“My name is Bob, I’ve been a councillor in Nottinghamshire for twenty years, and I’m to the right of Genghis Khan.”
This was uttered into a microphone at a Q&A – to great applause from those around him – following a fringe event at Tory conference in Birmingham several years ago. In the interests of fairness and disclosure, the topic was Europe, with the most pro-European person on the panel being Tim Montgomerie, but nevertheless it sticks in my brain as a beautiful imprint of a monumental difficulty facing every modern political party: their membership numbers are too small.
Back in the mid-1950s, the Conservative Party had close to 3 million members; the Labour Party had around a million. Even the Liberal Party had about a quarter of a million. These days, the Tories have about 150,000 members, Labour somewhere between 200 and 250 thousand. Back in the middle part of the 20th century, being a member of a political party was considered a mainstream thing to do. It was partly a social thing; many people met their spouses at party social events.
These days, being a member of a political party is thought of as a rather niche, odd activity to engage in. I think partly as a result, party memberships have gone the way of all groups of people when they shrink in number: the hardcore, never say die types stick around, while all the other people with better things to do bugger off. As a result, the membership as a whole drifts away from where most of the electorate is – even away from the people who vote for their own party.
Take the Labour upper echelons and their frustrations with the runaway Corbyn campaign. They’re out of touch with their own party membership because they are thinking about ways to get normal folk who might be persuaded to vote Labour to do so, while the membership is committed to a holy quest to cleanse the Labour Party. If their membership was more representative of the electorate as a whole, the gap wouldn’t be so painfully wide. But it is, like I say, not just for Labour but for pretty much every political party going these days, as Genghis Khan from Nottinghamshire aptly demonstrated. It’s not as big a problem for UKIP or the Greens, who do not aspire to govern the country. But we can even see it in those parties. What if the Greens got a new leader who wanted to move away from far left politics and concentrate the party’s energy on environmentalism? He or she would be labelled a Tory (or worse). What if Carswell became leader of UKIP and said that the party needed to stop obsessing about immigration so much? Good luck with that one, Douglas.
What’s the solution? Like most things in modern day politics, there isn’t one. A political party without members is cut adrift from any internal democratic process, and is thus going to be controlled by an even smaller and more unrepresentative group of people. They can only hope that their members do what they’ve done in the past: when they get tired of losing, wise up.