Despite reports, the party's still not kicking off... Some recent stats on political party membership in the UK

Bees and Bombs, “ Turning Squares ”

Bees and Bombs, “Turning Squares

This may be something you’ve heard before from us… but it bears repeating. Our pals at Flatpack Democracy have been doing some research into the exact numbers around membership of political parties in the UK - their proportion of the total eligible population.

Below is a scan of the latest set of stats they’ve gotten from the Office of National Statistics (click on the image and it will expand, the original Excel document is here, and also here’s the recent House of Commons Library report on political party membership).

The stats are no less startling than when we started to invoke them 18 months ago. According to current figures, it’s still only two percent of the total 18+ population of those in the UK eligible (not registered) to vote that are members of political parties. Take nearly 6 million out of that who are unregistered (11% of the population), and by our calculations the percentage of party membership only rises to 2.09%.

Other charts from the House of Commons Library report are interesting add-ons to the above. For example, this chart (below) shows the overall share of people in selected organisations - compared to voluntary, religious or sports and culture organisations, political parties almost disappear from the bottom of the chart (trade union membership only just over twice party membership).

It’s interesting to also note that sport and culture orgs are on the increase over a 2004-2014 period. It confirms our interest in trying to seek inspiration for new politics from part of society that value expression, participation and creativity.

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[There’s also an interesting discrepancy in the British Attitudes Survey report feeding into this, in that 7% of respondents in 2014 “described themselves as belonging to but not actively participating in a political party”. As the BSA puts it, “some of our respondents were probably claiming psychological rather than paid membership”.]

We’ve never said that this tiny percentage of party membership means that people don’t have interests in politics. But it’s striking from the HoC Library report how different polling bodies (see below) seem to catch different levels of interest. In any case that interest considerably outstrips party memberships. This is a real challenge to political parties currently, as social forms.

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It indicates dangers too. For example, if the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn says that his decision on a “People Vote” on the final Brexit deal is dependent on what the Labour party members want, where does that leave the many tens of millions of Leave voters out there, who thought they were involved in a great act of democracy?

Adam Ramsay in Open Democracy wrote the other week an optimistic piece about “platform parties” versus “plutocrat PR”. The picture he sketched was of vibrant progressive parties with expanding memberships (which is a little true), facing a hollow Tory party (and an enfeebled UKIP) reliant on big money funders and political technologists (like Cambridge Analytica).

Yet for the rest of Ramsay’s piece, and compared to these bigger numbers about the different forms of participation in society, it looked like a lot of dancing around a tiny circle. It may seem significant to say that the Labour Party takes in more money from its members than the Times takes from its readers - but this is a comparison with a declining and delegitimated media.

Ramsay sets out his aspirations for political parties - not too far from Indra Adnan’s mapping in her Is The Party Over? paper:

…Parties must be spaces in which people can debate and discuss, where the most interesting conversation is taking place. They must create space for people to grow. They should tap into the collective genius of their members. They should be how we re-learn the art of democratic discourse in the digital age and where we develop our understanding of the world. They should be the democratic platforms through which we organise to take back control of our politics.

Yet as Ramsay himself notes, people who join political parties (the SNP is a great example) are often looking for a shelter from the storm of current media-establishment politics. And their tendency is not to open themselves out to his ideal vision of political culture, but:

…to see their role on social media as providing solidarity and support to their side. Whatever specific differences they may have with their leaderships, they understand that the choice is between having journalists and opponents portray them as a cult or being dismissed as split. In that context, people tend to choose discipline over discussion, ‘cult’ over conversation.

This comes from an entirely different place from the “conversations” we are trying to develop in our “collaboratories” across the country. In which a new language of politics and power comes from that vast territory (somewhat mapped by those participation percentages in voluntary, sports-and-culture and religious groups) whose active commitments to a better world are not phrased in the standard party languages of industrial- and imperial-era politics.

Out of this reclamation of our powers, perhaps new forms - coming from “citizens networks” - of political organisation may come. But if the last few years of top-down political upheaval teaches us anything, it’s that listening to where communities are, and what they want and yearn for, is the best test of any political strategy.