Only around 1% of people in Britain belong to a political party. The numbers have been falling steadily for many years – but what do they tell us about British society?
Is this simply another sign of the cynicism that many have regarding the political process? An indicator of new ways in which we can express political opinions? Or do we see no point in joining the highly centralised political parties where ordinary members have little say?
The closure of many traditional Conservative and Liberal clubs may have an impact too. These were key social settings in many areas, and often the only place that served alcohol. You had to become a party member to enter, even if you never took part in any political activities afterwards.
It costs money to join too: the Labour Party’s basic rate is £41 although that falls to £20.50 if you are a member of an affiliated trade union. For the Tories it costs £25, while the Lib Dems comes in at £12. All have cheaper rates for young people, and the Lib Dems and Labour have special rates for the unemployed, but not the Tories.
The fall in numbers has affected all three major parties. The Conservatives have seen numbers fall from 1 million in 1991 to just 177,000. Over the same period, Labour Party membership has fallen from 261,000 to 190,000 and the Lib Dems have dropped from 91,000 to 66,000.
There are more fringe parties now, which brings the total membership numbers up a little: the Greens and UKIP have grown in recent years. And the nationalist parties, Plaid Cymru and the Scottish National Party, both have healthy memberships.
Many people now prefer to join local campaigning groups or single issue organisations rather than a political party. This would seem to indicate a more sophisticated electorate that prefers to focus its energies on the issues it sees as most important.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that we now do not have mass membership political parties. This is not necessarily a bad thing, and indeed could indicate a wider involvement in grass roots organisations that could change the nature of political life in time.