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What are the roles of UK political party members?

Political scientists have said that UK political parties have changed from mass membership organisations to electoral professional machines.

As more people were given the vote in the late 19th century, party leaders needed to persuade large numbers of voters to support their policies and turn out to vote.

National campaigns were limited and so having a group of people in each constituency who could do this work was important.

The Conservative and Liberal parties developed as mass membership parties with an organisation based on constituencies and, below this, local government wards.

The Labour Party copied this and also involved members of trade unions affiliated to the party in each constituency.

Membership peaked in the 1950s and, although there are no reliable figures, the Conservative seem to have had well over 2m members in 1953 and Labour over 1m.

Party members did not want just to be the foot soldiers of the party who got out the vote but to have some influence over party policy.

Parties wanted to be able to select candidates for local councils and Parliament and ensure that they followed party policy once elected. They passed resolutions at their meetings and these went forward to national party bodies.  Annual conferences for party members were organised.

Two points should be made about the mass membership parties:-

  • The large membership did not mean that most members played an active role.  The minutes of party meetings in the mid 20th century often contain complaints about the lack of members involved in leafletting and canvassing.
  • Although there was a mass membership. Parties were not necessarily that democratic. Local Conservative Parties had independence from the central party in their internal affairs and could choose their Parliamentary candidates but the Party Leader controlled policy and the election manifesto and, sometimes, used influence to get favoured people selected in a constituency.  Until 1965, the Party Leader was chosen on the advice of senior party figures to the monarch.

Constituency Labour Parties were able to pass policy resolutions and select Parliamentary Candidates, although it was normally a committee elected by the branches, rather than the membership as a whole that took these decisions.  Constituencies sent delegates to Party Conference which was meant to decide policy but most of the votes at Conference were held by union leaders who cast them on behalf of their members (the block vote) and, in most cases, until the late 1970s, used this power to support the leadership against the constituency parties.  Conference decisions could be ignored by the leadership in drawing up the general election manifesto. The Party Leader was chosen by Labour MPs and not by party members.

Party membership has declined rapidly since the 1960s.  In 1964, about 10% of the electorate were party members, in 1983, 3.8% and in 2008 1.2%.

Although there has been a decline in party membership across Europe, it has been much steeper in Britain.  This has had an effect on the number of active members and a recent study of two constituencies concluded that the number of active members in all the parties added together were about 100 in each constituency.

Reasons for the decline in UK political party membership

There are a number of reasons for the decline in party membership:-

        The identification of working class voters with Labour and middle class voters with the Conservatives has declined and so social identity is less of a reason for party membership.  There are less obviously working class and middle class neighbourhoods with the close social contacts that brought people into the political parties.  There has also been a sharp reduction in the number of workers in traditional industries who were the core of Trade Union and Labour Party membership.

        Involvement in party activity had a social function for members but there are now many other ways for people to spend their time and other organisations that they can join.  For many people available leisure time has decreased.  Party meetings often became bureaucratic and only of interest to a few active members.

        The ideological difference between the Labour and Conservative parties decreased and so belonging to a party to further political objectives seemed less important.

        People often went to  local party officials to get advice on problems but the State and public and voluntary advice centres, as well as MPs’ constituency offices, have taken over much of this role.

        People now get their political information through the media and the internet rather than from parties.  A decline in trust in politicians has accompanied this.

The decline in membership may not be irreversible.

For the 2015 leadership election Labour introduced a scheme whereby supporters could register for £3 and members of affiliated trade unions could register for free and, in each case, have a vote in the election.

This, combined with the leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn, who offered a clear alternative to Conservative Government policies, had a dramatic effect.

From a membership of under 200,000, Labour’s members and supporters rose to over 500,000.

Membership numbers for political parties have seen an increase before, after a general election, though not to this extent, but have declined a couple of years later and so it remains to be seen whether the change in Labour’s membership is permanent.