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?

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We tend to assume that political activism is per se a good thing, and approach this issue from a ‘what is going wrong?’ perspective.

Perhaps most people simply dislike the power-game that is politics and wish to get on with their lives without interference nor the desire to interfere with others.

If so, is this a bad thing? I don’t think it is.

by Julian H on July 31, 2008 at 12:19 pm. Reply #

It might – perversely – be a factor of *improved* political education? I’m a LD supporter, but won’t join a political party on principle – not because “they’re all b******s”, but because I feel I can’t sign up to beliefs in advance. With all the maneuvering going on, people aren’t sure what parties stand for. A member of my own family was a LD member for about 3 months before he had to resign in protest at something!

Also I truly believe that we lack conviction politicians who are prepared to annoy the tabloids for their principles. Say what you like about Margarer Thatcher and Michael Foot; they engaged in real politics, and galvanised real passions. Today’s choices are more like ice-cream flavours than political paradigms.

by Rob Stradling on July 31, 2008 at 12:43 pm. Reply #

I’m sceptical of the view that Party membership must inevitably fall.

Membership falls if fewer people join than lapse (or resign or die). It wouldn’t take a vast increase in recruitment for any of the parties to see their membership rising overall.

The political situation has obviously caused problems for Labour and to be honest they will be screwed for a few more years.

I wonder if the Conservatives’ problem has more been the passing of the idea that one is a member of the Conservative purely as a social thing…

by Chris Keating on July 31, 2008 at 1:11 pm. Reply #

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.

by Grammar Police on July 31, 2008 at 1:14 pm. Reply #

Dude, are you calling me a freak?

OK, fair cop…

For what it’s worth, I think that people don’t feel the need to join political parties because:

a) they see them as homogeneous, all trying to claim ownership of the same liberal middle ground

b)over the last twenty years or so there have been seismic cultural shifts away from traditional roles, jobs and even pastimes. There isn’t much of a group mentality anywhere anymore – you won’t get people who have all worked together for years in the same job, or people who all go to the same pub every night, so the banding-together doesn’t come about as much as it once did. It’s not just political parties that are suffering a huge decline in membership – it encompasses sporting teams, community ventures, the lot.

by Steph Ashley on July 31, 2008 at 1:17 pm. Reply #

Good article and interesting discussion.

Rob – this is a common reason given for why people aren’t prepared to join parties, so it obviously has some traction. However personally I have never understood how joining up to a political party is saying that you unreservedly commit to every sentence in our many dozens of policy documents. This clearly isn’t true of probably any member of any political party. Joining a party is saying that you support it and its approach to issues. I think the fact people say this more often reflects the general distrust of politicians, but on scrutiny I don’t think that as a legitimate reason it actually stacks up.

Julian H – I do think that being politically engaged is a good thing, and in fact a duty. Of course it’s easy to see how people are turned off by the ‘game’ of politics, but “politics” is in fact the business of regulating how we all relate to each other, as people who find ourselves placed on this planet and in communities together. It’s important! And so I do think it’s a duty for everyone to engage in politics – certainly anyone who doesn’t is not entitled to complain if they don’t engage and their fellow citizens or the state then decides to do things to them (demand higher tax, conscript them to the military, even decide that it is in the interests of the state to terminate their lives).

Clearly not everyone is going to do this engagement by joining a political party – but absolutely I think political engagement is a good thing, and indeed a moral duty.

by Jeremy Hargreaves on July 31, 2008 at 1:36 pm. Reply #

“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.

by Anonymous on July 31, 2008 at 2:12 pm. Reply #

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

by Biodiesel on July 31, 2008 at 2:23 pm. Reply #

“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.

by Anonymous on July 31, 2008 at 2:28 pm. Reply #

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 !

by Roberts on July 31, 2008 at 4:10 pm. Reply #

Well, we do, Robert. Anyone who is either receiving benefits or reliant on the state pension (or is a student or under 26) can join for only £6.

I am not sure that money is necessarily the issue. Many organisations have higher subscription rates and a much bigger membership than us. That’s not to say I would necessarily want to see our subscription go up massively, but it does illustrate that money is not the only issue.

by Chris Keating on July 31, 2008 at 4:18 pm. Reply #

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?

by ash on July 31, 2008 at 8:15 pm. Reply #

The blame lies firmly with political parties who are engaging with smaller and smaller groups of people – the first party out of the blocks to genuinely engage with groups that have been disenfranchised – particularly in demographics that tend to be more politically active – will reap massive rewards.

The decline in party support becomes a never ending spiral – the more select the group that are ‘inside’ the less people outside are hearing the party’s message. I could write a long essay here about how to engage people in politics but it’s really not worth the effort – the information is out there we’re just not using it.

There are countless books etc. but really you just have to glance over the atlantic to see how it should be done. Although from past experience I’m guessing the party will do that and then implement it in a half-arsed way because we can’t spare the funds to do it properly.

by Letterman on July 31, 2008 at 8:27 pm. Reply #

@Letterman: Which are these disenfranchised yet politically active demographics? How do we find them? How do we engage with them?

by Chris Keating on July 31, 2008 at 8:31 pm. Reply #

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.

by Oranjepan on July 31, 2008 at 8:59 pm. Reply #

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…

by Paul L on August 1, 2008 at 8:52 am. Reply #

Rob S hits nail on head I think – liberals with a small-l are not the sort of people who naturally sign up to clubs. It was the blogosphere wot won me over and maybe that’s because, in marketing speak, it provided me with “voice” to express any discontent whereas people who don’t get involved online only have “exit”.

In which case, a falling membership across the parties might reflect a similar unwillingness to nail one’s trousers to any particular mast. Which, ironically, might suggest people are getting more individualistic and small-l liberal.

by Alix on August 1, 2008 at 9:19 am. Reply #

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).

by Grammar Police on August 1, 2008 at 10:26 am. Reply #

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?

by Peter Chapman on August 1, 2008 at 11:41 am. Reply #

“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”.

by Hywel Morgan on August 1, 2008 at 1:14 pm. Reply #

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.

by Grammar Police on August 1, 2008 at 1:38 pm. Reply #

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.

by Oranjepan on August 1, 2008 at 1:53 pm. Reply #

I think that this discussion has actually missed the wider significance of declining membership numbers. In 1980 it was estimated that there were almost 1.7 million party members in total; this had reduced to around 840,000 in 1998, and now sits at around 600,000 including the minor parties.

So, whereas roughly 3% of the population were political party members in 1980, in just 28 years this has plummeted to around 1%.

But even these shocking numbers hide what a desperate state our political parties are really in. In reality just 10%-20% of members are activists. The party activists form the core pool from which a party must select its councillors, MPs, MEPs and so on.

The less activists there are who are willing to stand for election, the poorer the quality and choice of candidates, for all parties. Given the collection of freaks, madmen and obsessives that parties attract as activists, the pool of ‘normal’ people is looking increasingly inadequate.

Britain is facing a crisis – the quality of our politicians is dropping right across the board. Unless that is dealt with soon, and the decline continues, we simply won’t have enough people of calibre to run the country. The only solution then will be to reduce the number of politicians and increase the number of appointees and bureaucrats to replace them. In otherwords, democracy itself is under threat.

by Anthony Butcher on August 4, 2008 at 5:20 pm. Reply #

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…!

by Dinti on August 5, 2008 at 10:43 am. Reply #

I don’t know how we can replicate the American experience – they are far more willing to get involved and make donations to parties.

The problem is that it is a downward spiral; the higher the concentration of freaks, cronies, idiots and trough-feeders, the more it puts people off politics… and the less normal people join parties, thus making the problem worse.

Politics itself needs rebranding. The only solution I can see is making civic involvement (parties, charities, social groups) intrinsic to school life from an early age. Get pupils involved in weekly political debates and have political parties in every school. Kids could be encouraged to set up their own school parties and debate issues relevant to them etc.

by Anthony Butcher on August 5, 2008 at 12:59 pm. Reply #

People are not interested in joining political parties because they are disillusioned with politics. Governments take more and more in taxes, raid pension funds and yet our governmental departments and organisations are unable to deliver the services they are supposed to. We have a Home Office that is unable to deport terrorists but pays them state benefits; the NHS takes on more administrators whilst making nurses and midwives redundant (because they cannot afford them).
The tax credit and pension credit system creates more poverty than it alleviates. And locks recipients into a poverty trap. All the credit system does is subsidise skinflint companies.
No wonder people have given up on politics and politicians.

by Bob Wootton on August 5, 2008 at 5:00 pm. Reply #

The more people who give up on it though, the worse it gets.

We need the opposite to happen; when people get fed up they should join a political party and try to change it from within, or campaign for another party.

Perhaps we need to rebrand the concept of ‘giving up on politics’ – what people are actually doing is supporting the status quo. In other words, if they aren’t doing anything about it, they are part of the problem. Don’t let people abrogate their democratic responsibilities.

by Anthony Butcher on August 5, 2008 at 5:09 pm. Reply #

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