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.
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.