There’s been a fair bit in the news over the last two days about the size of political parties, with one source within the Conservative Party claiming that their membership has dwindled to around 70,000. That’s one heck of a decline, although not entirely surprising considering that the average age of a Conservative member is older than that of the other political parties (admittedly not by all that much).
In contrast, despite it’s Scotland-only focus the SNP alone have almost 120,000 members and the Labour Party has become the biggest political party in Europe with a membership of well over 500,000.
Given that opinion polls and subsequent elections don’t historically correlate well with party membership figures it might be tempting to dismiss this as largely electorally irrelevant. That would be a mistake.
The most obvious role in which membership numbers affect parties is funding for election activity and boots on the ground come polling day, neither of which is to be sniffed at. Labour’s ability to outwork the Conservatives in marginal seats is credited as one of the reasons we ended up with a hung Parliament in 2010. Furthermore, Labour’s increasing efforts under our last two leaders to develop a movement built on the basis of a mass membership party may well yet have a transformative effect on our politics.
However, in the mean time the Tories have learnt that money can go a long way to making up for a lack of voters come election time. Yet, there’s one thing it can’t make up for and having been Crawley Labour Party’s election agent over a number of years, it’s something which became very apparent to me in reverse during the recent growth of the party: parties are where candidates and subsequently our elected representatives come from.
Voters may well tend to vote for a party rather than a candidate, but it’s a candidate which gets elected at the end of the day and has to take on the role of serving their community. The smaller a political party becomes, the smaller its pool for recruiting candidates and as a result the poorer the level of representation. Clearly, this isn’t simply a problem for a party but for our democracy in general, there are few things worse for our quality of representation than a party with a large vote but a small membership. UKIP did a pretty solid job of proving that point over a number of years.
What the actual membership of the Conservative Party is remains to be seen, but the fact they like to keep it secret is probably not a great sign and whether they can scrounge up enough candidates in future to put up a decent slate at election time remains to be seen.