Membership of political parties –from mass movements to freakish oddities?

The news in today’s Telegraph that the Labour party’s membership is now at its lowest in a hundred years is a stark wake-up call for the governing party (and doubtless will in the well-worn cliché of tired journalistic prose “add to the pressure on the Prime Minister”). From 400,000 at the height of Tony Blair’s popularity to just 177,000 today – that’s some drop.

But let’s put to one side the tribal nonsense for a moment – not least because what’s happening to Labour is reflected more widely.

One of the (perhaps fortunately) ignored stories of the last leadership election was the realisation of how far the Lib Dems’ membership has dipped in the last decade. When the post-merger party was formed, in 1988, the Lib Dems had just over 80,000 members, reaching a high of over 100,000 by 1994. We were hit hard by the Blair effect – by 1999, membership was down by one-fifth, at almost 83,000 – and it has kept falling ever since: 72,000 by 2006, and just 64,000 today. (Figures available here).

It’s harder to trace the fall in Tory membership, as they don’t publish figures. From newspaper reports it seems the party’s membership was c.400,000 in 1997, the most miserable year in the party’s electoral history – since when it has fallen by more than one-quarter: to 325,000 under William Hague, to 290,000 under David Cameron. Indeed, though great play was made of the boost Mr Cameron gave party membership, Tory membership is reportedly lower today than it was when he was first elected leader. So much for his ‘Blair effect’.

But to personalise this is beside the point – the picture is a general one and applies to all three mainstream political parties: the days of mass party membership is over. Those who are members of political parties, and certainly active members, are becoming peculiar oddities in society.

There are many reasons why this is the case. 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.

This matters greatly for the parties themselves, as they become more and more financially dependent on fewer and fewer people – which is precisely why it matters also for wider society. It’s interesting to contrast the British experience with what’s happening in the US, and the trail-blazing success of Barack Obama in harnessing the power of the internet to create a mass online movement, largely eschewing special interests.

Is it that political parties in the UK are just too dull to achieve what Senator Obama has? Or is it that the British public is just too damn cynical?

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This entry was posted in News, Op-eds and Party policy and internal matters.
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27 Comments

  • Grammar Police 31st Jul '08 - 1:14pm

    I agree with the above Rob, although no one is ever going to agree with every policy a party has – nor is any human being capable of understanding, or having a view on every conceivable issue that a Party needs policy on. Membership has to be about agreeing with the broad theme/narrative of the party and the underlying core values – individual policies should reflect those core values.

  • “This matters greatly for the parties themselves, as they become more and more financially dependent on fewer and fewer people …”

    I’d suggest that falling membership matters more for us than the other two, as we don’t have access to sources of corporate funding in the same way that they do – and also because we rely on an active membership to counter the greater attention paid by the media to the other parties.

  • Remember, people much be offered the chance to become more than a Focus deliverer!

  • “This matters greatly for the parties themselves, as they become more and more financially dependent on fewer and fewer people …”

    It’s not just financial dependence.

    Members of a political parties get to do a lot of important things.

    We get to choose who are going to be candidates at all levels and where we are in power that means we get to choose those who make the decisions about how are takes are going to be spent.

    If you are a member of the Labour Party or Tories you could also get an opportunity (although not just by being a member)to choose the Prime Minister.

    If membership is falling and if it is getting less representative of people then there is danger that we will fail to take into account what the electorate want in terms of who are canddaites etc.

    I used to work with a guy who said that he never forgave the Torie for getting rid of Margaret Thatcher; he thought that the public should have made that decision. My response/retort was to suggest that he should join the party if he wanted to decide who was going to be the Tory leader.

    But if being a member of a poitical party, let alone an active one, becomes such a minority occupation so that many people never ever meet a party member of any hue in their life time, then we are in danger of risking a democratic deficit.

  • Membership is a serious issue. As an active member, before the merger, I know that the old personal membership subscription collecting procedure had its defects(there was no centralised list) but with a low membership sub it was possible to enrol many more members. Inviting many folk to join I realise that £10 and more is often considered a considerable amount.(Especially if we are campaigning for the support of the not so affluent in target Labour seats).
    How can we have a more variable basic fee and so encourage once again a “mass, popular
    membership” ?

    Someone, somewhere, might have the answer !

  • It is increasingly difficult to persuade people to join or work for a party (any party) when they discover that a large proprtion of their fellow activists actually derive a substantial income from their political activities. We are all familiar with the career path. Student activist becomes councillor (kerching) becomes chair of scrutiny committee (kerching again) bounces around a few public affairs or charity jobs (yet more cash) or lands an easy number as a researcher to an MP, MSP or AM. Why should an ordinary punter pay a fee to support a bunch of callow kids , with little life experience, raking it in at the public’s expense?

  • Why should anyone join a political party when it is demeaned on the one hand by political leaderships who are more interested in triangulation and opposing the membership and degraded on the other hand by political leaderships who are interested in picking a fight with non-members?

    Democratic participation is being squeezed between these two inflexible authoritarian views endorsed by consecutive Labour and Conservative administrations (and their ‘strong’ leaders).

    Thatcherism and the New Labour project need to be held to account for the damage they’ve done to our democratic institutions and the only way to do that is to provide a suitably inclusive and liberal alternative.

  • A couple of comments, firstly, I believe membership is down to how much effort the party puts into recruiting people. We could boost our membership significantly if we made that our top priority and got out there and campaigned in the right way and followed up on potential members. Our joining costs are not that high now.

    Second, I note from the published figures that the Tory party membership income was just over £1.25 million last year – that tells me that they have a big problem – the numbers that they claim to be members are a lot more than we would count. Must include a large numbre who have ‘lapsed’ and not paid a bean for a few years….

    I feel we should be making members a priority and supporters too – and also build an active base of those who help and support but aren’t yet members, and communicate with them – that will help us win campaigns in the future…

  • Grammar Police 1st Aug '08 - 10:26am

    Ash – neither backbench councillors nor MPs’ research staff earn a lot of money.

    It’s certainly not something to do if you’re only in it for the pay (and I speak as someone who is neither a councillor nor Party employee).

  • Peter Chapman 1st Aug '08 - 11:41am

    I think one reason the Lib Dem membership fell substantialy a few years ago was poor quality telephone cash appeals to members .It certainly alienated many older supporters who wanted rapport and interaction with real people not a distant telphone call from someone they didnt know and had been poorly trained in rapport building.Has this happened in other parties too?

  • Hywel Morgan 1st Aug '08 - 1:14pm

    “Ash – neither backbench councillors…. earn a lot of money.”

    Some Mets pay £10-11k as a basic allowance. I agree that no-one does it only for the pay but likewise nor can you describe it as not being “a lot of money”.

  • Grammar Police 1st Aug '08 - 1:38pm

    It’s not “a lot of money” if it’s all you’ve got to live off (obviously, many councillors have a full-time job on top).

    Ash was implying that people obviously do it for the cash (“kerching”!). I don’t think that’s the case. And probably for the hours put in, the hassle and the thankless nature of much of the work, I’m sure it doesn’t feel like a lot of money.

  • When I first started surveying, canvassing and registering voters I remember being asked how much I was being paid to do it and seen the genuine shock that anyone might actually be prepared to volunteer to go out come rain or shine for something they thought was covered by their council tax.

    I’ve also intermittently had friendly responses on the doorstep to help deliver our leaflets turn ugly when it became clear that we aren’t a commercial operation.

    It’s no wonder many people get confused by politics.

  • Anthony makes an important point about attracting ‘normal’ people… We mustn’t alienate new members/ activists with unrealistic expectations about the amount of time they will put into politics- if we make it an “all or nothing” equation, people with busy lives will drop politics, not their lives…!

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