There’s a saying that in democratic politics, the world is run by those that turn up. But what if nobody turns up?
For all the talk of low turnout at the elections last week, here’s something that is perhaps even more concerning – the ongoing national decline in membership of political parties. Take a look at the figures. In 1951 the Conservatives had 2.9 million members, Labour 876,000. Compare that to 2011, with 177,000 Tories and 190,000 in Labour. Even the Lib Dems, who pride themselves on a committed activist base, have seen their numbers drop from 91,000 in 1991 to 66,000 today.
These numbers reminded me of a brief period back around 2005-ish when I decided to join my local Labour Party. I wanted to take a more active role in politics. My constituency had a good, solid, old-Labour MP who took a principled stand against the Iraq War and university tuition fees, and I felt like I could get behind her.
What followed was possibly the most depressing non-experience one could possibly imagine. I went along to a meeting for my ward, which turned out to be just me and a veteran elderly couple who were having the meeting in their lounge. They waxed lyrical about the old days, when the meetings would be packed affairs at the local community hall, livened up by arguments with the Trotskyists who had long since been purged. Back then, party membership was a vibrant affair when there was always some cause to get stuck into – CND, the fight against apartheid, and so on. Now they just got the occasional glossy magazine extolling the achievements of the glorious leaders, and maybe an opportunity to have coffee with Patricia Hewitt.
By the time I left that evening, I was the party secretary for my ward. There simply wasn’t anybody else to do it.
When I got the membership list, the reading was pretty stark. Less than 40 members in the entire ward. The fringe religious sect on the corner probably had more people, and at least they turned up to meetings.
The constituency meetings at least had the advantage over ward meetings of actually having some people to gather together. But the content of discussions was hardly inspiring. Mostly it was about how to get one over on the local Lib Dems and Tories. Actually coming up with helpful solutions to the community’s problems came a poor second. I have fond memories of a leaflet being prepared calling for action on antisocial behaviour, helpfully illustrated with a photo of somebody in a hoodie apparently scrawling graffiti. It was a party member who’d been asked to hoodie up and stand with his back to the camera.
Before too long, I got to know one of that strange species, the career politician. The MP’s research assistant, who was the kind of slavishly-loyal, Blairite little sod who was clearly destined to be parachuted into a safe seat in a few years time. I probably would have despised him if I wasn’t having the occasional friendly pint with him. Once, I bumped into him in the street. He gave me a cheery hello. “I’ve just got back from the Commons. I tripped up George Galloway.”
“What, in debate?” I asked innocently.
“No, literally. He was walking down the corridor and I stuck my foot out.”
As I experienced the rather sad spectacle that the Labour Party had become, it quickly dawned on me how the Blairite careerists had come to prosper. There was no conspiracy to take over. It’s just that…well, who else would actually find this sort of thing a worthwhile use of their time and effort? You need to be an odd sort of a creature to find modern party politics enjoyable and rewarding. That, by the way, tells you everything you need to know about Ed Miliband.
After a few months, I discreetly quit. They were threatening to make me a council candidate, and it was time to get out while my soul was still intact.
Having experienced the current state of politics, I suspect that it’s not a surprise that in last week’s council elections, neither Labour nor the Tories managed to deliver a single leaflet to my door. The Lib Dems sent me quite a few leaflets, which at least suggests that their activists still retain their enthusiasm. Whether that enthusiasm will survive another couple of years in coalition may remain to be seen.
Political parties used to be mass movements with roots in local communities. Now they’re small cliques of PR types and policy wonks who real humans tend to find a bit strange. I don’t know how this situation can be remedied. I’d suggest that people should get out there and get involved with their local party, but I suspect that most of them would find it no more appealing than I did. In the meantime, the political process is likely to become even more alienated and isolated from the electorate it’s intended to serve.