It's August, the Westminster Bubble is mostly free of Actual News, so the commentariat turns to navel-gazing. Why, they opine, WHY is poitical party membership falling off a cliff? It's particularly plaintive this year as the Tory party is rumoured to have dropped below 100,000 members
- as recently as 1990 they were over a million
, down from a peak of nearly 3 million. There are a lot of comment pieces about this in the mainstream media, and most of them seem to me to miss the salient point.
When one joins a poltical party, what does one get for one's money? It seems to me, not very much.Chance to become elected
You are much more likely to become elected if you are a member of a party than if you are an independent. And yet, the number of us living in safe seats, and the number of seats available in the first place, means that most mmbers of political parties won't get the chance to become elected, and that's even if they wanted to. Lots of people would rather not be. And those who do become eleced still need the supprt structures provided by a party, so there need to be lots of members who are not (and don't want to be) elected to office.Chance to influence party policy, and thereby the law of the land
This depends on the party. In the Lib Dems, the Greens, and the Pirates there are strong demoratic structures, and party policy is determined by members. I have been very proud to see policies that I have been involved in the formulation of become actual laws (shared parental leave, for example). In Labour and the Conservatives it sees to me that internal party democracy is weaker, although I am sure people will correct me on this if I am wrong. UKIP I have no idea.
The problem is though, that if your party DOES get into government, there's always the chance that the leadership will ignore party policy in favour of whatever the Daily Mail says. I strongly suspect this, or at least the perception of this, to be behind huge amounts of the falloff in Lib Dem membership the last couple of years.
The bottom line is that if you want to influence party policy, and thereby the government, you're much better off if you can afford to spend money directly influencing public opinion in a swing seat, because then all the parties will rush to pander to you. Beating your head against the brick wall of party machinery can sometimes achieve cracks in the wall, but mostly it achieves a sore head.You can get information from the party about what's going on
This can be quite useful. Although the information is quite partisan, it's still going to give you more than you get from the mainstream press. The thing is you have to sign up for a lot of this even as a member of the party. I get to see this every day at work. My work colleagues are signed up to different email lists to me. We all sometimes get stuff that the others don't. People unaware of how these things work are going to miss out on a lot.You can help select candidates for office
Well, you CAN, if you're someone who is good at getting in with the local party heirarchies. Most people who join a political party never go to a local party meetng.You can get to meet famous politicians
See above.It's a badge of honour
Uh, no. Normal people percieve EVERYONE who joins a political party, of whatever stripe, as weird. This is because, with less than half a milion people (I'm not counting Union affiliate members of the Labour party here, partly because many of them aren't Labour supporters, and partly because union membership is in steep decline too) being card-carrying members of any political party, we ARE weird.It's a social club, and you can use it for networking
Again, this only really applies to people who go to the local party meetings. It's not a social club for the armchair member. For me, embedded as I am in the party, the Lib Dems are my family. But having kept in touch with various people who have left for various reasons, it's clear that those friendships, once forged, don't die just because someone is not a member of the club any more.It's a public statement of what you believe in
So is a t-shirt, and a t-shirt is cheaper.
The list above just came from the top of my head, but it's obvious from it that although there are benefits for people who want to be activists, for the armchair member there is very little. And even for those who want to be activists, all too often you pay your subs, turn up to a local meeting, and discover that you have to spend ten years delivering leaflets "voluntarily", all the while paying your subs like a good little soldier, before anyone will listen to a word you have to say. Even those of us who have reached the rarefied position of having something of a voice regularly get told to shut up and deliver leaflets by those higher up the chain.
To me the reason membership of political parties is dwindling is blindingly obvious. For the vast majorty of members, you pay your money and you get nothing at all. The next biggest group are the group who pay their money and get roundly abused and expected to work very hard for the privelege of having paid. For a vanishingly small number, the benefits listed above become worth the money. But for most people? Why in the hell would you hand over hard-earned cash, particularly in today's economic climate, for a big pile of bugger all? You might as well go down the pub (while there's still some pubs left) and spend your money there.
If political parties want to stop the decline in membership they need to offer something that people think is worth spending money on. I don't see it happening any time soon...