The Lib Dem membership slump: how it compares and how we can respond

by Stephen Tall on August 6, 2012

The Lib Dems published its statement of accounts this week, including the most recent membership figure for the calendar year 2011. If you don’t want to know the score, look away now…

As at 31 December, 2011, there were 48,934 Lib Dem members. That’s 25% down on the previous year, 2010, when there were c.65,000 members. True, that figure was inflated by the ‘Cleggmania’ of the 2010 election and the initial excitement of the Coalition, but it is still down 17% compared to the pre-election year, 2009.

Though this is by some way the sharpest recorded decline in the modern party’s membership, it is also the continuation of that decline, as this graph of Lib Dem membership data shows:

And it’s not a trend restricted to the Lib Dems. The Conservative and Labour parties have also witnessed big historic declines in membership, as this graph shows:

And in case you were wondering how this compares with similar European countries to the UK — while our figures are lowest, they are not too dissimilar to France, Germany or the Netherlands:

Does this decline mean the UK population is disengaged from involvement in society? Not if the membership figures for other campaigning/charitable organisations are anything to go by:

Why the general decline?

The specific reasons for the Lib Dems’ recent membership dive is easily explained: the coalition was controversial, the party’s role in government even more so. And given these latest figures pre-date the NHS reforms ruckus, the current figure is likely to be lower still.

But why the more general decline of which the Lib Dem dip is part? Four years ago on LibDemVoice – Membership of political parties –from mass movements to freakish oddities? – I suggested some reasons:

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.

Some additional reasons are offered by Feargal McGuinness in his Parliamentary briefing paper (from which the graphs above are taken), Membership of UK political parties:

The decline in party membership has been attributed both to a shortage of potential party members and to parties’ decreasing need for members. The argument that there is a reduced supply of potential members is based upon the emergence of other political or campaigning organisations that are competing with parties for members; increased pressures on people’s time, whether from employment or leisure; or demographic changes including the decline of traditional working-class communities and growth of the suburbs.

On the other hand, parties are less reliant on a wide membership network as mass communications allow them to reach voters directly. Funds gathered from wealthy donors and the state make parties less dependent on individual members’ subscriptions and small donations. Parties may even see a vocal membership as an electoral liability.

How to respond to this decline?

Is the conclusion to be drawn from all this that parties no longer need members that much while the public is disengaged from parties? That may be a leap too far, as Mark Pack noted in a LibDemVoice article – Myths about party membership – in 2008:

… whilst people are absolutely right to emphasise the importance of building up the party’s membership, we also need to recognise that the strength of modern political parties’ organisation increasingly lies outside the formal definition of membership. For a range of reasons, membership of political parties is much less appealing now than it used to be. But much activity – including attendance at policy discussion events, delivering literature, putting up posters and talking to neighbours – can also be done by supporters who are not (yet) members. … That is why the answer to building up the party’s grassroots strength lies not just in recruiting more members but also building up the wider network of supporters – regardless of one’s views as to how formal or otherwise their status in the party should be.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.