any public involvement, only rich men who bankroll them in elections? Perhaps this is a reflection of whose interests they are really representing when in power? Do they really need the public at all?

  • Liberal Neil 7th Sep '09 - 10:49am

    It is for exactly those reasons that the lib dems have consistently argued for a cap on individual donations. That would provide a real incentive for all parties to operate in a way that encourages mass membership rather than reliance on large donations from a small number of people.

  • Simon Titley 7th Sep '09 - 11:39am

    We Liberal Democrats cannot afford to gloat. The financial report to conference shows that our party had 58,810 members at the end of 2008, down from 65,400 at the end of 2007.

    The Liberal Democrats have had a net loss of about 24,000 members over the past ten years – a decline of nearly 30%. The numbers of ballot papers issued (= number of paid-up members) in party-wide elections show this trend:

    2008 presidential election – 60,357
    2007 leadership election – 64,713
    2006 leadership election – 72,064
    2004 presidential election – 72,868
    1999 leadership election – 82,827
    1994 presidential election – 101,091
    1992 presdiential election – 101,768
    1990 presidential election – 82,455
    1988 presidential election – 80,071
    1988 leadership election – 80,104

    (Source: http://www.cix.co.uk/~rosenstiel/ldelections/ – there were no contested presidential ballots in 1996, 1998, 2000, 2002 or 2006).

    All political parties are losing members and have a membership with a rising average age. The main reason is a long-term process of civic disengagement, with people increasingly retreating into their private space and politicians increasingly retreating into their role as public office holders. Where people continue to participate in politics, it is increasingly through single-issue pressure groups, which do not demand the compromises that membership of a political party necessarily entails.

  • Derek, it’s the job of a political party to represent everybody, regardless of whether or not they’re a member. Most of the people I canvass when doing neighbourhood surveys, most of the people whose casework our councillors take on, and most of the people who benefit from the campaigns we fight locally are not members of the Liberal Democrat Party. I don’t see how you’re concluding that “parties consider themselves to be better than the public” on the basis of falling membership numbers.

    I do however think that we do a pretty rubbish job of selling the idea of party membership to people. The party has no for Membership Development Officers like myself to help us recruit, and many local parties I’ve encountered (I have no idea whether this is representative of the national picture but I suspect it is) are dysfunctional to the point of not actually engaging their membership at all.

    Being a member should mean getting to know other Lib Dems locally through social and fundraising events as well as Focus delivery. It should mean being shown how to get more involved in the party, from Conference and policy motions through to SAOs and special interest groups.

    I personally think that local parties should be encouraged to send at least one first-timer to each conference, and pay for their conference fees through the local party, to encourage more engagement. I also feel that the initial membership fee should include a three or six month subscription to Lib Dem News, to help new members feel a part of the national picture. The new members packs now include some top-down organisational diagrams of the Party structure, but I don’t feel this is very useful to somebody who’s not a wonk.

    Sure, these changes will cost money, but I think they will help with member engagement, retention and recruitment, and should pay off…

  • I’m not sure that getting members to vote in AGMs and selections is a great way to engage them. Frankly, I advise my new members to stay the hell away from local party meetings, because they’re dull and antagonistic. Once people get involved in meeting each other, helping out with some campaigning and so on, I mention that they might want to pop along…

  • Simon Titley 7th Sep '09 - 6:53pm

    Recruitment tactics do not constitute a strategic response to fundamental social change. By all means go out and recruit new members, but at least make an effort to understand why you are swimming against the tide.

    I would recommend everyone to read the conclusions of the Power Inquiry (at http://www.jrrt.org.uk/PowertothePeople_001.pdf), published by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust in 2006. This inquiry examined why people are disengaging from democratic politics. It found that the underlying cause of disengagement from politics is social change, a shift to a post-industrial society in which voters are less deferential, better educated and no longer feel bound by traditional class loyalties. Notably, a significant factor behind people’s disillusionment is a feeling that “political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies.” In other words, in our atomised society, people are less willing to make compromises and unrealistically expect a bespoke offer from their politicians.

    This is why single-issue pressure groups appeal more than political parties.

  • Simon Titley 7th Sep '09 - 6:56pm

    The link in my previous post doesn’t work. Try this:
    http://www.jrrt.org.uk/PowertothePeople_001.pdf

  • Simon Titley 7th Sep '09 - 7:01pm

    Sorry, let’s try again. Here are working links to the Power Inquiry report!

    Summary: http://www.jrrt.org.uk/index.php?page=publication&showpublication=13

    Full report: http://www.jrrt.org.uk/index.php?page=publication&showpublication=14

  • Having just had a quick skim through the summary of that report, I can only really see a couple of minor things which I would object to (age 40 limit for upper house and replacing deposits with signatures.)

    I’ve been concerned about the move to single issue pressure groups for some time. In many respects it’s good that people are prepared not to compromise their beliefs; but from a governmental perspective it leads to chaos. We’ve seen at local government level pressure groups elected – usually linked to hospital closures such as in Kidderminster or Livingston – which have by and large been an unmitigated disaster as they don’t have a clue what to do about the other things they’re not interested in. I’m not saying that single issue groups are bad, just that for government (be it local or national) you simply can’t run a coherent coalition based only on one issue.

    We could, though, look at the American party structure for suggestions. Although I’m not a great fan of primaries – I think they tend to produce the least offensive rather than the best candidate, and in the UK would be too open to being nobbled – the more relaxed structure of whipping does appeal. Is it really right that MPs have to vote for something which might damage their constituents, or against something which might benefit them?

    We also need to look more basically at how our elected representatives function. Are our councillors, MPs, MSPs, MLAs, etc elected to represent their constituents regardless of their personal views, or are they elected to make decisions on behalf of constituents and justify them afterwards? If they do the former, do we call them “unprincipled” and “will say anything to get elected”, and if it’s the latter, do way say they “fail to represent the views of their area” or are “inflexible and dogmatic”?

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