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.