Local parties: membership falls but activism increases

A report published today by the Unlock Democracy campaign has found that average membership of Liberal Democrat parties fell slightly in the last five years, but that levels of activism increased. This compares with a dramatic fall in membership and activism for Labour constituency parties and an increase in the sizes, but not in activism, of Conservative Associations.

Unlock DemocracyLocal Politics: A Case for Treatment? serves as a health check for local parties as a measure of the state of democracy in the uK. The detailed figures come from surveys of local parties across the country and show an interesting picture. Although Liberal Democrat local party membership dipped slightly on average, in held seats with small majorities and in target seats there were significant increases. In all but the most solid LibDem seats, party members have become more active since 2001.

While the membership of Conservative Associations in held seats increased, critically membership levels in their target seats fell. It is a similar story with income levels which improved in most held seats but dropped in the majority of Tory targets, suggesting that the Conservative Party is still on the defensive.

The report also analysed levels of voter contact. In 44% of seats, Liberal Democrats delivered less than 1 leaflet for the 2005 General Election, compared with 32% for the Conservatives and 50% for Labour. This might seem surprising given our reputation as leafletters, but it’s explained by Unlock Democracy’s 2005 General Election Monitoring Survey. This showed the LibDems delivering as many leaflets combined as the other two main parties in our held and target seats. Because we have relatively few of these compared to Labour and the Tories, this works out as fewer leaflets than the Conservatives once averaged across the whole country.

We can also take heart that the North/South divide (referring to England only) is less pronounced in the Liberal Democrats. All parties demonstrated smaller membership figures in the North compared to the rest of England, a difference most pronounced for the Conservatives whose average Association size in the North of England is less than 50. But whereas the Tories and Labour received less income in the North and distributed fewer leaflets, the Liberal Democrats raised similar amounts and put out similar numbers of leaflets across England.

The survey found that Labour and the LibDems tend to have more executive and organisational meetings that the Conservatives, but the latter have many more social and fundraising events than us in their held seats. Perhaps surprisingly, given our democratic structure and propensity for “pizza and politics” style events, Conservative Associations and Labour constituency parties reported holding many more policy discussion events that us.

What can Liberal Democrats learn from this research? Certainly it reaffirms what we already know: that an active local party is vital to electoral success. Greater income and greater activism comes with a strong local party. This leads to good election results, which itself generates more activity locally in a virtuous circle. Areas where we’ve never campaigned will remain out of our reach until we start, but once momentum is there and an active local party is in place, resources and votes will follow. While the party can and should encourage that from the centre, it will be a bottom-up process driven by local campaigners. Turning local supporters into activists and activists into local party members is the first step.

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One Trackback

  • By No geek is an island » Trauma on Thu 19th October 2006 at 6:47 pm.

    […] In other news, I’ve written a piece for Liberal Democrat Voice analysing from a LibDem perspective Unlock Deomcracy’s new report on local politics. Tags: mobile+phone […]

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