The Lib Dem membership slump: how it compares and how we can respond

The Lib Dems published its statement of accounts this week, including the most recent membership figure for the calendar year 2011. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now…

As at 31 December, 2011, there were 48,934 Lib Dem members. That’s 25% down on the previous year, 2010, when there were c.65,000 members. True, that figure was inflated by the ‘Cleggmania’ of the 2010 election and the initial excitement of the Coalition, but it is still down 17% compared to the pre-election year, 2009.

Though this is by some way the sharpest recorded decline in the modern party’s membership, it is also the continuation of that decline, as this graph of Lib Dem membership data shows:

And it’s not a trend restricted to the Lib Dems. The Conservative and Labour parties have also witnessed big historic declines in membership, as this graph shows:

And in case you were wondering how this compares with similar European countries to the UK — while our figures are lowest, they are not too dissimilar to France, Germany or the Netherlands:

Does this decline mean the UK population is disengaged from involvement in society? Not if the membership figures for other campaigning/charitable organisations are anything to go by:

Why the general decline?

The specific reasons for the Lib Dems’ recent membership dive is easily explained: the coalition was controversial, the party’s role in government even more so. And given these latest figures pre-date the NHS reforms ruckus, the current figure is likely to be lower still.

But why the more general decline of which the Lib Dem dip is part? Four years ago on LibDemVoice – Membership of political parties –from mass movements to freakish oddities? – I suggested some reasons:

It’s not simply the decline in respect for the political classes. More important, I’d argue, is the emasculation of local decision-making, creating an unbridgeable gulf between what local people see can be achieved in their neighbourhoods. Mixed in with this of course is the decline in party democracy – and the feeling that party membership is no more than a badge – though this applies far less to the Lib Dems than Labour and the Tories: at least our party conferences, however unrepresentative they may be of the wider membership, still make policy decisions.

Some additional reasons are offered by Feargal McGuinness in his Parliamentary briefing paper (from which the graphs above are taken), Membership of UK political parties:

The decline in party membership has been attributed both to a shortage of potential party members and to parties’ decreasing need for members. The argument that there is a reduced supply of potential members is based upon the emergence of other political or campaigning organisations that are competing with parties for members; increased pressures on people’s time, whether from employment or leisure; or demographic changes including the decline of traditional working-class communities and growth of the suburbs.

On the other hand, parties are less reliant on a wide membership network as mass communications allow them to reach voters directly. Funds gathered from wealthy donors and the state make parties less dependent on individual members’ subscriptions and small donations. Parties may even see a vocal membership as an electoral liability.

How to respond to this decline?

Is the conclusion to be drawn from all this that parties no longer need members that much while the public is disengaged from parties? That may be a leap too far, as Mark Pack noted in a LibDemVoice article – Myths about party membership – in 2008:

… whilst people are absolutely right to emphasise the importance of building up the party’s membership, we also need to recognise that the strength of modern political parties’ organisation increasingly lies outside the formal definition of membership. For a range of reasons, membership of political parties is much less appealing now than it used to be. But much activity – including attendance at policy discussion events, delivering literature, putting up posters and talking to neighbours – can also be done by supporters who are not (yet) members. … That is why the answer to building up the party’s grassroots strength lies not just in recruiting more members but also building up the wider network of supporters – regardless of one’s views as to how formal or otherwise their status in the party should be.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • Peter Watson 6th Aug '12 - 8:58am

    I wonder if the sharp drop in Liberal Democrat party membership since the 2010 election is a result of the parliamentary party’s actions in government being inconsistent with the wishes of its membership.
    What does everybody else think?
    Of course, in these recessionary times people might just not want to spend their money on membership fees. Perhaps somebody could carry out a poll to see how many people still want to vote for the party. Oh, they have.

  • The one time that decline trend was not the case corresponds pretty much with the time Charles Kennedy was leader.

    Correlation is not causation etc – but still an interesting observation.

  • Grammar Police 6th Aug '12 - 9:48am

    @Jo – the graphs show Con and Lab membership up to 2011, it’s just that the last marker is 2008 (Note the very slight increase in Labour membership at the end of the graph).

  • Thanks for this Stephen, very interesting. I was particularly struck by the figures from selected other European countries; yes, as you say they indicate a broad decline overall (the rise in Spain no doubt down to the end of dictatorship!), *but* I see that in the most recent period – post-crisis – membership has ticked up in France and the Netherlands. I wonder what is happening there to make people respond to the crisis by engaging more, not less, in politics.

  • I wonder if the sharp drop in Liberal Democrat party membership since the 2010 election is a result of the parliamentary party’s actions in government being inconsistent with the wishes of its membership.
    What does everybody else think?

    Given that the wishes of the departing members arguably were based on a wish-list and not having to accept the responsibilities of power, I’d say it’s unsurprising (although I wouldn’t express it in as graceless terms as this).

    The Party had been nowhere near Government for decades , so had appealed to a virtuous opposition with its promises of everything for everyone. What we’re seeing now, I suspect, is a return to its natural voting base.


  • Keep getting the meesage out that the Lib.s were right on all 3 of the big issues of recent years:-
    The state of the UK economy
    War in Iraq
    Sucking up to Murdoch et al

    Labour AND Tories wrong on all three!
    Keep your integrity and keep up the good work.
    Good luck, Steve!

  • Peter Watson 6th Aug '12 - 12:07pm

    So how do things look for us in Corby?
    We’re the third place party but tactical voting could make the difference between a coalition (conservative) victory or a Labour one.
    Will we stand against the conservative candidate?
    Will we campaign against the conservative candidate?
    Looks like an interesting few months.

  • paul barker 6th Aug '12 - 12:14pm

    A couple of factual points –
    the labour graph doesnt take account of the change in the way they counted members in 1980. Before that CLPs were assumed to have at least a thousand members & only sent their figures in if they were over that. After the change the published number dropped by 300,000 in a year. Probably the labour peak in 1952 was no more than 800,000.

    A useful way to compare parties might be to look at present membership as a proportion of their all time maximum –

    greens 60%
    libdems 50%
    labour 25%
    cons 5%

    There does seem to be a pattern of the largest parties losing the most, perhaps suggesting a future pattern of many small parties.

  • To add to Paul B’s comment about Labour counting, is another issue this time of Tory counting. It can be seen from the blue dots on the graph that there was a big fall in the early 90s – now part of that was clearly associated with the Poll Tax, Thatcher’s “fall from grace”, Black ? Wednesday etc, but another part was the dropping of automatic membership Counting of Tory Club members as party members, which was getting on for half, if not even more of their numbers!

  • It suggest a number of things, But mostly it reflects the rise of a political class that talks to itself rather than representing the interests of voters.. Whenever I hear politicians speak and especially when interviewed , it’s all “the markets want this, business leaders say that and how will the city react.”. . Virtually the only time the general population gets mentioned is to be told they’re too fat, live too long, drink too much, pay to little for milk or whatever and l a bunch untrustworthy bludgers who need to get realistic. Multimillionaires declaring the end of the good times for everyone except, surprise, surprise, multi millionaires.

    In other words we remain basically serfs.

  • Simon Titley 6th Aug '12 - 1:52pm

    Membership of all political parties peaked in the 1950s and has been in steady decline ever since. This is part of a general process of popular disengagement from politics, which was examined by the Power Inquiry in 2006:

    Full report:

    Executive summary:

    In summary, the inquiry found that political disengagement generally (of which a fall in party membership is a symptom) can be attributed to the following factors:

    * citizens do not feel that the processes of formal democracy offer them enough influence over political decisions – this includes party members who feel they have no say in policy-making and are increasingly disaffected;

    * the main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle;

    * the electoral system is widely perceived as leading to unequal and wasted votes;

    * political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies;

    * many people feel they lack information or knowledge about formal politics;

    * voting procedures are regarded by some as inconvenient and unattractive.

  • Peter Hayes 6th Aug '12 - 2:34pm

    It would be interesting to see how the LOCAL membership has changed. Is it affected more by being head to head with Labour than Tory for MP or council, is it affected more in university towns because of fees etc.? if we can keep our heartlands the national polls might look silly, if not then it’s us that will look silly for going into coalition.

  • What we do need is political party reforms on a scale similar to that Mrs Thatcher applied to Trade Unions. Compell all political parties to formulate their policies democratically so that (a) members have a voice and (b) Conservative members views are clearly heard! Once the Conservatives are as democratic as the Lib Dems the true views of their members will be known and their game will be up.

  • Hang on: -7% in 99 and -17% in 2000 — does that mean Charles Kennedy becoming leader was as unpopular an idea as every single thing the left-right coalition has done put together!?

  • Cllr. Ron Beadle 6th Aug '12 - 6:55pm

    When I asked the FE for membership figures at Spring Conference the answer was that the party would not release them. If FE know that they would have to be fully released five months later then why withhold them from conference ? I think we should be told.

  • Ron – of course the Party knew they had to be released, for Electoral Commission regular purposes. I assume you did, too. Did you not strengthen your request by saying this at the time? I am assuming that you asked in context of questions to the FE report? In which case this would have been a “closed” (non – media) session. I must admit, if it was during an open session, I can’t see the advantage of early release to the public, before other parties.

  • Jen, we had been hammered in the Euros in 1999 (as usual!) and in the District elections, in the wake of the Labour peak in 1997 – so I am not surprised that membership also dropped in the two years 1999 and 2000. When Charles got into his stride as leader, figures remained remarkably high (for the next 5 years). It should be noted that 1999 was also partly under Paddy’s leadership.

    There is a distinctly different, and permanent, feel to the drop this time.

  • Rosemarie Rourke 7th Aug '12 - 9:31am

    I look at graphs and national statistic results and then read the subjective translation from the writer and I wonder; Has anyone actually spoken to the people? I think not.
    Until 2011 I was a party member and even worked on campaigns in my old home county. However, since moving to Shropshire I find first, I cannot get a reply from the local Lib Dem office. I find them no where to be found during the election, but I still voted for them.
    2 years on and like a million other disenfranchised voters in the UK, I feel completely let down by the party I trusted and supported and politics in general.
    We the electorate have no power at all and this has been blatantly proved in the parliamentary term already. We have one chance in 5 years to ‘have our say’ and the rest of the time we are expected to sit down and shut up because ‘you know best’.
    Until a party announces it’s abolishment of Party Whips and until we see more of the Peoples Will, governing this country I and millions like me face a wilderness and a hope our constituency stands an Independent candidate.
    I would willingly talk about the issues facing the Lib Dems and even rejoin the party, but not until they turn the torch on and find their way back to the democratic process.

  • I suspect that a number of people think, “We worked and voted for you at the last election on a manifesto we approved of – now get on with it”. And the party will be judged on how it implements what people wanted – IF the electors know what that is!
    Although we have had some good successes, we have also had some noteable failures, amongst which i would number electoral reform, the NHS and social security for those who need it, and Europe. This isnt going to stop me voting Libdem next time around and neither will I resign from the party, but one can envisage that some people will.
    So if we are to get the votes we need at the next election, I think we need to do a LOT more to let people know what we have accomplished, and particularly to challenge the half truths spouted by others about Europe. And anything we do do will be amplified, so don’t think the effort is too large – just DO something!!!

  • THIS is what we are up against – it appeared on my Facebook this afternoon:

  • Lawrence, the “Yorkshire ranter” you link to is, of course, very articulate, very ideological, bit like the sorts of student politicos that were around when I was a student in the 60s! Not that many people (IMO) will stop to read the detail of what he/she has to say, as not many are that “interested” in politics (they are, of course, they just don’t realise it, and don’t like the language it’s expressed in).

    But – you are right – the underlying message and sentiments are very widely shared by those who have supported the Lib Dems over the years, and are largely shared by many here. Others on here think that by constantly repeating the message “Liberal Democrats believe … (fill in gap with a current Govt policy assumption) … and Lib Dems have achieved (another gap with a current Govt policy) ” they will persuade other Lib Dems that they themselves actually believe those things.

    I think the message to take away from this is that there are deep divisions in the party’s support and (like Rosemarie above) there are bound to be many people fall away individually, in addition to the relatively disciplined pressure groups within the party. This has expressed itself in a big membership drop, and judging by other comments, and local experience, a drop in activity. In places where local activity is entirely motivated by hyperactivists / active local councillors (I mean active in the sense that they try very hard to link with their local people all the time), this has had a profound effect on support levels. I am sure Shropshire will be in that category. We have seen this happen locally before, where local parties or council groups have blown themselves apart – activity levels and membership have plummeted. What we have now is on a national scale.

  • Falling membership is across all political parties in the country?
    Well, many people have mentioned trust alongside, there is political ineffectiveness.
    The ability to deliver reform is based on how effective the system is at present to deliver reform and that is still too little. The House of Commons is the only electable and accountable section of the British centralised constitution.

    The LD ministers should have stand firm on fundamental issues such as tuition fees (candidate signed pledges at GE), electoral reform (STV PR) and now on 100% elected 2nd chamber on principle. Our party earned peak support at the 2010 general election on those issues.

    It would have been better for us to be defeated by parliament numbers and stay with our principles, rather than to be perceived as selling out our polities and electorate in an almost one sided compromise.
    It is not too late now for our party to regain some of the support we have lost.
    The debate on electoral reform was blanked out of the media by the royal wedding shows how the Tories and the likes will use events and timing to manipulate events.
    We need to create news in government for the right reasons: to promote OUR program and Liberal principles.
    Other smaller parties in coalitions on the continent are doing just that.
    We should not see a defeat in the House of Commons by numbers, if we stand firm to principle because WE will be judged by the electorate on what we do from now up to the next general election.
    We need to campaign and recruit on our program: The Liberal democrat alternative.

  • I respectfully suggest that the falling LibDem membership is not a surprise; nor is it difficult to explain. The Coalition has resulted in the LibDems’ supporting policies that were and are in direct contradiction to the policies that they, as a party, fought the last General Election on. As a consequence, many many LibDem voters feel that what they had voted for (LibDem policies and principles, and not as has been suggested a “Wish List”) has been turned on its head. Furthermore suggestions along the lines of my comments here seem to be met with impatient short shrift from your party. It seems that the LibDems regard ex-voters as “Lefties”, “Labour trolls or simply troublemakers. So be it.

  • David Thame 9th Aug '12 - 9:59am

    I’d have thought I’m the kind of person the party needs to renew their membership: born into a Liberal family stretching back to the formation of the party in the 1870s, father a Liberal and LibDem councillor for years, my first memories are of delivering leaflets; I was a branch secretary by age 16, constituency secretary at 18, president of my student Liberal Society, involved in ULS nationally, sat on constituency executives and held offices in Colchester, Aldershot and Manchester…and stood for the council several times. Yet I let my subscription lapse in 2005 after several years of getting fed up with Charles Kennedy – though he was just the latest manifestation of the problem – and haven’t felt inclined to rejoin. Why? I’m a Liberal for heavens sake – not a social democrat – and the party’s horrid slide into softleftism with no backbone is upsetting beyond description. Starting with Steel, and the malign influence of fixers like Richard Hulme, a rather shambolic but genuinely Liberal party turned into a version of right-wing Old Labour with a handful of largely decorative symoblic policy obsessions. (On reflection, ” a version of right-wing Old Labour with a handful of largely decorative symoblic policy obsessions” sums up the SDP very well – but I can’t blame them alone. The virus was already at work in the old Liberal Party).

    Worse, the old party to some extent, and the new LibDems to a very large extent, concentrated their marketing effort on rubbishing the very business of politics which it ought to have exalted and to have demonstrated to be of real value (“two party dog-fight” “punch-and-judy politics” – no wonder the electorate got turned off politics and began to believe it was meaningless…. 25 years of anti-politics campaigning by Liberals has been horribly successful).

    So, no longer Liberal, no longer apparently interested in competitive politics but simply interested in vaguely producer-driven managerialism, deeply up to its eyeballs in the same ideology as (lord love us and save us) Roy Hattersley, only without his formal trade unionism, what is there to join? Nothing I recognise, that’s for sure. I remain a Liberal – always will be, always vote LibDem, albeit with a heavy heart and not much conviction – but if you want me to rejoin the party has to start being Liberal, too. Trouble is, after so many years, I wonder if anyone can remember what that means?

  • I’ve always said that what we need to do is buy lots of nice, wooded land and only let in party members!

  • My wife always says that we should have a retirement home with only the select few let in!

  • David Thame – I am sure what you say has some force – the Liberal Party, and because the Lib Dems inherited a large part of its membership and legacy, the Lib Dems also, have been a broad coalition. Joining the Young Liberals in the 60s, as I did, it was probably quite a few years before I fully appreciated that, and spending lots of years fighting what I took to be the evils of Thatcherism, I forgot the legacy of the many shopkeepers, the liberal farmers etc. Nevertheless, the prime problem about today’s Lib Dems seems to be an inability to throw off the shackles of being almost wedded to the laissez faire capitalism of recent years. There is a widely held strand of thought, which rejects the legacy of 70 years or so of a mixed economy, and this, I believe is what has led us down the wrong path recently.

  • You have failed to mention that UKIP – which is now level pegging with the LibDems in the polls – is increasing its membership. It was up 16% in 2011 and is still rising.

    LibLabCON are losing members because they are not offering the policies people want. UKIP are.

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