My column for ConHome: I’m holding on to my Lib Dem membership card. But what membership means is going to have to change

by Stephen Tall on August 14, 2013

con home cartoonMy fourth column for ConservativeHome — The Other Side — ran yesterday. You can read it here (and enjoy the comments from readers who aren’t, in the main, Lib Dems) or below. I’m enjoying the gig, and kudos to ConHome’s editor Paul Goodman for allowing a Lib Dem a regular slot on the site.

I’m a card-carrying party member. Are you? If so, then welcome to the club, along with our fellow freakish oddballs. The credit card-sized bit of laminated yellow card which I pointlessly keep in my wallet at all times marks me out as a member of a fast disappearing tribe: someone who voluntarily gives my preferred political party not only my vote at each election, but also some of my own money each year.

In the 1950s, it’s reckoned there were well over four million of us eccentrics out there. Today, it’s not even 400,000. At this rate of decline, we’ll all be able to fit into Wembley stadium in a few short years. That would at least offer a novel experience for us Lib Dems: cheering on a national team we know has no hope of winning.

I’ve been enjoying ConservativeHome’s campaign to persuade Grant Shapps to come clean about the party’s membership figures: Why can’t we be told how many members the Conservative Party has? It seems the Lib Dems are both more transparent and more organised: our membership figures are published annually in our Statement of Accounts. Ours don’t make for happy reading at the moment — membership has plunged by 34% to 42,500 since the Coalition was formed — which is probably why the Conservative leadership isn’t rushing to ‘fess up to what’s happened on Prime Minister Cameron’s watch. Paul Goodman estimates them to be between 100,000 and 130,000, down by at least half compared to the 253,600 members eligible to vote in the party’s 2005 leadership election.

To some extent, all this is inevitable. Parties pick up members in opposition, as hope dawns afresh. Tony Blair successfully boosted Labour membership in the mid-1990s to 400,000. Nigel Farage’s Ukip is reportedly at or above the 30,000 mark, double its membership in 2010. Parties then see membership drop off in government, as reality bites. New Labour fell back to below its pre-Blair level as the sheen came off his government. (We have yet to see what would happen to Ukip in government, and my guess is we’ll be waiting some time.) Despite these upwards blips, the overall trend is clear: down, down, down.

This inexorable decline is all part of the fragmentation of our political culture. Voters are less likely to identify personally with parties any more. The Conservative and Labour duopoly is over: remember in the 1951 election they won 97% of the national vote between them; by 2010 their combined share stood at just 65%.

Political parties have been supplanted by single-issue campaigning organisations, which don’t expect their members to put in the hard work of subscribing to a broad political philosophy across a range of issues, but simply to care passionately about just one thing. Join Amnesty or join the RSPB and you are making a very clear statement about what matters to you. It’s both much easier and much less likely to disappoint than joining a political party. Even loyalists like me have our limits. Earlier this year, I halved my annual membership dues to the Lib Dems in protest at the leadership’s support for illiberal measures like press regulation and secret courts, and donated the proceeds to those trusty free speech campaigners at Index on Censorship.

But I am not a cynic. I couldn’t not be a member of a political party. To me, it would be the equivalent of resigning from society. Just not an option. And, being a liberal type, the Lib Dems are the only party of which I could ever imagine being a member.

Besides, Lib Dem members are the lucky ones: we actually get to shape and influence our party’s direction. In a month’s time, I’ll be in Glasgow with thousands of other Lib Dems for our party conference, taking part in debates and votes about which policies will appear in the party’s 2015 manifesto, ranging from Trident to the EU to tax policy. Yes, there’ll also be the usual dry platform speeches, embarrassing schmaltzy rallies, and badly catered fringe events: but at its heart, it’s is about party members coming together to decide, democratically, what we stand for. I look on at the Conservative and Labour conferences — where members sit passively, as clapping adornments, with no formal policy-making role — and wonder why you all put up with it.

True, members can be a nuisance. I’m sure the Lib Dem leadership will suffer a least one bloody nose in Glasgow at the hands of the party’s gloriously cussed activists this year. But as well as a hindrance we can also have our uses. When it came to negotiating the Coalition Agreement, the Lib Dems’ hand was greatly strengthened by the knowledge that it would have to be approved (under the rules of our constitution) not only by the party’s MPs and its governing federal executive, but also by a special conference of party members. The party won a better deal as a direct result of its direct democracy. That all of us dipped our hands in blood to sign up to the Coalition explains why the Lib Dems have, despite haemorrhaging support, survived this far, surprisingly united.

The bottom line is that all the political parties need more members, need to reverse the decades of decline. Partly, this is for selfish reasons: more members means more potential activists and donors. Partly, it’s for altruistic reasons: a party which wants to represent the voters needs to include a representative sample, to keep it focused on what matters to the public at large and not just the zealots within. Ed Miliband’s move to allow trade union members to opt-in to Labour party membership is part of this drive — and it’s why Lib Dems and Conservatives should make sure trade unionists have the option to join any political party, not just Labour.

Power in the future, domestically and internationally, depends on being able to build alliances, to create alignments. Membership structures themselves will need to loosen — Douglas Carswell is right to say parties will need to adapt into movements — in just the same way as the Westminster Village is having to grown accustomed to the unravelling of the old certainties of two-party politics. Those of us who are ‘proper’ members will need to become a lot less precious about our constitutional rights, and a lot more welcoming to newcomers dipping their toes in the water.

I’ll still hold on to my Lib Dem membership card: it’s part of my identity. But those of us who are still members of this tribe need to realise quite how rare and endangered we are. Like all species facing extinction, we need to evolve to survive.