28 May 2020

The membership model is dead – it’s time political parties took note

By Frances Lasok

Accepted wisdom measures political engagement by membership and turnout – and both are on a downward trend.

Compared to 50 years ago turnout fell from average of over 71% up to 1992 to 66% in 2015. The coalition government had a run of asking the electorate questions then finding out that the electorate didn’t care: just 42% of voters came out for the AV referendum turned, for the first PCC elections just 15%. Average turnout for local elections is estimated at around a third of the electorate, if that. And whichever way you calculate membership numbers they are down dramatically: Conservative Party membership has fallen from around 1 million in 1970 to maybe 180,000 today.

Then came the 2016 Referendum. Though the polls had Remain ahead, Leave campaigners reported a different universe in the run-up to polling day: canvassers being stopped and cheered in the streets, cars pulling over, people saying on the doorstep that they hadn’t voted for years but couldn’t wait to now. The resulting “shock” result should have been seen coming.

The forerunner to this was the Scottish Independence Referendum. Turnout of 84% was the highest in the UK since 1910. The result prompted a sigh of relief from the Westminster commentariat, but coming midway through the UKIP defections in 2014, perhaps didn’t get the analysis it deserved. Following that, in 2017 the electorate unexpectedly flooded the polling station to vote for Corbyn, and 2019 saw Conservative campaigners in the traditionally low-turnout Labour areas stopped to shouts of “Get Brexit done!” as people hit the streets to vote for Boris.  What was really notable since 2016 was not just the change in turnout but the newfound enthusiasm on the doorstep: not “I’ll vote for Y because I don’t like X” but “I can’t wait to vote for Y”.

We’ve seen more enthusiasm for politics recently than ever before, but not a rise in party membership. Why?

Even if they vote the same way, people are less likely to see themselves as aligned firmly to a political party compared to their grandparents: go knocking on a door down any street and the over-80s will say “We’re Conservative”, “We’re Labour” or “We voted Labour but now Conservative”. With the under 40s, not just the behaviour but the narrative shifts. Even if you find someone who has voted consistently for the same party for the past four general elections, it is far more likely that they will present their voting record as a sequence of choices, “for David Cameron in 2015, for Theresa May in 2017”.

None of this is a sign of a lack of faith in the two party system. The events of recent years have played out on a familiar landscape: the tragi-comedic, almost Shakespearean failure of Change UK, the swift rise and fall of the Brexit Party, the disappearance of UKIP and the perennially fluctuating fortunes of the Liberal Democrats all show that, in the UK, people actually quite like the two party system and they will only vote “none of the above” when those two parties fail.

The changing turnout pattern shows two things. The decline in turnout across all elections shows that people don’t see voting in general as a duty. They aren’t very likely to take time out from the commute/school run/young children/elderly parents to drive to a polling station in the rain for a PCC by-election. But the spikes on the big ticket items show that they see voting as a right, and one that they will exercise with enthusiasm when it makes sense to do so: on the EU Referendum, for or against Corbyn.

This changed attitude to membership, identity and turnout all maps to age. The party membership base is dramatically over-represented by the over-70sjust as the over-70s are much more likely to vote. This coincides with a decline in membership of everything institutional, whether that’s churches or grassroots community organisations: attendance at the Church of England is at its lowest in the 18-24 age bracket and highest amongst the over-60s. And just as loyalty to political parties has shifted, so has loyalty to brands.

Enthusiasm for politics and political dialogue is there in every age group. But the over-70s are more likely to have membership cards, not because they care more, but because their generation is the last one to have that view of institutional identity.

So, can political parties capitalise on this?

Enthusiasm for causes or issues has not abated at all – just look at the rising membership of the National Trust or the RSPB. Membership of CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale, has rocketed from around 30,000 in 1991 to above 190,000 today. These organisations don’t sell an identity but a product, a lifestyle, or a way to signal support for something an individual considers meaningful: take a look at how CAMRA sells membership. It isn’t “join CAMRA”, it is “join CAMRA and it is your route into the world of real ale, cider, perry and the great British pub” and that means something, images of a world of blue skies, village greens and a pint at the local.

The one person – person, not party – who bucked the recent political membership trend was Jeremy Corbyn. Whilst he failed in that mainstream political parties have to hit a balance between something that is ideological enough to rally genuine enthusiasm whilst being moderate enough to appeal to most voters, he did tap into something about how people want to engage in discussion, and share their ideas with like-minded people.

Over 700,000 people have liked the Conservatives on Facebook, more than 300,000 like the Green Party (estimated membership 50,000). People are willing to engage in dialogue as Twitter or Facebook show and that dialogue has become two-way as a new generation of elected representatives engages back.

Membership is often held up as the shorthand for grassroots political engagement, but the truth is that because people don’t think of institutions in that way, it’s a model that no longer works. Membership voting rights are an example of this: originally a way to keep power with the grassroots supporters, membership numbers are now so low that the membership vote doesn’t even do that: a selection where a council or parliamentary candidate is voted in by a tiny percentage of the voting electorate, sometimes a handful of people, is better than imposition by the party machine, but it’s not democratic.

The quick selections necessary in 2017 and 2019 unfortunately consigned to history the Conservative Party’s experiment with open primariesLabour’s experiment with £3 registered supporters, an unmitigated disaster because they never thought through the implications, perhaps resulted in a safety-first approach and an unwillingness risk changes.

But the last 50 years have seen an undeniable cultural shift. Voting is now a right not a duty and political decisions more a matter of a case-by-case choice. Campaigning methods have adapted to this, moving from turnout-based campaigning with loudspeakers and public meetings to a focus on persuasion. This goes beyond the ballot box too.

There is genuine enthusiasm for voting, an increased two-way political dialogue, and huge potential for political parties to harness – if they are willing to consider ways of engagement beyond the 1970s membership model.

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Frances Lasok is an aide in Westminster and former marginal seat campaign manager.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.