Can UK political parties be saved from extinction?

David Cameron addresses 2006 Tory conference

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Political party membership appears to be in terminal decline in the UK - so can anything be done to reverse the trend? And does it matter?

It was once a source of cultural identity and pride for millions of British people.

But at just over 1% of the population - low by European standards - party membership is fast becoming a minority pursuit.

There are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain's political parties put together.

There are many theories as to why this has happened.

The public have grown cynical and disillusioned with politicians.

We live in a more individualistic age (Why rely on political leaders to speak for you when you can do it yourself on Twitter or Facebook?).


Politics itself has become too boring and managerial - the ideological red meat loved by the "party faithful" is in short supply.

There have also been profound changes in the way Britons spend their spare time, since the days when the local Labour, Conservative or Liberal club was at the heart of the community.

"Most people don't use politics for socialising in the way they might have done in the fifties and sixties, when you had a realistic chance of meeting your future husband or wife at a party dinner or dance.


  • 1951 Conservative 2.9m - Labour 876,000
  • 1971 Conservative 1.3m - Labour 700,000
  • 1981 Conservative 1.2m - Labour 277,000
  • 1991 Conservative 1m to 0.5m - Labour 261,000 - Lib Dem 91,000
  • 2001 Conservative 311,000 - Labour 272,000 - Lib Dem 73,000
  • 2011 Conservative 177,000 - Labour 190,000 - Lib Dem - 66,000 (Source: Estimates based on party reports and House of Commons Library)

"There may be the odd exception, but that really isn't the case any more," says Jonathan Isaby, former co-editor of Conservative Home, a popular website for Tory supporters.

Even those drawn to political activism can find party politics a bit strange and off-putting, preferring instead to join one of the many single issue campaigns that now exist.

"I sometimes drag my wife along to political events but she hates going because she thinks they are all a load of oddballs," said one prominent single issue campaigner, who did not want to be named.

"Politics is conducted in a very specific way in the UK that doesn't really chime with the rest of the country."

Community action

It is not all gloom - there are still many thriving local party associations around the country.

And new parties, such as the Greens, UKIP, the SNP and Plaid Cymru, have sprung up over the years to cater to the increasingly diverse political tastes of the British public.

Tony Blair, Trimdon Labour Club Trimdon Labour Club - Tony Blair's spiritual home - closed last year

But - with the exception of the SNP in Scotland - the big three Westminster parties still dominate in terms of membership and influence.

And unless they can find a way of breathing new life into their moribund structures, British democracy could soon find itself on the critical list.

Labour leader Ed Miliband has made rebuilding his party a top priority.

The membership will vote next month on a series of proposals - from discount membership fees to making local parties more "welcoming" - aimed at Refounding Labour.

Mr Miliband wants to transform the party into a modern, outward-looking organisation, less in thrall to a rulebook that has not changed much since the party was founded in 1918. He believes local parties should become more like community action groups - forging links with other voluntary organisations.


  • Labour - £41 standard, £20.50 unwaged and pensioners, £1 youth, £20.50 (union or affiliate group member)
  • Conservatives - £25 standard, £5 (under 23)
  • Lib Dem - £12 standard, £6 students and unwaged

Labour's annual conference could be opened up to campaign groups and charities - who will be allowed to speak from the floor in debates (but not to vote on policies).

But the proposals have not gone down well with some Labour members.

They are particularly upset that members of a planned Labour "supporters network" could get the right to vote in leadership elections.

What, they argue, is the point of paying a subscription fee - which at £41 is currently the highest of the main three parties - if you do not get some privileges?


The Conservatives have also thrown the party open to non-members and supporters - as well as launching a more conventional recruitment drive.

"I think many find the idea of committing themselves to one party for life a bit scary," says Jonathan Isaby, who recently joined the Taxpayers Alliance pressure group as its political director.

"There are a lot of people who don't want to sign on the dotted line to join a party, but who are equally happy to help out by delivering leaflets for a particular candidate they want to support.

"And that can be just as useful as donating money, if not more so."

David Cameron's party is also trying to get members involved in policy formation - a process that had effectively died out - and it has pioneered the use of "open primaries" to select Tory election candidates.

The Lib Dems have also been opening up their party structures and meetings to non-members.

Labour conference, Brighton 1973 Are parties going the same way as variety?

Some commentators, such as Mark Pack, of the grassroots Lib Dem Voice website, believe parties need to broaden their support base in this way to avoid becoming unrepresentative of the public at large.

"There is a point at which you have to see the membership as atypical," he says.

This matters because party members can still have a big influence on government policy as well as getting to choose the party leaders and even, in certain circumstances, the prime minister.

For all their overblown rhetoric - and nothing attracts overblown rhetoric like party recruitment drives - the big parties have effectively given up on becoming mass membership organisations. There will be no return to the 1950s.

What we might be witnessing instead is the birth of a new kind of political party.

Not so much a religion to be followed by faithful, as a pastime to be pursued once or twice a year, when other commitments allow.

Not unlike the Caravan Club, in fact...


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  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    The reason we have become disillusioned with politics is because over the last 30 years a breed of professional politician has emerged.They leave education and enter politics with no experience of ordinary life.The majority are just sharp suited whizz kids who care only for their own advancement.People like Frank Field & Duncan-Smith are rarities.The term honorable member is a complete misnomer

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    Party politics damage democracy but unfortunately the herd instinct means they are inevitable.

    We would have a much better country if we had committed independents doing it for the right reasons.

    The compromise, which should happen immediately, is to make the whipping system illegal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    The reason for the loss of membership by the main parties is that they nolonger represent the views of their members. Howmany of the members wish to be out of the EU? I would say that at least 70% and yet the three main parties continue to dig us deeper into the EU.
    The only party that promises to remove us from the criminals of th EU is UKIP a party that has expanding membership for that reason.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    There is an alternative. The Local Government Association has an Independent Group office where those who think the 'big three' parties are about to be consigned to pre-history can exchange views.

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Our political system has been eroded due to cultural changes in society and by the behaviour and distrust of politicians at large. Most of the big three parties are now ideologically more similar than they used to be. The system needs changing and we need more people of independent minds. Too many politicians are about the party first and ordinary people second and coseying up to big business.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    I think lower membership might be a good thing. Though I fully respect peoples decisions to join a party, I would like to think that people are not members of parties because they critically evaluate who they support therefore their support can change from election to election. I have supported all three major parties over the last decade at some point as I evaluate their policies at the time.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Not surprising really, considering that we have been denied a proper referrendum on whether or not we want to remain part of the EU; not surprising really, considering that politicians promise one thing before an election and then do not fulfill their promises after the election; not surprising really, considering how they fiddled their expenses. People are bored of the lying and cheating MPs.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I am, and always have been of the mind that in a true democracy there should be no such thing as political parties. People are becoming increasingly disillusioned with the entire system. There is no empowerment, no sense that the will of the people has any real sway in the running of the Country. This manifests in falling membership and dwindling numbers bothering to turn out to vote.

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    I once thought we elected politicians to present the views of their constituents. TV discussion shows and news programs indicate I'm not alone. Alas elected politicians present their own views and the dictates of party whips not their electorate, even reneging on manifesto promises that got them elected. Those elected think they have a 5 year mandate to do what they like, their electorate don't.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    Partizan politics are outdated and unsuitable for the modern world. Dinosaurs must die.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    'There are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain's political parties put together.'

    If the CC or RSPB ran the country, we might not be in the state we are.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    The political parties most often in the news and who most of our elected representatives support, all have almost idential policies despite the fact that most of us have very different views concerning the governing of our country. Far too much power has been given to these corrupt and corrupting cliques when they fail to represent our interests.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    "I don't make friends, I make acquaintances. All my motives are ulterior. I'm self-involved to the point of psychosis. My soul is terrifying!"

    Vote Clint Webb!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    (end).... So we are consumers, not citizens, we vote for the directors of these corporations not for the President, prime minister, deputy or parliament Members. So why I would bother to get a Party card membership and participate to already decided facts? WTF

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    The new generation of politician, Obama, Cameron and Sarkozy, is slightly different. The goal stay the same not the manner. Consumers stay the same as usual but the corporation became bigger. So our new generation have the objective to get from Consumers more consumptions for the same products more expensive and robust less to help the bigger corporations, which/whom became politicians’advisers

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    I used to be an active member of a small party years ago but gave up as it took up too much of my time.

    The Greens are an old party, older than the Lib Dems (If you do not count them been made up of 2 older merged parties, although the oriiginal Liberal Party still exists)

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Conservative / Lib Dem or Labour party they are all so similar. Recent events have shown they have lost touch with the real world.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Having a secific political affiliation nowadays is very much like religion, pointless and outted. Neither provide any real use to society and in many ways do a lot more ham tan they do good.

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    It makes sense that party membership has collapsed. It reflects the publics perception that real power has been transferred to the EU. There is nothing that can be done in Britain to influence political decisions. The only people involved in politics are those who wish to impose EU control on us. sensible people will not mix with them. Leave the EU and people will take part in politics again

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    A politician is a “person” that finds the way to balance Consumers and Corporations. He/she has to find a platform where consumers can still spend their money and corporations to produce goods. The rest of the society is managed by an undefined apolitical group. Before then politician was clever enough to understand that Consumers are human and voters. The power was in their hands.


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