New research on the steady decline of political party memberships in Europe
One of our critical takes in A/UK is that our language of political priorities is dominated by the established party system. The proportion of the population which is member of a political party, at least in the UK, is somewhere between 2 - 3%. How much is being left out of the policy process if the vast majority of citizens don't have a direct relationship with parties? We aim our efforts at mapping the interests and passions of the 98%.
Now, a report from the London School of Economics shows how party membership pans out across Europe, over the last decade at least. The two graphs are fascinating:
In terms of party memberships as a proportion of national electorates, it's fascinating to see that the European average is just over 4%, and the UK is so low (below 2%) - which dramatises the crisis on these islands. (Very recent stats show tiny improvements. Our own percentages for the 2015 General Elections is that, UK-wide, 3% of the nearly 30m who voted were in parties. In some areas of the UK, it's slightly less worse. For Scotland's 2016 Holyrood general elections, 7.1% of the 55.6% of the electorate who votes were in political parties. This still leaves the vast majority of the population only connected to political parties through an infrequent national or regional vote.)
The UK's decline in party membership isn't worse than others, but still on a slow decline.
The authors of the report conclude:
Party memberships in contemporary European democracies have now fallen to such a low level that they no longer seem to offer a meaningful indicator of party organisational capacity.
This inevitably calls into question our dominant way of thinking about political parties as a meaningful linkage mechanism between the general public and the institutions of government.
Especially since collateral organisations traditionally linked to the parties, the trade unions and the traditional churches, are experiencing a decline in levels of support that is almost as dramatic.
While political parties continue to play a major role in the elections and institutions of modern European democracies, it seems that they have all but abandoned any pretensions to being mass organisations.
In the face of the current crisis of public trust and plummeting confidence in parties and politicians, the time has perhaps come for the parties to seriously consider what forms of political organisation might be appropriate to representative democracy in the twenty-first century.