This article is from the January 2013 issue of Total Politics

Membership of a political party is not exactly fashionable these days. In the 1950s, the three main parties are estimated to have had over four million card carrying members between them. By the time of the last general election, this figure had fallen to just over 400,000.

When I was a constituency agent 30 years ago, I was always told that a high and active membership was an essential ingredient for political success. I devoted much time to cajoling people previously identified as supporters into becoming active helpers and members.

With a general election approaching – in a seat deemed unwinnable by the national party – it was helpers that I needed most. Mailshots, door knocking and telephoning, all rarely used in those days, increased the number of active helpers from fewer than a hundred to over six hundred within a year.

The number of helpers enabled the campaign to achieve the biggest swing in England – 14 per cent against the Conservatives at the height of Mrs Thatcher’s post-Falklands popularity, and from third place. This convinced me that the kind of community-based campaign techniques I was promoting for the Liberal Party required very high levels of volunteer commitment.

Recruiting members was not easy. People feared that membership would entail boring committee meetings and responsibilities that they did not want. I was happy enough if they would deliver a regular round of leaflets, or, better still, knock on doors.

The problem for the parties, however, was that the fundraising assumptions were always based on having a lot of members to target for financial appeals. Even before the SDP led the way with a fully computerised national membership database, parties sought to turn members into donors and those making modest contributions into those who make larger ones.  

The pressure to deliver more leaflets often meant that voter identification through doorstep canvassing went into significant decline – and with it the follow-up doorstep approaches that I had used in the past to recruit members and helpers.  

The Conservative Party, with a much older membership, appeared to abandon doorstep canvassing altogether in many areas. I heard after-dinner speakers suggest that a cold winter would reduce their membership even more considerably.  

Mailshots, the telephone and the internet were supposed to be the new methods for recruiting and sustaining membership, but new technologies have not bucked the long-term trends in declining membership of political parties.  

Labour managed to increase its membership levels significantly in the run-up to 1997, but in common with all governing parties, its membership levels plummeted in government. It seems people join parties as a protest against a sitting government, but often see their membership as a one-off contribution to defeating that government, rather than a long-term commitment to supporting that particular party in government.

When I speak to young people, I can talk about political heroes like Steve Biko who was murdered at the age of 27 because of his campaigning through the Black Consciousness Movement to end apartheid. Or I can point out that Martin Luther King was only 25 when he led the march on Washington and spoke of his dream.

But it is easy to see how newspaper condemnation of politicians and politicians’ condemnation of each other has created a climate in which young people are not as attracted to join the major political parties as they once were. It is not that they are less political, but organisations such as the environmental campaign groups offer a much easier way of feeling that you are trying to change things, even if, in reality, you change far less than a well-motivated political party can.

I always tell student groups that the best way they can make a difference and achieve some of what they want for the world may be through a political party. Party membership levels have also declined in recent decades in most European countries, but as a proportion of the electorate, it is only lower in Poland and Latvia than it is in Great Britain. Perhaps we British politicians – as well as elements of our media – have only ourselves to blame for the decline in the numbers of people willing to be fully paid-up members of a political party while membership of many other non-party political organisations thrive.

Chris Rennard worked for the Liberal Party and Lib Dems for 27 years, was director of campaigns and elections 1989–2003 and chief executive 2003–2009

Tags: Campaigns, Issue 54, Lord Rennard, Party membership