Lib Dem membership: who will reverse the decline?

Mark Littlewood’s latest ‘diary’ for the BBC’s Politics Show highlights one of the less welcome stats exposed by the current leadership contest:

The number of ballot papers issued – less than 65,000 – shows the party has lost more than 10% of its members since Ming Campbell was elected last Spring and now has less than 100 members per Parliamentary constituency.

Protestations from the Liberal Democrats that all political parties are witnessing declining membership and that last year’s total was artificially boosted – because it came so soon after a General Election – are not wholly convincing.

Back in 1999, when Charles Kennedy was elected leader, membership stood at over 82,000.

For a party that prides itself on its grassroots support, the new leader will need to reverse this alarming drop-off in fee-paying members.

It is not simply a challenge to the leader, of course (though whoever we choose next month will be the most visible face of the party) – the Party President will also play a key part in addressing this big fall-off in membership.

Next year’s presidential election – and at least three candidates seem likely to stand – will attract even less media attention than the current leadership battle. But for the party in the country at large, it will be important all the same. The 20% drop in membership since ’99 highlights quite what a task faces us.

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37 Comments

  • Geoffrey Payne 25th Nov '07 - 9:43pm

    Although I respect Ming Campbell and the dedication he applied as leader of the party, he had one fatal flaw; a total inability to inspire the membership of the party, exemplified by his disasterous support for replacing Trident.
    A new leader is just what the party needs. We need a visionary to lead the party, and both candidates will be a big improvement.
    It is not a panacea however. What we do locally continues to be very important in the success for the party.

  • Grammar PCSO 25th Nov '07 - 10:08pm

    Perhaps it would be good if HQ could ask local parties for access to the local supporters’ lists that many parties have? I know that in my borough, the supporters’ list is about twice as long as the membership list. These people display posters, donate money and deliver Focuses – these are the people that Alix refers to.

  • Dan Falchikov 25th Nov '07 - 10:09pm

    Of course Simon Hughes pledged to double the party’s membership as part of his manifesto when he first stood for president.

  • Last year I raised the whole issue of the membership strategy at the Federal Executive and was told it was a state party matter, although we did go on to have a discussion about it.

  • Grammar Police 25th Nov '07 - 10:31pm

    Lol. Letterbox scrapes never good: yes, we do letters very simlar to that . . .

  • Maybe if people stop falling out with each other in our party people will stop resigning

  • So lets all hug each other and go canvassing for members! ;@)

  • Maybe if we all resign and start again from scratch?!!

  • Grammar Police 25th Nov '07 - 10:42pm

    Alix, your suggestions are of course behind the (sensible) moves to incorporate direct mail into our campaigning arsenal. Direct mail allows you to target certain classes of individuals with certain messages and invite a response that’s more likely to be picked up on.

    Changing the topic slightly: it’s not just about getting members. Members are one thing, but active members are another.

    A suprising number of people join a political party to express support for it, but expect everything else to be organised, campaigned on, put into a Focus etc by Someone Else Who Is Expected To Do It (SEWIETDI). Sadly, finding a decent number of SEWIETDIs is even more difficult than finding members.

  • Grammar Police 25th Nov '07 - 10:46pm

    Pob – we all need to resign, join Labour or Tories, whichever takes your fancy, and then resign en masse at an agreed time to create a new party. Might actually capture people’s interest!!!

  • Bit like the SDP only even more ruthless? ;@)

  • Grammar Police 25th Nov '07 - 10:53pm

    Exactly; although not as ruthless as dating Tories . . . :oO

  • I don’t go out of my way to find tories!! No-one Lib Dem ever fancies me it’s not my fault!!

    My first boyfriend was a socialist…

  • john in warwick 25th Nov '07 - 11:46pm

    you need to look at what happens to people when they do become members. not everyone equates joining a political party with not much more than being an unpaid postman, for e.g.

    and yes, the last two years must have taken a toll.

  • Grammar Police 26th Nov '07 - 12:15am

    But don’t assume that just because people don’t want to be unpaid postmen that they actually want to do anything!

    Aw, poor Jo! :o( You wouldn’t want a Lib Dem date: they’d just talk about Focus leaflets and STV!

  • Why aren’t Constituencies advised by Cowley Street of supporters who sign up on the website? They could then be asked to join or help locally.

  • TimberWolf: they are. Details are included in the next membership secretary mailing after they’ve joined.

    The members themselves are also both emailed and written to by Membership Services with (along with membership card etc) details of how to get involved locally.

    Though nothing really beats the personal local touch of a follow up from someone in the local party.

  • Peter Bancroft 26th Nov '07 - 9:29am

    Recruitment’s ultimately pretty straightforward – when a local party mounts a determined membership drive from canvass returns, at street events and with friends of friends the size of the party grows (and some local parties are very good at this); When they don’t the party gradually sinks.

    To really spend effort on recruitment there needs to be a sense that more members are urgently needed – I suspect this is where the problem comes in.

  • How come Simon Hughes was not held accountable for failing to meet his promise to double membership? Why is that not a topic at the next Conference?

    Hughes promised and failed.

  • 26 – Peter is quite right. We recruit members when local parties organise recruitment activity, we decline when they don’t.

    What the national party needs to do is to ensure that activists have the materials and training to do the job.

    What the leadership needs to do is inspire activists to make it a priority. Paddy did this very well in the mid-nineties but there hasn’t been much push since.

  • Grammar Police 26th Nov '07 - 10:49am

    Aaron at 27; activists often want armchair members to become active by doing something that interests them. And God knows, I’ve spent the best part of two years trying to involve more members in the work of my local party.

    To be honest, I’m personally fed up of being told by armchair members that the party isn’t doing enough of this, that or the other (we actually try to encourage communication from members, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain). I give up quite a large proportion of my free time to do this for little reward and even fewer thanks; when members complain that they never get leaflets from us I’m tempted to ask just how many they’re volunteering to write, design and deliver themselves – not to mention actually do the campaigning and casework that one puts in a Focus?

    All I’ll say to armchair members who don’t think their activists are doing it right: tell them what you want to do to get involved yourself (no matter how large or small or how niche) – by and large, they’ll welcome you with open arms.
    What I want to do is make life just that tiny bit better in my part of South West London, but I can’t do it alone, and so I don’t just want armchair members to shut up, I want them to shout out.

  • I hate to be a bore (well, no I don’t actually) but I have spent much of the past month arguing here and in the members only forum that the key question for the two leadership candidates is what they are going to do about the party, membership, organisation, tactics and electoral strategy. I’m still none the wiser and to date both candidates have failed to address these issues here or anywhere else for that matter. I’m not seeking details, just a commitment to do something about it.

    I do, however, now know where they stand on every pointed-headed bit of policy wonking.

    But unless the party is better organised, that’s all pretty academic isn’t it?

  • Geoffrey Payne 26th Nov '07 - 11:14am

    In answer to Aaron Trevena and others. The Liberal Democrats are what you make of them. For a local party to be successful there are a lot of jobs to be done. Not all of them are the kind of jobs that produce queues of people who are waiting their turn. One of those jobs is to phone up members asking them to do things.
    Now anything you do should certainly be appreciated by the party. But everything is done by volunteers and ultimately we are all self-motivating.
    Simon “promised” a doubling of the membership, which when he was elected president may have been possible with a popular national leader of the party, and a popular opposition to the war in Iraq.
    Times have moved on – and are moving on. With a new leader, it may be possible again, but Simon alone is not going to do it.
    He has to persuade you to go out and do it.
    It is not the job of the party leader to reorganise Cowley Street, but nationally it is very important the party sorts out it’s membership department. It should not be an effort to join and be put in touch with your local party.

  • Mark Pack (25)
    Constituencies are advised of new members who have joined centrally, but are people who have indicated they support the party, but do not join?

  • At this rate there will have to be cut backs in Cowley street.

    Geoffrey, Simon failed on his election promise. No ifs or buts.

  • TimberWolf: some, but not everyone (depends on the exact circumstances) – and it’s a fair point that this is an area we should (and will) improve on in future.

  • Ruth Bright 27th Nov '07 - 2:07pm

    Quite right Jo A – volunteers can burn out too.

    You know that programme called “Grumpy Old Men”? There really should be one called “Grumpy Old Councillors”.
    I found it really difficult to enthuse new young members in my Home Counties’ seat because of the negativity of some of the older members. To give an example, in the May elections we had a new activist (aged 17) operating EARS. Bringing in the numbers was my thirty-something brother whizzing round polling stations with his 18 month-old daughter. The three of them were a dynamic little team working their socks off.

    But, oh woe, in that very same committee room (at 7pm when the youngsters were doing their stuff) lurked the grumpy old councillors. Three of them sat sipping tea and moaning about Ming and saying how great Cameron is. The sort of people who think you shouldn’t knock up before four (or after six for that matter).

    I am afraid that some of our local parties act as little more than a glorified day centre – even on election day.

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