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How UK Political Parties have Adapted to Change – The Mass Membership Party

In the later 19th century democratic pressure led the vote to be extended to men in the lower middle classes, such as shop workers and office clerks, and to working class men and, in the early 20th century, to women.

There were two consequences of this change:-

  • Whereas the existing voters mostly wanted low taxation and a small state, the new groups of the electorate had concerns about health, housing conditions at work and education and, to get their support, the parties needed policies to match these concerns
  • The electorate was becoming too large for the influence of local notables alone to guarantee the election of candidates.  The parties needed to contact and organise the new voters and set up a structure of party membership and local branches.  Party members were often keen to establish more influence over the policies that their MPs put forward at election time and what they voted for in Parliament and so the idea of a manifesto developed.

Developing the Concept

Political scientists in the 1950s, such as Duverger and Neumann, developed the concept of the mass membership party which had developed roots deep into the social structure of the country and which sought to promote the demand of the various social groups which supported it.

Elections were more a matter of the party machine getting its supporters in these groups out than winning support from new sections of the electorate.

A large party membership was able to influence policy through a national party organisation and conference.  In some European countries the party almost provided a way of life with its own trade unions, women’s and youth groups, credit unions and sports organisations.

There is some doubt as to just how mass and how democratic the mass membership party was.

Michels’s well known study, in 1911, of the biggest party in Europe, the German Social Democrat Party led him to conclude that, in practice, it was run by a small elite.

Susan Scarrow has concluded that large memberships did not actually develop until after 1945 (Party Politics, Vol 16 No 6, 2010). The party leaderships of cadre parties developed a national organisation but were still concerned to keep the Parliamentary Party independent of control from below.

Nevertheless, the idea of a mass membership party has been seen as the standard that subsequent changes in parties a Gordon Smith explained in his chapter on ‘The Decline of Party’ (in Governing Europe by Hayward and Menon, 2003)

The Mass Membership Parties in Britain

The vote was extended to skilled working class men in 1867 and then to the agricultural workers in 1885.

Birmingham with its craft industries had an exceptionally large number of skilled workers and the Liberal Party there, led by Joseph Chamberlain, developed from the late 1860s the whole system of membership, local parties, election canvassing and reminding supporter son election day that became the standard for political parties in the 20th century and is still in existence, though it has been supplemented by many new ways of running elections.

The Conservatives had introduced the Reform Act of 1867 which nearly doubled the number of voters and passed the first legislation for social housing and compensation for injury at work.

The Liberals widened their appeal as well and the Liberal Government after 1906 introduced old age pensions and a national insurance scheme to pay workers becoming ill or unemployed.

The Primrose League, designed to promote Conservative ideas, was formed in 1883 and had two million members in 1910, while local Conservative Parties had formed a National Union in 1867.

Chamberlain founded the National Liberal Federation in 1877, designed to put pressure on the party leadership to develop more radical policies.

The Labour Party was created in 1900 by the Trade Unions, the Independent Labour Party and the Fabian Society and its structure of a National Executive and Annual Conference became established.

Nevertheless, in contrast to some Continental parties where the national Party Secretary became powerful, the Parliamentary Party and leadership in all three British parties retained considerable control of party policy.

The parties linked to the social structure of Britain, The Liberal Party gained support from the Nonconformist churches, small business and Scotland and Wales and the Conservative Party, landowners, the Church of England and Southern England and the Midlands.

Both parties had working class support. As the Labour Party replaced the Liberal Party as the main competitor to the Conservatives, it inherited some of the Liberals social support but had stronger working class support through the trade unions.

The established academic view, though we will raise questions about this later, is that parties had loyal support from particular social groups and local campaigning and appeals by the national leaders were designed to mobilise these.

The main vehicle for party leaders was the public meeting. The Conservatives in 1910 were worried because Churchill , during the campaign, had addressed, for the Liberals, some 250,000 voters in Lancashire alone.  Baldwin , the Conservative Prime Minister, was the first to successfully use the radio broadcast in the 1930s as a chat to people at home rather than as a speech but public meetings remained important until the 1970s.