By Sam Mace
The big three parties are currently in a crisis regarding membership figures, less than 1% of the electorate was a member of the three main political parties from the 3rd of December 2012 according to the house of commons library, and new figures suggest this measly 1% is now even lower. As can be seen by the graph above membership figures for the big parties since the 1990’s have dramatically declined, however membership for the traditional smaller parties since the 2000’s have risen. As of the 13th of July and as reported by the Guardian, Labour figures claim 190,000 people are registered as members; which is a 40% decrease from when they took office in 1997. However since Ed Miliband has become leader these numbers have leveled out unlike the haemorrhage seen since David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party. However Labour haven’t been able to regain the numbers the were seen under Tony Blair’s early years which saw a rejuvenated labour party out of office ready to take the baton of government away from the conservatives. It could be argued that this lack of rise in membership figures is down to a lack of vision from the party and the leader himself; along with Ed Miliband’ 27% approval rating isn’t exactly helping people rushing to sign up.
The Conservative figures show alarming decreases in membership as the Independent reported: Conservative activist figures are now likely to be south of 100,000. Since 2010 membership fees have dropped by a quarter suggesting a significant decrease in membership. This is not because as many claim the result of the gay marriage bill, as the telegraph have reported only 15 constituency chairman denounced the gay marriage bill in a letter to David Cameron stating it was driving people away. While over 500 wrote to support David Cameron’s bill. It can be argued that it is partly policy that is driving people away from memberships of political parties. The feeling that the three main parties are the same is a result of the Conservatives and Labour moving towards the middle. This could explain the rise in other party’s membership figures compared to the big three’s losses as they all offer something different to the mainstream.
The Liberal Democrats numbers have fallen to 42,500 which is a 35% drop since 2010. The party’s membership crisis can be argued that it is strikingly similar – and therefore less attractive – to the other parties, that they represent the same people with very little difference separating themselves. Since they have entered government they have renegaded on a number of promises, most famously the tuition fees pledge which has denied them the student vote which was a core part of their overall vote. Some may think that this membership drop is due to policy shifts from the Liberal Democrats and they would be partly correct. However, how many people are aware of what the Liberal Democrats have achieved and what they haven’t done in government which they set out to do in their 2010 manifesto? I would argue it is more down to media coverage and the NUS going all guns blazing at the liberal democrats. Indeed the misinformation given out by the NUS shows the lack of depth to which people care about politics in the modern day. Instead of looking at the policy in a way which showed that this loan is easily payable, that student debt is not really debt, that it gets written off after 30 years, that the new system actually helps the poorest students, the NUS and the public dismay went with a banner of a £9,000 loan.
While UKIP’s membership on the graph is seen as sharply declining it must be remembered that the resurgence of the UKIP party has led to a surge in membership to over 30,000 people as of March this year according to the New Statesman. As seen in the graph this is a 100% increase since 2010 and is a complete reversal of what the big parties are experiencing. Indeed with numbers like these UKIP are not far behind the Liberal Democrats for numbers, membership wise being only 12,500 people shy of matching them.
The rise of UKIP’s membership can I feel be explained rather simply. First of all they are seen as different from any other political party. The leader Nigel Farage is an enthusiastic and convincing public speaker which is different from anything the major parties have. While the major parties are seen as having views on a number of issues which are very similar and are only separated by a scintilla, UKIP are seen to have views on only a couple: the main ones being Europe and gay marriage both of which are different to the current popular political consensus. They operate under a basic banner of Euroscepticism which is broadly popular with the country that prefers a more conservative like approach to things such as immigration. According to a survey from Yougov, which was conducted on August 12th, immigration is the second biggest concern for people at 54% which is only 13% behind the economy at 67%. This enables UKIP to catch people’s ears when they talk about Europe under the banner of migration which is a common theme of theirs.
Secondly, the recent surge in UKIP numbers is not surprising since they are now far more popular than they ever have been. The current big three political parties are all unpopular in the general public. Ed Miliband has an approval rating of 25% according to polls conducted by Yougov and while Cameron is more popular than his party he still only has an approval rating of 39% but his government has an approval rating of only 27%. The liberal democrats are more unpopular than ever before recording only 8-11% consistently in the polls. This dislike of the parties who are all seen to be out of touch elitists who are career politicians leaves a gap for a party which claims to be different, honest and representing the ordinary person.
Thirdly and finally it can also be attributed to the fact that UKIP have never had any power. Whereas the big parties have consistently been in power and thus have had to govern in the reality of the situation, UKIP as a party who have never had mass representation except at European level have been able to carve out an ideology based on the fact that they won’t have to make these tough decisions which the big parties are. This makes them look attractive as they don’t have to compromise on principles and also the makeup of the party is seen as different to that of the main parties which are seen as being filled with career politicians with no real world experience.
The decline in party membership is difficult to explain by just one reason. People in Britain are still engaged in politics just not big party politics. The student protests, the march against the Iraq war, and big protests against the cuts in general are proof that people still care and are passionate about politics. However people have gone from caring about the big parties to single issues. As the parties have moved towards a centrist position many feel they are the same or represent similar interests and have instead voiced support for activist groups such as UK uncut, Stop the War Coalition and others. Instead of Labour and the Conservatives debating grand narratives on how the country should be, it has become a more nuanced debate on policy which is difficult for people to grasp hold of and feel passionate about. This has led to a decline in people caring about big party politics and thus a decline in membership.
It could be argued that the decline is due to a generational change in the way people express themselves politically. However if this was truly the case then surely all party membership should be on its knees? As has been discussed and seen in the graph above this clearly isn’t the case. The public are disillusioned with the main parties and in the graph it was seen that Labour membership rose before the party won in 1997 in a historic landslide victory. If the big parties want to regain their members they need to become popular again.
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