current affairs politics

The decline of the political parties

It’s party conference season here in Britain at the moment. Labour were up in Manchester last week, and it’s the turn of the Conservatives this week. They’re big political affairs of course, with plenty of speeches and policy announcements and self-congratulation on the agenda. Whether they matter much to ordinary people is another question.

The polls suggest they matter a little. They’re one of the few occasions where party leaders get the time to really lay out a vision. 10% of people listened or watched Ed Miliband’s speech in full, according to Yougov, with 49% seeing or hearing reports. Surveys clearly show a greater understanding and recognition of Ed Miliband as a leader, so the occasion is not insignificant.

However, while the leaders vie for who comes out most statesman-like in the opinion polls, the parties might want to ask some deeper questions. Both Labour and the Conservatives are in a very serious long term decline.

Britain’s two big parties have been leaking members for some time. For the Conservatives, it’s an even bigger problem than this graph suggests. In 1951 their membership stood at 2.9 million, and it has fallen all the way to 177,000 last year.

Labour were always smaller and haven’t had as far to fall, but membership is still a quarter of what it was.  This is perhaps unsurprising given their close ties to the trade union movement, which is also in a slow decline. (More on trends in trade union membership here)

It isn’t that people can’t afford it. It only costs £25 to join the Conservative party, £12 to join the Lib Dems. It doesn’t appear to be a reluctance to join associations either, since other paid membership groups like the National Trust or the RSPB have grown phenomenally over the same time period. Some of it is down to switching allegiances, especially the rise of the SNP is Scotland, but the growth of the smaller parties doesn’t match the decline of the big ones.

Something just isn’t working in our political parties, and there are lots of reasons why. The class system that defined our politics for so long has changed dramatically. Interest and campaign groups have opened up new ways for individuals to pursue their politics. And I think a lot of people are just tired of the whole thing, the predictability, the infighting, the broken promises.

I’m more concerned with what we do about it. With our current electoral system, only the Conservatives or Labour can ever form a government. They have been taking turns for a long time now, for better or worse. That may have been acceptable when they represented the views of large parts of the population. Today, only a very small minority of people feel that those parties reflect their views. It’s hardly surprising that no party won a majority at the last election. If we continue as we are, we can expect an increasingly disaffected electorate, poor turn-out, and a political class just talking amongst themselves. If we want to breathe life into our politics, we need to open it up to new voices. And that means electoral reform.


  1. One reason is that the main parties are actually very close, it is the narcissism of small difference that creates the venom in UK politics.

    Of course this isn’t just a UK phenomenon, parties are shrinking in most countries in Europe, including those countries that use various forms of PR. Bucking the trend, France which has a majoritarian two round run off system has seen a large increase in party membership in the last decade. Electoral reform is only the answer if you think it is the answer to every question.

    1. I’m not suggesting a more proportional voting system would save the political party. I’m suggesting that our political system does not reflect the political views of the country, and when there’s a disconnect between the people and their government, disillusionment will follow.

      Surely if political views are more varied than they once were, a more diverse parliament is more reflective of who we are?

      You apparently disagree.

  2. I’m not suggesting people’s political views are less varied, just that those of the main political parties are.

    My point is that if political disengagement as measured by membership of political parties is declining in those countries with diverse parliaments then having a more diverse parliament is not the answer. Especially as in the case of France, with an even less diverse parliament than the UK, political membership is growing.

    Diverse parliaments can lead to deadlock and shoddy political fudges (more broken promises, not less). Look at Belgium. This does not increase political engagement there, but fuels as sense of dissolution.

    Your post has the hallmarks of; “The answer is PR, now what is the question?”

    1. Don’t presume you know my mind. I’m not actually in favour of PR. Neither am I convinced that electoral reform is the answer to every question. I think it is a part of the solution. It is important, but it is by no means a magic bullet for Britain’s politics. You need to engage more with what I say, rather than your own assumptions about what I believe.

      I’d be interested to hear your ideas on how to engage the electorate more, and breathe a little life into our politics.

      1. Sorry, I assumed that by Electoral Reform you meant a more Proportional system, given that the British electorate buried AV in 2011. AV can be a more disproportionate system than FPTP, and hardly likely to bring in minority parties. Now if we are expressing preferences I would go for the French run off system. The candidates with the top two percentages of the vote (assuming neither got over 50% and is automatically elected) go into a second round and voters directly cast their ballots for either of them. There is no need to game the system and at the end over 50% of voters have put a cross against their representatives name, they aren’t second or fifth choice, but first (in a choice between two). That gives a clearer mandate and more buy in from voters as it is ‘their’ man/woman in Parliament. They also directly elect their President who has executive functions. A directly elected Prime Minister would avoid the current one Man one Vote system of choosing the PM, the Man is Nick Clegg.

        However, the days of measuring political engagement by party memberships is over. As a society we don’t want to sign up to a set list of views, but more likely to hop between issues. Single issue groups work more successfully as you don’t need to agree on tax rates to agree that forests should be under government ownership. Political parties should be more like 38 Degrees, or the Taxpayers Alliance and mobilise supporters on specific issues, but not expect slavish obedience.

        A concrete step would be for the government to fund open constituency primaries for any party that got over 10% in that constituency at the last election. Dr Sarah Wollaston is an excellent Conservative MP who doesn’t follow the party line and engages the locals as they chose her. She can’t be deselected by the party for speaking her mind as it would be political death for whoever replaced her.

        The personal mandate cuts through. Personality cuts through. Think Boris Johnson. He is a personality first. We need to get rid of the dull party hacks, the Jim Devines, who are utterly bovine and too stupid to even milk the system without being caught. I want a parliament full of mavericks with a direct connection with the voters. That is why I supported directly elected mayors (shame the voters didn’t) and why I support Police Commissioners.

        The public aren’t stupid. They won’t bother voting unless it will change things. The UK, especially England, is very centralised. Directly elected mayors and commissioners need real power so the voters will take them seriously. Currently they are hardly worth voting for so people won’t.

        Final change would be to end asymmetric devolution. Welsh, Scots and Northern Irish MPs shouldn’t decide on English only issues. Either an English Parliament or EVEL in Westminster. This is to head off the next constitutional crisis. Imagine the anger among English voters if an English majority party were frozen out of power by a Celtic stitch up.

        Ultimately none of this works while politics is boring because the main parties basically agree. As Vince Cable said of Labour politicking “Workers of the world unite. We need a Plan B. We should not cut the deficit in six years but seven.” Polls show that voters of the main political parties are very close to each other on the main issues too. If the venom Labour spat at the coalition were matched by a different vision, then perhaps some people will be inspired, but then again, not enough to win an election.

        1. A whole heap of good suggestions there, thanks!

          I agree, the run-off system works quite well. You can express a second preference in other systems, but they tend to be more confusing. It’s more expensive to do elections in rounds, but everyone knows where they stand.

          I also quite like the mixed member proportional system, as used in the Bundestag. Labour thought it was good enough for the Welsh and Scottish parliaments, but not Westminster. It’s not perfect, but the advantage is that it keeps the direct link between constituencies and their representatives while making room for additional members through the party lists. Voters get to cast two votes, one for a party and one for a person.

          I was really pleased to see the Conservatives pilot open primaries at the last election, and I hope they see fit to expand that in the next one. It would hopefully encourage the other parties to do it too. Combine local primaries with a MMP system and we might be getting somewhere.

          Parties working more like 38 Degrees is an interesting idea. It would be a much looser network, drawing its policies from the community by a democratic system. It would definitely be an easier thing to be part of.

          When you see groups like 38 Degrees or the National Trust rally its members against things like the forestry sell-off, you realise just how politically effective they can be. The government can easily ignore the opposition, because they’re the other guys and you disagree with them on principle. It’s harder to ignore citizen action groups because they’re your voters.

          1. Thanks for giving me your preferred electoral system. As a political me it is a cardinal sin to say ‘I support electoral reform’ without saying exactly what system you favour as there are so many systems with so many different outcomes. I could support restricting the franchise to those with assets over £1 million and truthfully call it ‘electoral reform’.

          2. My big problem with MMP is that under the second vote 30-55% of the seats are allocated by party lists, giving the machine politicians too much power. Even with open primaries the Jim Devines would still be forced upon us. Of course you could have the ability to rank them, but who except me would go numbering 1 to 325.

            This is an example of why changes to the electoral system are such a hard sell, everyone has their own slightly different system, so what ever is on the ballot is second choice or worse for most of the Yes lobby. Changing the electoral system without a referendum would now cause an outrage. Having had one already it is now an issue like EU membership that only direct consultation with the public could decide. Not even a direct manifesto commitment would do. Which the Tory and Labour FPTP supporters understood in supporting a referendum on the dogs breakfast of AV.

  3. These first two comments from DC and J reflect two of my own thoughts. My first thought is simply that both comments open with ‘I’m not suggesting’, and they show just how difficult it often is, for us to clearly communicate in short blogs.

    My second one, I commented on, to my partner. It was that Jeremy had suggested what caused the decline and moved quickly onto the question he is ‘more concerned with’, that being, ‘what to do about it’?. I commented that this is why society moves from one error to another – because we do not get to fundamentals. This one being, why do we get predictability, infighting and broken promises? If we do not look at the problem with humans (instead of voting systems etc), we jump out of one issue and into another (as DC indicates). So, whether by accident or not, I agree with DC, Jeremy has suggested an answer, but fails to attend to the right question, (though my ‘right’ question may not be whatever DC may have in mind). I do realise that we are not likely to look at ourselves, it is preferable for us to look away, at systems. So, if that’s our limit, I agree, we must now try electoral reform and hope it may be a step in the right direction (whatever the immediate results), before it is too late to look closer to home.

    Returning to my first thought, I won’t be surprised if my contribution is little understood!

  4. When I say I’m more interested in the solutions, it’s because the key issue here is how to engage people in politics, not how to save the political parties. In no way is this rushing ahead from the problem – it is sweeping away the clutter of party bias to get to the heart of the matter.

  5. Well, you see Jeremy, I was suggesting that ‘the clutter of party bias’ is much more than that, because, I think this ‘clutter’ that you previously spoke of as ‘predictability, infighting and broken promises’, cannot be ‘swept away’, as it is actually the scum on top of the deeper underlying heart of the matter – the reason for it. Whereas, you evidently see these as two seperate issues. You say the key issue is to engage people in politics, and, whilst I agree that much more engagement is good, I think we have to first, discern further why we are not engaging (ie., why we get predictability, infighting and broken promises), before we look for alternative ways to engage us. That for me, is looking at causes deeper, before seeking other options. I said I’d be ready for misunderstanding. I realise I’m not shouting from quite the same platform as you, and must not try to step on yours. Thanks for responding anyway!

    1. I know what you’re getting at Karen, it’s a theme that emerges in most of your comments. At the very centre of things is our human nature, and we need to understand ourselves and our distorted motives before we’re going to fix anything else.

      This is true, and it would be nice to think that we could have a national programme of self examination and sort out why we are the way we are, and what we’re going to do about it. It isn’t possible, and that’s the work of philosophers and theologians, not politicians.

      Politics, unfortunately, has to start higher up. We can’t pause the world while we psychoanalyse ourselves. The best we can do is move forward with our current understanding, and keep our politics fluid and responsive. As we learn more about ourselves, we adapt and improve our institutions. And that’s what needs to happen here, moving our political systems to catch up with the last few decades of social change.

  6. Absolutely! I did actually say much the same in my draft, but wanted to avoid a lengthy response that would not add to your particular arena. I so wish we would see through the issues to our common weaknesses, which unlie it all, but, another day, another time!

  7. Indeed, the AV referendum was only going to go one way, and the FPTP advocates had it sewn up from the start. It was downright naive of Clegg to go with it, especially with his own comments on AV on the record.

    Yes, MMP isn’t perfect, but I think the combination of local representatives and proportional members is a decent compromise. It runs the risk of having a bunch of floating MPs with no constituency but their party, but it’s one of the better ideas out there if you don’t like an entirely proportional system or FPTP.

    I’d settle for STV with larger multi-member constituencies too, as a second choice, but it tends to confuse people.

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