Is the era of mass membership parties over?


4:22 pm - July 31st 2008

by Stephen Tall    


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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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About the author
This is a guest article. Stephen was Liberal Democrat city councillor for Headington in Oxford between 2000 and 2008, serving as Deputy Lord Mayor and the city's executive councillor for finance. He was Lib Dem 'Blogger of the Year' in 2006, and is commissioning editor of the Lib Dem Voice website.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments


“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.”

We? Are you a Lib Dem Sunny?

Doh! Sorry, article is by Stephen Tall. I mistakenly didn’t change the name when publishing it.

Wouldn’t that be funny though… member of Compass… Fabians… and the Libdems.

I did think that – and voting Green for Labour Mayor.

They’re kick you out of the brown rice club with their sandals on (no offence meant to Lib Dems, I love you all dearly)

“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.”

Niall Ferguson has a great chapter on this in ‘Cash Nexus’. It’s really a double whammy because just as party members and thus potential small-scale donors evaporate, party-spending is escalating. If we thought we knew ‘sleaze’ in the 90s and 00s, we are probably not even close to seeing the worst of it, assuming these trends continue.

Great for business and special interests – a few millions, or even hundreds of thousands could leverage billions of government spending. Terrifying.

I did think that – and voting Green for Labour Mayor.

Hey, I believe in a broad church! 🙂

BAck to this topic – I don’t think its the end of mass membership, more a general cynicism with politics. Didn’t this also happen with the Democrats until recently?

I think cynicism has a big part to play – how many committed members will have left due to Labour’s stance on the Iraq war? But I think this is may just be an acceleration or continuation of a long-term trend that stretches back to the Second World War. Did Labour not used to boast a million or more members in the first half of the last century?

In my view politicians have lost or been forced to give away a great deal of their power to the ‘market’, the global economy and the European political system.

Stephen,

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

In an article on party funding, John Redwood suggested that at one point (although he doesn’t say when) his party’s membership was well over 750,000.

Tory membership is reportedly lower today than it was when he was first elected leader. So much for his ‘Blair effect’.

Isn’t that the Blair effect? The reduction of party membership?

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?

You partially answered this earlier on:

1. “the emasculation of local decision-making, creating an unbridgeable gulf between what local people see can be achieved in their neighbourhoods.”

2. ” Mixed in with this of course is the decline in party democracy – and the feeling that party membership is no more than a badge” – party members feel they have no say in policy-making and are increasingly disaffected.

Also,

3. There are also issues of distrust – I think it is unfair to attribute this entirely to cynicism (which to me has an irrational element).

4. People feel that political parties and elections require citizens to commit to too broad a range of policies.

5. The main political parties are widely perceived to be too similar and lacking in principle.

People don’t think it’s a worthwhile use of time and money to contribute to something which they, as an individual, can have very little effect on.

The media has to take a lot of the blame for this. They have hyped up division in a political party as a bad thing. When actually division is democratic. It is what politics is supposed to be about, debate. But the parties are scared of being seen as divided, so they do everything to stamp out dissent.

10. Mike Killingworth

[6] In my view politicians have lost or been forced to give away a great deal of their power to the ‘market’, the global economy and the European political system

Wholly agree about the first two, but doesn’t the last one also involve political parties? If you mean that it has also reduced the autonomy of British parties, a case could be made for saying that pro-Europeans should be looking hard at the failure of “ever closer Union” to generate pan-European parties of any political complexion.

However, it is clear that our current model of political organisation is broken, although I think Stephen’s implication that this is more of a problem for other parties than the Tories, who can be sustained by a narrative of governent which other parties don’t have, is valid.

11. Charlieman

Sally: “The media has to take a lot of the blame for this. They have hyped up division in a political party as a bad thing.”

Those two sentences are worthy of a big debate. Does the press create political stories? Or do newspapers just report the stories that appeal to their readers?

12. hungry horace

This is a good thing, right?
The party political system is an abomination, which only has a purpose when there are a few devisive issues to rally around.
I’d prefer to elect some wise men as individuals, preferably people who can be trusted to make intelligent decisions independently.

Better yet, lets get some real democracy going. Electronic voting boxes in every house. I find the idea that the internet will be used as a tool by politicians to gain more support a strange one – surely with the advent of the internet and other means of instant communication the purpose of a centralised political leadership has become less and less obvious.

I wonder…

As party membership declines, is membership of Liberty, Amnesty, Greenpeace, and other political activist groups increasing? I think people are pissed at political parties, not necessarily politics.

Aaron, the Power Inquiry found that there are several myths and ‘red herrings’ about political disengagement in the UK. Not least among these is the idea that we are apathetic – we aren’t. An increasing number of people are getting involved with charities and community work. More people are becoming involved with (and voting for) minority parties.

But generally we are disengaging from what most people immediately think of as ‘politics’ – the formal politics of councils and Westminster, for example – and the main parties.

oooh – a discussion on the future of democracy!

Is democracy inevitably subverted by the forces of vested interests, or if not, how is it to develop the institutional and regulatory machinery to withstand them?

Blogs and the internet have a huge role to play in this debate, but it is an open question what that might safely be.

If there are electronic voting boxes, who decides on the choices and how are they decided? Will there be a weekly referendum on Scottish opinion towards independence until those who choose to put the question get their way, or will we reach a situation where every 52 weeks there will be 52 constitutional changes to the union?

Will biometric signatures make electronic petitioning more responsive and provide a way to enhance civic society? Or, does the centralised identification recognition present insurmountable challenges to the continued security of our civil liberties?

Does democracy necessarily devolve into anarchy? Have/haven’t we reached that point already?

My feeling is that it is possible to integrate all governmental types into a cohesive whole, but that it would be wrong to suggest how.

The future of democracy? Well George Lucas believes all democracies turn into dictatorships over time…

Or put another way, and to quote Axel Rose:

“You can’t trust freedom when it’s not in your hands.”

18. hungry horace

The public could have the opportunity to veto or pass laws suggested by parliament.
Or perhaps vote on changes suggested by anybody.
If people want to have 52 constitutional changes in 52 weeks – why not let them? Its obvious that people don’t trust politicians to make decisions for them, so its about time they started making them for themselves.

If we’re lucky enough maybe our democracy will evolve into anarchy. I think that the public are interested and intelligent enough to make it work.

@18 So one week Scotland and England become independent of each other, the next they reunify, the next they split, the next they federate, the next they confederate… why not have fighting on the streets between people who won’t accept to abide by decisions they disagree with? Are you sure you’re not confusing anarchy with autonomism.

20. hungry horace

I’m not overly familiar with autonomism, but after a quick google it doesn’t seem like something i’d be particuarly interested in…
I think the important thing to ask is why would people want to continually change the constitution? Or continually change the make up of the union? And if that IS what people want to spend their time doing, then why not let them?
I’m not too sure how you get from people having a more direct say in their own lives to fighting in the streets – I suppose people might become more interested in certain issues if they felt they had a direct say in them – but i’m afraid i can’t see current apathy as a positive.
It all comes down to whether you trust our political leaders more than you trust yourself.

I’m sorry HH, I don’t agree that people are apathetic, merely a combination of lazy, confused, disillusioned and disincentivised – if at all. Nobody is omnipotent and capable of being everywhere and doing everything, so it is plainly wrong to make misdirected insults of that sort.
We already do have a say in our own lives, the important question is how much say we have over each others lives and how to channel any dissent in a productive manner by recognising the differences between shared and divergent interests.

22. Hungry Horace

Thomas – sure we have plenty of choices in life, but there are plenty of things which are forced upon us by central government – TV license fees, wars in Iraq etc. and I can’t see them as unimportant. If a government (elected by a minority within the country as a whole) can go to war when the majority of people are opposed to it – isn’t it time to change the system? Whats democratic about that? The current government has the support of something like 20% of the 70% of people who will vote at the next election and yet theoretically they can do as they choose for another year. Why live like this? Its an outdated 19th century model that has no place in the present.
I agree entirely that its important for people to have channels in which to vent their disagreement and feel that the internet is very important tool for this purpose. And I also agree that people are not apathetic – and given that there is no violence on the streets ( well not politically motivated anyway) now, it makes an outbreak of violence due to increased democratisation even less likely.
Quite frankly – if we find that we can’t all live in a society\nation together without a level of political leadership to protect ourselves from each other , then perhaps we shouldn’t even be making the attempt.

Hmmmm. . . I’m liberal and democratic, so why is it that I don’t like the Liberal Democrats?


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