Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London. This article appear’s in Bright Blue’s latest magazine ‘The End of Establishment?’
We live in a golden age of political participation. Hard to believe it, I know. But when it comes to people joining political parties, it’s true – or at least half true.
On the one hand, huge numbers of people have joined UK political parties in the last year or two, bucking a European-wide decline that most experts had assumed was as inexorable as it was ubiquitous.
On the other hand, the surge we’ve seen recently only looks impressive because it’s occurred after decades in which membership had – bar the occasional blip – been dropping, sometimes like a stone. We are still, the pessimists are right to remind us, nowhere near the levels we saw back in the early 1950s. And the Conservative Party, which could claim to be the biggest political party this country had ever seen when its membership officially (and not altogether convincingly) peaked at 2,805,032 in 1953, is arguably in rather less rude health in this respect than its main rival, Labour, which now boasts some 600,000 members to the Tories’ guesstimated 150,000.
But should this gap really worry us? Are we too ready to assume that having lots of members is always a good thing? Is there any evidence to link growth in membership with, say, electoral success or more responsive policies? What is it that members do – or are supposed to do – for a political party? Is it inevitably positive or are there some downsides to people joining?
These are questions worth asking, especially in the light of what’s happened to Labour in the last couple of years. Cast your mind back to the 2015 election: Ed Miliband, we were told, stood a stronger chance of making it into Downing Street than many people imagined because his party had a much better ‘ground game’ than did David Cameron’s. While the Prime Minister and his colleagues were amassing a war chest that they could spend both during and, perhaps more crucially, before campaigning officially began, Ed’s grassroots were supposedly out on ‘the Labour doorstep’ having ‘five million conversations’ with voters. Well, it’s possible that they may have been – but little good it did them. The Conservatives, as we know, not only beat Labour easily but won a completely unexpected overall majority.
In other words, if elections come down to members versus money, money may well be the winner. But even more importantly, if a party’s message isn’t resonating with voters, then no amount of voter contact, whether it be canvassing by members or via Facebook through Party HQ, is going to make much difference.
And anyway, we need to remember that most members of political parties don’t think or sound like the voters they’re trying to mobilise. Whatever else is shown by the wealth of survey data on party members that my colleagues, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, and I have collected for our ESRC-funded party membership project, it shows that they are, almost irrespective of party, better-off and better educated, and of course much more ideological and interested in politics, than those whose doors they knock on or whose phone numbers they ring.
Politicians and party staffers are well aware of this dirty little secret, which is why, traditionally anyway, they have paid far more attention, when formulating both policy and campaigns, to their own intuitions and expertise – and, of course, to opinion polls – than they have to the often very unrepresentative views of their own foot soldiers. That is not to say, however, that even in the Conservative Party (which has always preserved its leadership’s autonomy by steadfastly refusing to adopt the internal democracy which is the norm in most other parties) members have no influence at all. After all, one only has to think of Brexit to realise that pressure from the party in the country, when combined with pressure applied simultaneously at Westminster, can help paint a Tory Prime Minister into a corner from which he can escape only by doing something he would earlier have regarded (and must surely regard now) as utterly stupid.
In his classic work on the distribution of power within British political parties, Bob McKenzie, a Canadian academic who became one of the nation’s favourite political pundits back in the days of black and white television, noted that, although Labour’s constitution made it look more democratic and therefore more responsive to members than the Tories, the reality was rather different. But what happened to the party in the 1970s and 1980s, when the left temporarily seized control of the levers of power from the bottom up, suggested he’d rather overplayed its informal (but nonetheless institutionalised) elitism. Still, we all thought that normal service had been resumed after the devastating election defeat Labour suffered in 1983.
Indeed, the centralisation of power Labour experienced from the late 1980s onwards, culminating in the manifestly top-down rule of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, suggested there would be no return to what some on the right of the party clearly regarded as the bad old days of badly-dressed blokes in branch meetings and on the conference floor telling their leaders what to do. The fact that party members provided – as was also the case for the Conservatives, although not for parties like the Lib Dems and the Greens – a smaller and smaller proportion of the party’s funding only served to reinforce the common wisdom that, unlike big donors, they could be ignored.
Now, it appears, everyone spoke too soon. Partly as a reaction to the apparent control freakery of New Labour, and partly as a reaction to the unexpected loss of the 2015 election and the uninspiring continuity candidates competing to succeed Ed Miliband, the party’s membership (and not just those who joined after the election either) decided the answer to its problems lay on the left. By electing Jeremy Corbyn and giving him a mandate for a platform whose appeal to activists lies in inverse proportion to its appeal to floating voters, it has provided a perfect illustration of why mass membership isn’t necessarily an unalloyed good – at least for a party which hopes to stand some chance of governing a small-c conservative country with a sometimes vicious print media and a first-past-the-post electoral system.
This, it must be said, is a very Westminster-centric view. If we zoom out from SW1, we see that party members can and do still have a very positive role to play in British politics. Many of them are actively involved in community work and local governance, often standing as (or at least supporting) the councillors who do unsung work, day-in-day-out, for all of us.
In this, they also continue to provide the training grounds and constitute the recruitment pool from which many of those who aspire to the national stage emerge. Moreover, they form the so-called ‘selectorates’ whose approval those with loftier ambitions have to seek – a privilege which, by the way, our party members surveys suggest grassroots members are loathe to cede either to their leadership or to the wider public in the form of primaries.
Not all party members, of course, are so involved. Many of them, as our surveys show, do next to nothing for their parties apart from pay their subs – and as those responsible for collecting those subs will confirm, lots of them don’t even do that! But active or passive, members remain an essential, if sometimes awkward, part of Britain’s precious democratic life.