Making parties more popular
Ed Miliband is not the first party leader to talk bullishly about increasing the number of party members/supporters. All new Opposition leaders set a target of boosting party membership. They usually succeed to a limited extent in the short-to-medium term as their parties become more electorally successful. But they invariably fail in the long-term as membership falls back to below earlier levels.
Back in 1997, William Hague famously proclaimed a target of one million Conservative members, compared with the then total of around 400,000 and a peak 50 years ago of 2.8 million. Membership never even approached half this ambitious target, and fell during the first half of the last decade to a low of 215,000 in 2004. The total recovered in the first year of David Cameron’s leadership to around 300,000, before falling back to around 250,000 within three years. The same pattern of short-lived cyclical blips in a sharp secular downward trend has been experienced by Labour. Membership rose from 266,000 in 1993 to a peak of 405,000 in 1997 when Labour won power, before halving over the following seven years.
Political scientists offer several explanations: economic and social changes undermining the class basis of parties of the post-1945 era; shifts in party strategies to making appeals directly through the media; and the growth of single issue groups. As fewer people identify strongly with a political party, voters are less willing to make the commitment of time to become involved with a party, attend meetings, canvas etc. Revealingly, joining one of the single issue and civic groups with booming memberships usually involves no more effort than making a credit card/direct debit payment. Such groups, like the now assertive National Trust, also offer tangible benefits to members.
By contrast, political parties offer few such benefits except to the politically ambitious who want to become candidates. The attempt, now by Labour and previously by the Conservatives, to develop a new category of supporters runs in the problem of whether they should have similar rights to full party members. Labour’s solution is to offer such supporters a limited share of the vote in the selection of the party leader, but not in the choice of councillors and MPs, or in policymaking. (As Akash Paun notes in his blog Primary Colours, the French socialists are similarly opening up their selection of their presidential candidate for next year’s elections.)
The small base of the parties is crucial for the selection of candidates, as highlighted in the Institute for Government discussion paper by Rhys Williams and Akash Paun and in fringe meetings at each of the three main party conferences. As the paper argues, there is a double-edged problem: the small numbers involved in candidate selection and the limited pool of potential candidates, notably from under-represented groups such as women, ethnic minorities and the less well-off. Ultimately, ‘rebuilding party membership may be the only way to increase the supply of diverse candidates’. But rebuilding membership runs up against well-established, and possibly irreversible, social and political trends. Devices such as creating a new group of supporters, and open primaries, can help. But they are only likely to have a limited impact as long as parties, and their activist members, seek to retain their exclusivity as the gateway to political careers and influence.
- Read Akash Paun’s blog post Primary colours: Should parties open up candidate selection to the public?
- Download What works in candidate selection?, our discussion paper for the party conferences
- Read our account of an event we hosted at the Liberal Democrat conference on diversity among MPs
- Click here for details of our Conservative Party conference event on candidate selection.