Membership matters: Are Lib Dems really ahead of the Tories? And if so, is that good enough?

One of Vince Cable’s stated aims as leader was to overtake the Tories in terms of party membership. We knew that that was a reasonably tall order, as the last known figure for Tory membership was around 149,000 three years ago. That aim was going to take a wee while to fulfil, we thought. However we were looking at it in terms of us growing. It sounds like we’re already there because the Tory membership has sunk like a stone over the Summer.

David Hencke reports on an interview with a key Conservative campaigner who puts membership at around 100,000 – below our figures:

John Strafford, chairman of the Campaign for Conservative Democracy, in an  eve of conference exclusive interview  on the Tribune magazine website, says the real membership of the party has plummeted to around 100,000- way below the 149,500 figure and 134,000 figure used by the party in 2013.

Mr Strafford said: “The party is facing oblivion. If you take the fact only 10 per cent of the membership is likely to be very active they will not have enough people on the ground to fight an election – they won’t even have enough people to man polling stations on the day.

“They are keeping council seats because often the families of the councillors are campaigning with party members to get them re-elected. They simply don’t have the local resources to do this in a general election.”

The Tories have been notoriously secretive about their party membership. Unlike us, the don’t publish the number in their annual accounts as we did even during the bad times. However, this House of Commons library report published last month gives some interesting facts and figures about trends in political party membership. Over the last 70 years or so, the Tories have had the biggest fall.

The report also highlights how predominantly male and middle class political party membership is across all parties.

Yesterday, Ed Davey called on the Tories to publish their membership figures:

If true, these reports show that on the eve of the Conservative conference the party’s grassroots have lost all faith in Theresa May’s Brexit government. Be it their bungled general election campaign, their disastrous handling of Brexit or their savage treatment of the NHS and schools, this Conservative government has left many life-long Conservatives feeling utterly appalled.

I would appeal to them to join the resurgent Liberal Democrats, who are now the party of economic competence, and who will also fight for decent public services and a safe environment.

If the Conservatives deny these reports then they should publish their latest membership figures as we do, and let the public see the state of the respective parties. What is clear is that while the Conservatives are in serious decline, the Liberal Democrats are on the way back.

And our amazing digital people worked another Saturday to put out an email from Vince. And with our names in the subject line too. Mine was “I’m as surprised as you, Caron.” You definitely want to read that!

Dear Caron,

When I became your leader just over 90 days ago, one of the goals I set was for us to overtake the Conservatives in membership.

Today we may have just done exactly that.

The Conservatives are notoriously secretive about their membership, but it’s beenreported that it’s dropped to “around 100,000”.

That means we have either already surpassed the Conservatives’ membership, or we are about to. The enormity of this cannot be underestimated. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to make sure there is no doubt.

Theresa May’s Tories are in turmoil. And their former members, many of whom are pro Europeans like us need a new home.

Let’s make the Liberal Democrats the second largest British political party. And then from there anything is possible…

Being second isn’t good enough, though. That’s not a criticism of anybody because we have clearly done brilliantly – and our membership department in LDHQ have done an amazing job to drive both membership recruitment and retention. The new Director for People in LDHQ, Rachel Palma Randle, is one of the most positive and dynamic people I have ever come across and she is determined to see us both grow and give our members a really positive experience of being part of a movement that can change this country. It’s no criticism, but it is a call for all of us at the grassroots to be ambitious and to work hard to recruit people.

One member was particularly ambitious in her recruiting attempts this week. Definitely my tweet of the week:

We should be aiming much higher than the Tories’ previously published figure of 149,000. As the only UK wide party in favour of staying in the EU and, as Vince Cable has repeatedly called us, “the party of Remain”, we need to attract like minded people to our cause. We can start today by inspiring people at and those who wish they could be at the #stopBrexitManchester march today. Our Vince is taking our Exit From Brexit message right to the Tories’ front door. Share what he says and invite everyone you know to join us.

We should also explicitly be targeting under-represented groups. Young people are front and centre of our priorities at the moment. Vince Cable has talked a lot about inter-generational inequality and how he plans to fix it by giving 16 and 17 year olds the vote and offering help to all young people after school, not just those who go to university. We need to attract more women to our cause. As Flo Clucas argued the other week, the impact of Brexit on women is going to be particularly hard. We are also way, way too white. We must attract more BME people. We have a whole load of policy that speaks to their needs but they are not hearing our message. A more diverse membership will make the decisions we make as a party better and we should explicitly be going after that.

The House of Commons report shows that only 1.7% of the population are motivated enough to join political parties. For the sake of our country, we need to do something about that. We are facing the biggest crisis that I have seen in my lifetime.

It might well mean that our membership department have to work hard on a Sunday, though – so we should offer them a massive thanks for all that they do.

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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This entry was posted in Op-eds.


  • Does Vince know what the word “enormity” means?

  • Neil Sandison 1st Oct '17 - 1:00pm

    Might be worth mentioning in recruitment literature that Conservative voters now do not see Theresa May leading them into the next general election but expect her to be replaced by a Brexiteer either David Davis or posh boy Mogg and his nanny .Boris is seen as the warm up act not the sucessor .BBC Sunday politics.

  • It is good the Lib Dems are helping young people. I would like to say we should also focus on the concerns of the middle aged who our Party often forgets. If you are middle aged. You may have a young family and be looking after elderly parents. You may also be paying a mortgage. We seem to forget this important demographic. Perhaps we should be also speaking to these people as well.
    Finally we do need more members from ethnic communities.

  • OnceALibDem 1st Oct '17 - 1:24pm

    Whilst increasing membership has its benefits it might perhaps be worth noting that the Lib Dems and Labour went into the 2017 election with record membership, one lost support and the other didn’t come close to winning.

    But you do make yourself look faintly ridiculous with OTT hyperbolic things like this:
    “And our amazing digital people worked another Saturday to put out an email from Vince. And with our names in the subject line too. Mine was “I’m as surprised as you, Caron.” You definitely want to read that!”

    As if that was something new and innovative. A quick trawl through my emails has the first time my name appeared in a subject line in Lib Dem emails was in 2009!

  • OnceaLibDem, I suppose it depends on whether you think of new members as reflective of something appealing to the wider population, of if you think new members can help to shape the party and convey our message to the wider population. Like most things it will be a bit of both, although with social media making joining a political party easier than ever, we aren’t always comparing like with like.

    We increased our presence in the House of Commons, and that’s because we targeted seats, and it’s likely that our new members were involved in helping us to achieve that goal. Of course we’d like to see our vote share increase, but we all know we have an archaic voting system where people are forced to vote tactically, and polling showed that people were voting tactically in record numbers at this election, and any analysis of our vote share has to consider this.

    The Tories have always had a problem whereby they get a disproportionately large amount of their income from non-membership sources. You have to wonder how much say an average member actually has in the direction of the party, and whether any of them feel that their membership actually contributes to anything? Even if I shared their views, I’m not sure I’d see the point in joining.

  • paul barker 1st Oct '17 - 3:07pm

    Right now Labour membership is around 6 times ours ( 7 in London & more than that in Inner London). A reasonable goal might be to get that back to the historical average of around 4:1.
    Its impossible to exagerate the enormity of the Tory decline, from Millions of members in the 50s & 60s, (more than double all the other Parties combined) to third place now. Long term that creates a real crisis for UK Politics, one we can do nothing about. Britain needs a functioning, mainstream Conservative Party & we cant be that Party. We can take a lot Tory voters though.

  • @ paul barker. ” Britain needs a functioning, mainstream Conservative Party”.

    Like it needs a hole in the head

    – but your kindness and generosity do you credit. I doubt it would be reciprocated though.

  • Peter Watson 1st Oct '17 - 3:34pm

    What is the most recent report of Lib Dem membership numbers?
    After the EU Referendum and in the run-up to the General Election in June there seemed to be regular updates. Has the number of members continued to rise? Has it been affected by the membership of those who joined in the aftermath of the Referendum starting to come up for renewal in the months since the General Election?

  • David Raw, to be fair Paul Barker makes a valid poibt. A functioning Conservative Party can provide a home for the whole spectrum of right wibg views and keep erstwhile UKIPers within the tent.

  • David Evershed 1st Oct '17 - 7:17pm

    The best way to increase the membership seems to be to lose referendums and general elections.

    Not really recommended.

  • I hate to strike a discordant note, among all this self congratulation, but apart from the symbolic significance, is a really such a big deal that we have managed to sign up more members than the Tories.
    Do we have a plan to use all these eager new people, apart from regular requests for more cash ? If only 10 per cent of Tory members are active, what will the figure be for us ? (At this point, can I refere you to Paddy Ashdown’s Dangerous Idea#3).
    SImilarly, I can see this debate descending into much soul searching as to why we don’t have more women/BAME members. May I respectfully suggest that if dealt with the democratic deficit in our party, we would find people from all sections of society drifting in our direction.

  • David Evershed 2nd Oct '17 - 11:16am

    Once the Salesforce membership system is correctly organised and operated we are going to find that membership has peaked.

    Many members who joined in the surges in 2015 and 2016 are cancelling direct debits and recurring card payments, so not renewing. But they remain as active members on the system despite having lapsed more than the three months leeway, thus artificially bloating the numbers.

  • Andrew McCaig 2nd Oct '17 - 1:30pm

    David Evershed

    Correct… Salesforce is not deleting lapsed members very assiduously

  • Correct… Salesforce is not deleting lapsed members very assiduously

    Err no, it would seem from David Evershed’s posting that Salesforce is not being updated with details of non-renewals. Also, there is a question as to whether lapsed members are being correctly flagged and that active membership reports are collating the correct dataset ie. they exclude lapsed members.

    Generally as Salesforce is a Sales/CRM system , data doesn’t get deleted, just labelled and periodically flushed (eg. deaths). I suggest you don’t really want to delete lapsed memberships as these may be people who could be persuaded to rejoin.

  • John Strafford has revealed that only 10% of Conservative members are actively involved. So please don’t tell him that Lib Dems manage to mobilise a considerably higher percentage of their members and non-member supporters than that. I won’t put a figure to it in a public space but in my local party it was substantially larger than that. It was also noticeable in June that the local Tories (who currently run the Council) did not have enough local people to cover all the telling, and a lot of their delivery was paid for.

  • Simon Banks 2nd Nov '17 - 9:10am

    Enormity = appalling evil – not very big size.

    I like Fiona’s points. The way we’ve engaged and made best use of new members has been uneven and in particular, we should be using our numbers more effectively on social media. We should, though, accept that if you treble membership it’s likely the proportion of people willing to be activists will drop though the number of activists will increase.

    Unfortunately at present the Party’s central membership function (in England at least) is in a mess and local parties are getting blamed for chasing people to renew who left a couple of years ago or chasing renewals from people who renewed months back, while new members who join centrally do not get notified for months, so can’t get contacted by the local party. Action is being taken on this, but it means we probably don’t actually know what our total membership is.

  • Richard Underhill 18th Mar '18 - 1:06pm

    Please see ITV’s Peston on Sunday “Geek of the week”, repeated Sunday evening 22.20 – 22.35. Tory figure 124,000. Tory chairman interviewed. Sources unclear, addition of all the local parties? Counting method consistent?

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