Lib Dem party membership: the occasional ups and mostly downs since 1988

The Lib Dems published the party’s 2013 accounts this week. The report included the latest membership figures, which showed for the first time since 2010 an increase on the previous year’s: up 2% to 43,451. Here are the Lib Dem membership figures since the modern party’s formation as the successor to the Liberal Party and SDP in 1988:

lib dem membership figs since 1988 - as at july 2014

For interest’s sake, here’s the increase/decrease in party membership under each leader:

  • Paddy Ashdown (11 years) +3%
  • Charles Kennedy (7 years) -13%
  • Ming Campbell (2 years) -10%
  • Nick Clegg (6 years) -33%
  • As you can see the general trajectory since the mid-1990s has been down, a slump of some 60% since 1994. Lib Dem membership is now roughly half what it was in 1988.

    However, the drop in party membership we’ve seen since 2010, down by one-third, isn’t unprecedented. Lib Dem membership also fell by more than 30% between 1996 and 2000 before stabilising.

    Both the Tories and Labour have also suffered similar reductions over longer timescales:

    con & lab membership figures

    For more on party membership figures — including comparisons with other European countries and with other campaigning/charitable organisations — it’s worth reading my 2012 post, The Lib Dem membership slump: how it compares and how we can respond, not least for the interesting comments discussion which followed.

    * 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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    16 Comments

    • I do feel the party could gain and retain more members if it decreased the amount of computerised mailings and phone calls from the centre by about 50% and increased the amount of personal contact from local members (eg. Just calling round with the latest local members newsletter, for example) from around zero to something above zero.

      From recent experience, the party goes hell for leather to retain a member. Something like three phone calls and five emails from different people is not unusual. But all that would not be necessary if several months before someone had just called for a friendly chat.

    • Liberal Neil 3rd Aug '14 - 9:25am

      I completely agree with Paul, bit would add doing at least occasional members’ newsletters and inviting members to local events would be a big help too.

      And when you do call round, take a Direct Debit membership form with you too.

      The interesting point about the recent rise in membership is that it shows that there are lots of potential members out there. The challenge is to get more activists going out and actually asking the best prospects to join.

    • Kevin White 3rd Aug '14 - 9:57am

      But with the loss of so many activists, home visits demand more of those who remain especially in areas where the Party has all but been wiped out. Can’t get blood from a stone.

    • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Aug '14 - 10:08am

      I also agree with Paul.

      A must for all local parties over the summer/autumn and again as the GE campaign kicks off.
      Follow up leads with a priming membership leaflet and then a personal visit. Even if people don’t want to join they may be a potential Focus deliverer or future poster site.

      The bigger question however is obviously why as a nation we are losing political activists of any persuasion. Three that immediately spring to my mind, in no organised order, are:
      1) the pressure many of us feel and have on our time
      2) highly cynical print media undermining anything mildly progressive
      3) broad political acceptance of ‘Thatcherite’ economics and its societal, I’m in it for myself ‘loads of money’, reflection
      4) highly controlled centralised political machines and presidential top-down leadership styles rather than them being seen as democratic cooperative endeavours
      5) unfettered globalisation
      6) the ever-growing disparity in wealth and power between the haves and the rest of us

      Cue authentic radical reforming Liberal Democracy!

    • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Aug '14 - 10:11am

      ?3, OK, I got carried away!

    • Sadie Smith 3rd Aug '14 - 10:43am

      Don’t be too fussy over direct debit. It makes existing members lives more difficult, but it matters to get a year of subs at a time. At the merger, I stayed a year at a time, so did a local SDP origins member, who was persuaded not to leave by my late spouse.. A few years later our memberships were more permanent. We ignored HQ for quite a while!
      It is more difficult today, partly because people expected to win elections the first time they stood and because the role of HQ as it tries to be more dominant . The role of Regions could be significant.

    • Scott Berry 3rd Aug '14 - 11:04am

      I agree with Paul, I’m still a member but my wife let her membership lapse recently and the calls get to a point where they were doing more to irritate her than to encourage her to rejoin. Sometimes people just need their space for a bit.

    • Austin Rathe 3rd Aug '14 - 11:37am

      I very much agree with the point Paul makes. We do now put a huge mount of effort into retaining members and this has been a large part of the membership going up (our retention rate is now around 90%, much higher than it was a few years ago).

      However I agree we would do better if members recieved more calls that were not about money. It’s not possible to do this using the staff we have (you will have seen from our accounts this week that there are only 74 of them, of which 12 work in our contact team) so we’re currently building a fantastic team of volunteers in HQ who will, amongst other things, be making these sorts of calls. We have actually started doing them but most of you won’t have noticed yet!

      I will just back up Neil’s point about what a local party can do. As much as we can try and add value from the center that really is as nothing compared to the effect a local party can have in terms of making a member feel valued. In particular the social side of membership is really important, and we obviously can’t do much about that at all.

    • paul barker 3rd Aug '14 - 12:58pm

      Another useful comparison would be with The Greens, their membership peaked in 1990 at 20,000 & then fell steadily for the next 15 years to around 4,000. They have since grown again to 17,000, suggesting that recovery is possible.

    • Stephen Hesketh 3rd Aug '14 - 1:30pm

      paul barker 3rd Aug ’14 – 12:58pm
      “Another useful comparison would be with The Greens, their membership peaked in 1990 at 20,000 & then fell steadily for the next 15 years to around 4,000. They have since grown again to 17,000, suggesting that recovery is possible.”

      Hmm. I fear a goodly proportion of them are anti-nuclear Lib Dems.

    • Very interesting results.
      I would guess that there are several factors at work which affect all parties, such as the pace of life, pressure on time, money, etc. I also think that the EU and the democratic deficit is to blame. I am old enough to remember when the press was full of information about bills progressing through parliament. Today, the media completely ignores the output of the Commission and the EU parliament so the process of government has become less visible.

      The political class has not covered itself in glory in recent years with the expenses issue. Politicians of all parties have broken fairly major promises. It is also the case that on major issues the parties do not have much room to differentiate themselves or else they choose not offer radical alternatives, so they appear to the electorate collectively as part of the problem, not the solution.

    • Stephen Donnelly 3rd Aug '14 - 9:17pm

      Some time ago I volunteered to act as membership officer for my local constituency. This was agreed at an executive meeting. I won’t go in to the details, but I live in an area with one of the less successful constituency organisations. After six months without access to the membership list I gave up.

      Don’t worry about my individual position. There are plenty of other things I can do with my life.

      The blockage is that all power is local, and the few remaining local members in my areas do not really want new members. This is not a universal problem. Since my student days I have lived in many parts of the country. In most areas (take a bow, in particular, Oadby and Wigston, and Henley) the local party is open and welcoming. The multi-constituency association I am now a member of has fewer members than my ward association in Manchester when I was a student but a neighbouring constituency has a Liberal Democrat MP ! The failure to attract members is not just down to national politics. It is somtimes down to the local organisation, and that does not aways mean a lack of willing capable members.

      If we want to increase membership the national must pay attention to derelict, and semi-derelict constituencies.

    • Tony Rowan-Wicks 4th Aug '14 - 9:03am

      I keep my head down these days concerning my local party. I appreciate the work they do, against the difficult odds of Outer London Tory majorities, but there are too many hurtful memories of working with LDs in the past to engage me actively. An individual can do too much to try to represent the voters and suffer from overworking. Though I have made my peace with the local representatives, and remain a member, I have responsibilities within several non-political groups which don’t ‘change their spots’ and make life difficult for other members.

      I’m in agreement with many of the above comments which refer to poor management – incidentally in all parties. The major difficulty I have is the manner in which all party leaders, local and national, once elected to their roles, depart from the principles by which they stood initially. I’m minded to relate three of the cornerstones of leadership:
      • Competence: a leader must bring relevant skills to the role;
      • Courage: a leader must have the strength of character to speak up for what is considered right;
      • Commitment: a leader must be committed to the group and its objectives, and must be able to set aside personal feelings and concerns to concentrate on the best for the group.

    • Richard Dean 4th Aug '14 - 10:34pm

      The comparisons with Labour and Conservatives seem somewhat misleading. Their data start 70 years or more ago, well before most of today’s voters were even born. The events of those ancient times are unlikely to have much to do with the trends since 1988.

      The Labour and Conservative data also don’t cover the period from 2010, so there is no clear comparison with the drop-off for the LibDems in that period. Clearer comparisons can perhaps be found in:http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05125.pdf

      In fact, the Conservatives seem to have lost about half their membership since 2010, which on a percentage basis seems worse than the LibDems. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/david-cameron/10316950/Conservative-Party-membership-has-halved-since-David-Cameron-and-clique-came-to-power.html

      Who really knows how well Labour are doing?…
      http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/labour-party-admits-union-paid-for-500-new-members-8686210.html

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