A chilling thought for those of us involved in political parties

Prospect this month had an essay from Paul Skidmore ahead of a paper he and Demos have published about ways of measuring just how much of a democratic culture we have. But the bit that was bound to catch my eye was this:

British political parties have been haemorrhaging members at the rate of about one every 12 minutes since 1980.

I’ve touched on this before and of course there are people like Peter who argue that a range of our problems stem from the way we seem to have turned our backs on trying to retain members.

But Skidmore suggests that there’s something more systemic at work than policy differences between members and leaders of political parties; otherwise how to explain his next sentence:

But party membership among the democracies of Western Europe almost halved between 1980 and 2000.


This doesn’t provide us with a road map out of the malaise, and I’m not sure his paper does either (which doesn’t mean that it doesn’t make some sensible suggestions about ways of doing a health check on democratic engagement).

From my perspective this has to be understood as a shared problem for political parties and the wider civic structures. As a letter in the same edition of Prospect puts it:

one cause of a worrying atrophy in the political process in recent years is the dwindling activist membership of political parties (and trade unions, in the case of the Labour party), and the effect this has on the selection of candidates for parliament and local government. Small cabals now tend to gather around existing representatives in order to control the whole process, and challenges to them are difficult to organise. I’m not sure what the answer is, but the process needs revitalising.


About Andrew Brown

I live in Lewisham, South East London, and spent 9 years as a Labour councillor in the borough between 1997 and 2006.
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5 Responses to A chilling thought for those of us involved in political parties

  1. From my point of view, there isn’t a political party I agree with the policies enough/passionately enough to want to join. I am Labour at heart but I am utterly disillusioned with New Labour, with this Government and with Gordon Brown in particular. And I am personally upset by the complete disdain in which they hold the people who work hard for them (I’m talking about the civil service in case people don’t recognise what I mean).

    I was so excited when Labour were elected in 1997 I might have even considered joining the party. I stayed up almost the whole night, the night before I started my finals, to watch Portillo and Mellor be ousted. I can remember it as if it were yesterday. But even then I felt myself to be “old” rather than new Labour.

    To be honest, I just feel so let down.

    (Doesn’t stop me being an active member of my trade union though, I think they are different things and serve different purposes).

  2. Ross says:

    i think that in the last couple of decades or so, a lot of complacency has set in within what was an already a fairly elitist & exclusive political class, partly fueled by the whole ‘end of history’ outlook and the feeling that since the soviet union had disintegrated there was no real reason to ‘compete’ for real mass political allegiance anymore, ever since then the three main parties have opportunisitically parasited on an ever decreasing section of middle class, middle england, marginal constituents (along with an increasing reliance on big influential donors) which was enough to deliver them into power

    i think it was clear as long ago as 1995 that new labour were set to abandon their traditional constituency and those that had gave them legitimacy in the first place, and ditch any lingering commitment to outcomes based on social equality & justice and instead put their faith in market forces and the obvious outcomes that such things lead to, i.e. social immobility, poverty and inequality all have increased, not to mention things like freedom of association, right to fair trial etc.. etc.. we get lectured continously about how ‘tough’ choices have to be made yadda yadda, but it’s startling how often these tough choices have massively regressive implications and without fail end up with a transfer of value/money from the public sector to the private sector with a corresponding transfer of risk from the private sector to the public sector, even adam smith would be turning in his grave about the way the neo-liberal project has unfolded

  3. I would suggest the way out of the malaise is about turning outwards and standing on platforms that are attractive to most working class people. The way politics is conducted and presented in this country, plus the ideological commitment to neoliberalism is enough to put everyone but the anorak off politics.

  4. Ross says:

    thing is i see the problem as being much wider than that

    since capital & market forces was set free to roam globally from the mid 70’s onwards, there has been a marked distinction and seperation between the powers of the territorial state and the powers of capital/finance/the markets. whereas prior to that, economic power was firmly established by first having political/military power and therefore whoever controlled the political system controlled everything else, what we’ve seen over the last 40 odd years is a decoupling of these two things, so even if the political process was revived and mass participation achieved, the prize at stake is much reduced in terms of the influence or ‘power’ that that would give the partcipants, it’s a much impoverished and impotent prize that’s at stake

    more and more activities and areas that were previously the domain of the territorial/political state are now very much controlled by the market. the increasing commodification of every day life, the regulation of social relations and the impersonal mediation of almost all activities by the invisible hand of the market have replaced the previously more direct & obvious control that the terrotorial/political state used to oversee. So although there is plenty dissatisfaction, contempt, unease, potential revolt etc.. in relation to society as it stands today, the previous visibility of what creates those conditions has disappeared and left a very informal, impersonal power in its place, something that everyone knows exists but is hard to define or place, and thus to react against – gaining control or influence over the political system would not necassirely bring about any substantive change in the aspects of life that the political system has less and less influence on (the capitulation of labour is an example of this)

    i don’t think this means that the traditional political state is a thing of the past however, on the contrary even. their is a contradiction in all this, in that although capital/market forces more and more have a reach well beyond that of the political state, it does more and more rely on the traditional state as a crutch/prop for its activities, the politcal form of globalisation is not a globalised state or a cabal of mega corporations and it will never be, it will continue to be a globalised network of individual states – and that contradiction/tension is set to be ever increasing – for capital/markets to do what they do, i.e. relentless accumulation and expansion for accumulation and expansions sake, they need to go, and have gone, beyond the boundries of the traditional state power, but at the same time it’s more and more clear to capital and the market system that the only way it can ensure the orderly framework for capital to function and freely move around the world is by relying on the political states to artifically create, uphold & foster those conditionsto allow capital to survive (monopoly on legitimate violence etc.., why wouldn’t capital choose the state system as an enforcer/enabler)

    i think that contradiction has been highlighted quite effectively in the last few months, central banks, in spite of rising inflation, using monetary policy to bail out the financial system, the bailout of northern rock etc., the mopping up of losses incurred by private risk taking through public risk transfer etc…, all these things show that capital & the market system cannot function on its own in the natural manner that it’s proponents always say it can, but the other side of the coin is that when the political state tries to do something that encroachs on the activities of capita/the market, they are promptly told to go away and sharpen their pencils and come up with somethng else, two recent examples of this has been the forced u-turn by the govt on proposals to change the capital gains tax system and the taxing of non-doms, and also the reaction by the market/capital about gordon brown’s initial hesitance to continue to push the role of private firms in the public sector, he too was soon forced to go away and think again and to come back with the much more market friendly aim to ‘deepen and widen’ the role of the private sector in things like the health service

    sorry rambled a bit from the original point i was trying to make….

  5. Pingback: Long tail of the Labour Party | Someday I Will Treat You Good

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