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Stephen Tall is the Co-Editor of LibDem Voice. Follow Stephen on Twitter.

Screen shot 2013-08-12 at 17.41.49I'm a card-carrying party member. Are you? If
so, then welcome to the club, along with our fellow freakish oddballs. The
credit card-sized bit of laminated yellow card which I pointlessly keep in my
wallet at all times marks me out as a member of a fast disappearing tribe:
someone who voluntarily gives my preferred political party not only my vote at
each election, but also some of my own money each year.

In the 1950s, it's reckoned there were well over
four million of us eccentrics out there. Today, it's not even 400,000. At this
rate of decline, we'll all be able to fit into Wembley stadium in a few short
years. That would at least offer a novel experience for us Lib Dems: cheering
on a national team we know has no hope of winning.

I've been enjoying ConservativeHome's campaign
to persuade Grant Shapps to come clean about the party's membership figures:
Why
can't we be told how many members the Conservative Party has?
 It
seems the Lib Dems are both more transparent and more organised: our membership
figures are published annually in our Statement of Accounts. Ours don't make
for happy reading at the moment – membership has plunged
by 34 per cent to 42,500
 since the Coalition was formed – which is probably
why the Conservative leadership isn't rushing to "fess up" to what's happened on
Prime Minister Cameron's watch. Paul Goodman estimates
them to be between 100,000 and 130,000
, down by at least half
compared to the 253,600 members eligible to vote in the party's 2005 leadership
election.

To some extent, all this is inevitable. Parties
pick up members in opposition, as hope dawns afresh. Tony Blair successfully
boosted Labour membership in the mid-1990s to 400,000. Nigel Farage's UIKIP is
reportedly at or above the 30,000 mark, double its membership in 2010. Parties
then see membership drop off in government, as reality bites. New Labour fell
back to below its pre-Blair level as the sheen came off his government. (We
have yet to see what would happen to UKIP in government, and my guess is we'll
be waiting some time.) Despite these upwards blips, the overall trend is clear:
down, down, down.


This inexorable decline is all part of the
fragmentation of our political culture. Voters are less likely to identify
personally with parties any more. The Conservative and Labour duopoly is over:
remember, in the 1951 election they won 97 per cent of the national vote between them;
by 2010 their combined share stood at just 65 per cent.

Political parties have been supplanted by
single-issue campaigning organisations, which don't expect their members to put
in the hard work of subscribing to a broad political philosophy across a range
of issues, but simply to care passionately about just one thing. Join Amnesty
or join the RSPB and you are making a very clear statement about what matters
to you. It's both much easier and much less likely to disappoint than joining a
political party. Even loyalists like me have our limits. Earlier this year, I
halved my annual membership dues to the Lib Dems in
protest at the leadership's support for illiberal measures like press
regulation and secret courts, and donated the proceeds to those
trusty free speech campaigners at Index
on Censorship
.

But I am not a cynic. I couldn’t not be a member
of a political party. To me, it would be the equivalent of resigning from
society. Just not an option. And, being a liberal type, the Lib Dems are the
only party of which I could ever imagine being a member.

Besides, Lib Dem members are the lucky ones: we
actually get to shape and influence our party's direction. In a month's time,
I'll be in Glasgow with thousands of other Lib Dems for our party conference,
taking part in debates and votes about which policies will appear in the
party's 2015 manifesto, ranging from Trident to the EU to tax policy. Yes, there'll
also be the usual dry platform speeches, embarrassing schmaltzy rallies, and
badly catered fringe debates: but at its heart, it's about party members
coming together to decide, democratically, what we stand for. I look on at the
Conservative and Labour conferences – where members sit passively, as clapping
adornments, with no formal policy-making role -  and wonder why you all put up
with it.

True, members can be a nuisance. I'm sure the
Lib Dem leadership will suffer a least one bloody nose in Glasgow at the hands
of the party's gloriously cussed activists this year. But as well as a
hindrance we can also have our uses. When it came to negotiating the Coalition
Agreement, the Lib Dems' hand was greatly strengthened by the knowledge that it
would have to be approved (under the rules of our constitution) not only by the
party's MPs and its governing federal executive, but also by a special
conference of party members. The party won a better deal as a direct result of
its direct democracy. That all of us dipped our hands in blood to sign up to
the Coalition explains why the Lib Dems have, despite haemorrhaging support,
survived this far, surprisingly united.

The bottom line is that all the political
parties need more members, need to reverse the decades of decline. Partly, this
is for selfish reasons: more members means more potential activists and donors.
Partly, it's for altruistic reasons: a party which wants to represent the
voters needs to include a representative sample, to keep it focused on what
matters to the public at large and not just the zealots within. Ed Miliband's
move to allow trade union members to opt-in to Labour party membership is part
of this drive — and it's why Lib Dems and Conservatives should make sure trade
unionists have the option to join any political party, not just Labour.

Power in the future, domestically and
internationally, depends on being able to build alliances, to create
alignments. Membership structures themselves will need to loosen — Douglas
Carswell
is right to say parties
will need to adapt into movements in just the same way as the
Westminster Village is having to grown accustomed to the unravelling of the old
certainties of two-party politics. Those of us who are 'proper' members will
need to become a lot less precious about our constitutional rights, and a lot
more welcoming to newcomers dipping their toes in the water.

I'll still hold on to my Lib Dem membership
card: it's part of my identity. But those of us who are still members of this
tribe need to realise quite how rare and endangered we are. Like all species
facing extinction, we need to evolve to survive.

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