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

by Stephen Tall on July 31, 2008

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?