Lib Dem membership: who will reverse the decline?

by Stephen Tall on November 25, 2007

Mark Littlewood’s latest ‘diary’ for the BBC’s Politics Show highlights one of the less welcome stats exposed by the current leadership contest:

The number of ballot papers issued – less than 65,000 – shows the party has lost more than 10% of its members since Ming Campbell was elected last Spring and now has less than 100 members per Parliamentary constituency.

Protestations from the Liberal Democrats that all political parties are witnessing declining membership and that last year’s total was artificially boosted – because it came so soon after a General Election – are not wholly convincing.

Back in 1999, when Charles Kennedy was elected leader, membership stood at over 82,000.

For a party that prides itself on its grassroots support, the new leader will need to reverse this alarming drop-off in fee-paying members.

It is not simply a challenge to the leader, of course (though whoever we choose next month will be the most visible face of the party) – the Party President will also play a key part in addressing this big fall-off in membership.

Next year’s presidential election – and at least three candidates seem likely to stand – will attract even less media attention than the current leadership battle. But for the party in the country at large, it will be important all the same. The 20% drop in membership since ’99 highlights quite what a task faces us.


Has anyone seen (and cried over) Our Friends in the North? In the first episode, Nicky talks about it being “about time I joined t’party” meaning the Labour Party. We don’t have that sort of instinctive, traditional thick-and-thin base that the other two parties have – or not on their scale. This, I imagine, makes us especially vulnerable to two things: (1) attrition (less nicely death) of the bulky older generation (I mean all you older people as a generation are bulky in the party, not you yourselves are bulky :-D) and (2) protest leavers.

We should address the whole question of “party membership” in a different way. Maybe party membership just isn’t the focus that serves us best. We supposedly pride ourselves on being a grassroots movement as much as a party, after all. Mention has been made on these pages before of the American notion of signing up as a supporter, not a member. Certainly I’d have done this years ago if the option had been there.

The supporter idea could contain within it a grain of dissidence. I think one of the things that puts people off joining a party (certainly it always put me off) is the idea that once joined, you can never dissent or question. Instead of inviting people to “join” us, perhaps we need to invite people to judge us, and be part of a specific group who are interested in assessing our record. The hope would be that they are subsequently moved to join.

by Alix on November 25, 2007 at 9:17 pm. Reply #

Although I respect Ming Campbell and the dedication he applied as leader of the party, he had one fatal flaw; a total inability to inspire the membership of the party, exemplified by his disasterous support for replacing Trident.
A new leader is just what the party needs. We need a visionary to lead the party, and both candidates will be a big improvement.
It is not a panacea however. What we do locally continues to be very important in the success for the party.

by Geoffrey Payne on November 25, 2007 at 9:43 pm. Reply #

Perhaps it would be good if HQ could ask local parties for access to the local supporters’ lists that many parties have? I know that in my borough, the supporters’ list is about twice as long as the membership list. These people display posters, donate money and deliver Focuses – these are the people that Alix refers to.

by Grammar PCSO on November 25, 2007 at 10:08 pm. Reply #

Of course Simon Hughes pledged to double the party’s membership as part of his manifesto when he first stood for president.

by Dan Falchikov on November 25, 2007 at 10:09 pm. Reply #

I think it’s already possible to register as a ‘supporter’, by signing up for any of our petitions online. Pretty much any opportunity to give your e-mail address also involves the option of ticking a box to be kept informed of what the party is up to.

On a local level, I suspect plenty of people have successful local strategies for boosting membership, so we need to ensure that this best practice is replicated elsewhere.

by Rob Knight on November 25, 2007 at 10:10 pm. Reply #

Grammar, could one usefully mailshot the supporters with something very targeted and plain English – “In the past you have expressed support for our party – thank you! – so we thought you might like to know more about what we do and believe in, and have a chance to express your opinion. Here are five national policy priorities: etc. Here are five local policy priorities: etc”

And have ratings for each one. And finish up with a question about whether they’d ever consider becoming members. The idea would be to give them an inkling of the fact that they would actually have a say in these things as members, whereas the focus is very much about handing over information.

Scraped my knuckles on an evil letterbox earlier 🙁

by Alix on November 25, 2007 at 10:24 pm. Reply #

Sorry, that should be capital F Focus in the third-to-last line.

by Alix on November 25, 2007 at 10:25 pm. Reply #

Last year I raised the whole issue of the membership strategy at the Federal Executive and was told it was a state party matter, although we did go on to have a discussion about it.

by Meral Ece on November 25, 2007 at 10:31 pm. Reply #

Lol. Letterbox scrapes never good: yes, we do letters very simlar to that . . .

by Grammar Police on November 25, 2007 at 10:31 pm. Reply #

Maybe if people stop falling out with each other in our party people will stop resigning

by Pob on November 25, 2007 at 10:32 pm. Reply #

So lets all hug each other and go canvassing for members! ;@)

by Pob on November 25, 2007 at 10:33 pm. Reply #

Bum. That’s me all out of ideas then.

by Alix on November 25, 2007 at 10:38 pm. Reply #

Maybe if we all resign and start again from scratch?!!

by Pob on November 25, 2007 at 10:42 pm. Reply #

Alix, your suggestions are of course behind the (sensible) moves to incorporate direct mail into our campaigning arsenal. Direct mail allows you to target certain classes of individuals with certain messages and invite a response that’s more likely to be picked up on.

Changing the topic slightly: it’s not just about getting members. Members are one thing, but active members are another.

A suprising number of people join a political party to express support for it, but expect everything else to be organised, campaigned on, put into a Focus etc by Someone Else Who Is Expected To Do It (SEWIETDI). Sadly, finding a decent number of SEWIETDIs is even more difficult than finding members.

by Grammar Police on November 25, 2007 at 10:42 pm. Reply #

Pob – we all need to resign, join Labour or Tories, whichever takes your fancy, and then resign en masse at an agreed time to create a new party. Might actually capture people’s interest!!!

by Grammar Police on November 25, 2007 at 10:46 pm. Reply #

I raised the whole issue of the membership strategy at the Federal Executive and was told it was a state party matter,

Which works fine (maybe) in Wales and Scotland, but England doesn’t really have a State structure or conference set up–do we have an ‘English Leader’ for example?

Renewing membership and promoting support is something that has to be done–of course, making sure we’ve got the infrastructure and resources at Cowley St to deal with any campaign would also be essential.

Which is something I’ll try to ask about at Hustings if I get the chance Tuesday (if I manage to make it)

by MatGB on November 25, 2007 at 10:48 pm. Reply #

Bit like the SDP only even more ruthless? ;@)

by Pob on November 25, 2007 at 10:48 pm. Reply #

Exactly; although not as ruthless as dating Tories . . . :oO

by Grammar Police on November 25, 2007 at 10:53 pm. Reply #

I don’t go out of my way to find tories!! No-one Lib Dem ever fancies me it’s not my fault!!

My first boyfriend was a socialist…

by Pob on November 25, 2007 at 10:56 pm. Reply #

Mat (at 16) “do we have an ‘English Leader’ for example?”

Kind of: the Chair of the Party in England – elected by English Council. Automatically becomes one of the three Federal Vice Presidents.

Membership recruitment needs to be a campaign as much as Green Tax or Post Offices etc.

by Stephen Robinson on November 25, 2007 at 11:17 pm. Reply #

you need to look at what happens to people when they do become members. not everyone equates joining a political party with not much more than being an unpaid postman, for e.g.

and yes, the last two years must have taken a toll.

by john in warwick on November 25, 2007 at 11:46 pm. Reply #

But don’t assume that just because people don’t want to be unpaid postmen that they actually want to do anything!

Aw, poor Jo! :o( You wouldn’t want a Lib Dem date: they’d just talk about Focus leaflets and STV!

by Grammar Police on November 26, 2007 at 12:15 am. Reply #

You have lost another member.

by Guido Fawkes on November 26, 2007 at 8:18 am. Reply #

Why aren’t Constituencies advised by Cowley Street of supporters who sign up on the website? They could then be asked to join or help locally.

by TimberWolf on November 26, 2007 at 8:29 am. Reply #

TimberWolf: they are. Details are included in the next membership secretary mailing after they’ve joined.

The members themselves are also both emailed and written to by Membership Services with (along with membership card etc) details of how to get involved locally.

Though nothing really beats the personal local touch of a follow up from someone in the local party.

by Mark Pack on November 26, 2007 at 8:42 am. Reply #

Recruitment’s ultimately pretty straightforward – when a local party mounts a determined membership drive from canvass returns, at street events and with friends of friends the size of the party grows (and some local parties are very good at this); When they don’t the party gradually sinks.

To really spend effort on recruitment there needs to be a sense that more members are urgently needed – I suspect this is where the problem comes in.

by Peter Bancroft on November 26, 2007 at 9:29 am. Reply #

I’m with the poster above – sorry – I didn’t realise I had to pay for councillors I don’t particularly want to be elected, deliver Focus, and bombard complete strangers with phone calls at every by-election.

So far I’ve had phone calls asking for me to pay for and volunteer to deliver leaflets in a town an hours drive away supporting councillors I’ve never heard of in a by-election in a town I don’t live or even shop in. I’ve shelled out extra donations for 2 leadership elections.

Funny – that the local and national party are so quick to ask for me to do the drudge work, but nobody can be bothered to ask my opinion on anything ever (with the exception of Nick Cleggs campaign asking me who I’ll vote for) – we have a local representative for each conference, but no information is provided on the local party website, and we’re certainly not notified about it let alone asked if we have any strong feelings.

The conferences themselves don’t allow anyone to participate unless they attend – why can’t we have block votes from each local party – or submit input online in advance – or even poll members on major issues?


I feel like I have to give up the little spare time I have to deliver leaflets, attend every meeting, pay for by-elections and make invasive phone calls to fed up people living in by-election wards to have a say, and that’s not really encouraging..

It’s like the activists and campaigners just want us “less active members” to just shut up, lick stamps and pay our donations.

by Aaron Trevena on November 26, 2007 at 10:19 am. Reply #

How come Simon Hughes was not held accountable for failing to meet his promise to double membership? Why is that not a topic at the next Conference?

Hughes promised and failed.

by jim on November 26, 2007 at 10:25 am. Reply #

26 – Peter is quite right. We recruit members when local parties organise recruitment activity, we decline when they don’t.

What the national party needs to do is to ensure that activists have the materials and training to do the job.

What the leadership needs to do is inspire activists to make it a priority. Paddy did this very well in the mid-nineties but there hasn’t been much push since.

by Sam on November 26, 2007 at 10:26 am. Reply #

Aaron at 27; activists often want armchair members to become active by doing something that interests them. And God knows, I’ve spent the best part of two years trying to involve more members in the work of my local party.

To be honest, I’m personally fed up of being told by armchair members that the party isn’t doing enough of this, that or the other (we actually try to encourage communication from members, so I suppose I shouldn’t complain). I give up quite a large proportion of my free time to do this for little reward and even fewer thanks; when members complain that they never get leaflets from us I’m tempted to ask just how many they’re volunteering to write, design and deliver themselves – not to mention actually do the campaigning and casework that one puts in a Focus?

All I’ll say to armchair members who don’t think their activists are doing it right: tell them what you want to do to get involved yourself (no matter how large or small or how niche) – by and large, they’ll welcome you with open arms.
What I want to do is make life just that tiny bit better in my part of South West London, but I can’t do it alone, and so I don’t just want armchair members to shut up, I want them to shout out.

by Grammar Police on November 26, 2007 at 10:49 am. Reply #

I hate to be a bore (well, no I don’t actually) but I have spent much of the past month arguing here and in the members only forum that the key question for the two leadership candidates is what they are going to do about the party, membership, organisation, tactics and electoral strategy. I’m still none the wiser and to date both candidates have failed to address these issues here or anywhere else for that matter. I’m not seeking details, just a commitment to do something about it.

I do, however, now know where they stand on every pointed-headed bit of policy wonking.

But unless the party is better organised, that’s all pretty academic isn’t it?

by Martin Land on November 26, 2007 at 11:00 am. Reply #

In answer to Aaron Trevena and others. The Liberal Democrats are what you make of them. For a local party to be successful there are a lot of jobs to be done. Not all of them are the kind of jobs that produce queues of people who are waiting their turn. One of those jobs is to phone up members asking them to do things.
Now anything you do should certainly be appreciated by the party. But everything is done by volunteers and ultimately we are all self-motivating.
Simon “promised” a doubling of the membership, which when he was elected president may have been possible with a popular national leader of the party, and a popular opposition to the war in Iraq.
Times have moved on – and are moving on. With a new leader, it may be possible again, but Simon alone is not going to do it.
He has to persuade you to go out and do it.
It is not the job of the party leader to reorganise Cowley Street, but nationally it is very important the party sorts out it’s membership department. It should not be an effort to join and be put in touch with your local party.

by Geoffrey Payne on November 26, 2007 at 11:14 am. Reply #

Mark Pack (25)
Constituencies are advised of new members who have joined centrally, but are people who have indicated they support the party, but do not join?

by TimberWolf on November 26, 2007 at 11:37 am. Reply #

At this rate there will have to be cut backs in Cowley street.

Geoffrey, Simon failed on his election promise. No ifs or buts.

by jim on November 26, 2007 at 11:50 am. Reply #

TimberWolf: some, but not everyone (depends on the exact circumstances) – and it’s a fair point that this is an area we should (and will) improve on in future.

by Mark Pack on November 26, 2007 at 11:57 am. Reply #

I think as soon as you become tired or weary of voluntary work it looks much better if you give it up entirely instead of moaning constantly about it. I have a few unpaid posts which I love passionately and wouldn’t dream of complaining about.

I made this mistake a year ago so gave myself a year off. Now when i volunteer I take it much more seriously and try to put myself in positions that strongly exploit my interest and skills.

If you don’t want to deliver leaflets or fold letters don’t do it – try and think of something else to do that exploits your skills. If you get this annoyed as a volunteer it looks unprofessional and people internally and externally will notice your attitude. A lot like a paid job really ;@)

by Jo A on November 26, 2007 at 12:43 pm. Reply #

Quite right Jo A – volunteers can burn out too.

You know that programme called “Grumpy Old Men”? There really should be one called “Grumpy Old Councillors”.
I found it really difficult to enthuse new young members in my Home Counties’ seat because of the negativity of some of the older members. To give an example, in the May elections we had a new activist (aged 17) operating EARS. Bringing in the numbers was my thirty-something brother whizzing round polling stations with his 18 month-old daughter. The three of them were a dynamic little team working their socks off.

But, oh woe, in that very same committee room (at 7pm when the youngsters were doing their stuff) lurked the grumpy old councillors. Three of them sat sipping tea and moaning about Ming and saying how great Cameron is. The sort of people who think you shouldn’t knock up before four (or after six for that matter).

I am afraid that some of our local parties act as little more than a glorified day centre – even on election day.

by Ruth Bright on November 27, 2007 at 2:07 pm. Reply #

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