Tomorrow's Party: where next for Britain's ailing political tribes?
The Electoral Reform Society is this week launching a major new programme of work on the future of the political party. An event in Parliament this evening (details below) will be followed later this week by a consultation document asking for contributions on what can be done to make parties relevant to the 21st century.
Event hosts: Electoral Reform Society, Centre Forum, IPPR, Policy Exchange
Date: Monday 25th November 2013
Place: Boothroyd Room, Portcullis House, Westminster
Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow
Tim Farron, MP for Westmorland & Lonsdale and President of the Liberal Democrats
Richard Harrington, MP for Watford
Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes
Matthew Taylor (chief executive of the RSA)
Chair: Katie Ghose (chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society)
Katie Ghose, chief executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“As people drift away from politics, many increasingly see political parties as part of the problem rather than the solution. In the 1950s, one in ten people were members of parties but these days party members are a rare breed.
“But at their best, political parties can straddle the divide between people and politics. They are the building blocks of governments or governments in waiting, and at the same time they are groups of like-minded people working together to pursue their visions of what society should look like. If parties didn’t exist, we would have to invent them.
“For all of us who care about the future of our democracy we have a responsibility to make parties work better. We need to reinvent the political party for the 21st century. The Electoral Reform Society is providing a platform for parties to look into a crystal ball, imagine what a modern, dynamic political party would look like and work out the best route to get there.”
For more information about Tomorrow’s Party, or to get on the guest list for this evening’s event, contact Will Brett on 07979 696 265; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Decline of parties
Political parties have been in decline for a long time. Today less than 1% of the electorate is a member of a party, whereas as recently as 1983, it was as high as 3.8%. In the 1950s and early 1960s as many as one in ten people were party members*.
Just since 1997, Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat membership have all fallen dramatically. Conservative Party membership has gone from 400,000 to 134,000. Labour Party membership has gone from 405,000 to 193,000 and the Liberal Democrats have gone from 87,000 members to 49,000.
The smaller parties are faring better than the big three, but their gains are not big enough to buck the trend away from party membership. Green Party membership stood at 16,000 in 2012, up from 7,500 in 2008 and 12,800 in 2010. According to UKIP they had 30,000 members in July 2013, a rise of 8,500 since March. The SNP has 25,000 members, making it the largest party in Scotland.
Britain has the lowest recorded party membership rates in Western Europe.
What is Tomorrow’s Party?
The ERS is asking all the parties to recognise the urgency of the task to rebuild people’s faith in parties, but also to see that the problem needs some visionary, long-term thinking.
We are asking what the party of 2040 or 2050 should look like. What kind of political party is possible and desirable in the 21st century?
Of course the parties are in competition and will not necessarily want to share ideas for reform, but they also have a common interest in ensuring the health of our democracy, and that means they ought to come together to imagine what their futures might look like. At the most immediate and practical level, it also means reaching a deal – at last – on party funding so we can banish big money from politics once and for all.
Parties are innovating – they are experimenting with different ways of organising, communicating and campaigning with members, supporters and voters. Look at the Conservatives and their experiments with primaries, or Labour and community organising.
We want to give them a platform to go further – to imagine what the future party could be and work towards it.
The era of mass membership is clearly over. So what replaces mass membership? How do parties ensure they remain rooted among the people they represent when member numbers have dwindled? That is the sort of question we want the parties to be asking themselves.
*These and all subsequent figures are drawn from “Membership of political parties”, House of Commons library note 3 Dec 2012, available at: http://www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/SN05125.pdf