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Both coalition parties are haemorrhaging members

This article is over 11 years, 9 months old
Tom Walker examines how the Cameron-Clegg pact is driving away Tories and Lib Dems alike
Issue 2316

The coalition has a hidden crisis. The membership of both its parties is in freefall. The Liberal Democrats have lost a quarter of their members in just one year.

The huge drop in 2011, from over 65,000 members to just under 49,000, was revealed in accounts the party filed with the Electoral Commission last week. It is its biggest single-year drop in membership ever.

The figures cover the first full year of the party’s coalition with the Tories. Reports in June showed its youth wing, Liberal Youth, lost more than half of its 6,000 members last year.

And in Lib Dem minister Sarah Teather’s constituency, Brent in north west London, 42 percent of all members walked out. There were other signs of the meltdown in the May elections this year. The party fell to an all-time low of fewer than 3,000 councillors.

Modern political parties have allowed their memberships to slide, believing they don’t need them. But the Lib Dems’ fate shows the panic a big fall in membership can still cause.

Widespread reports suggested that in many seats it couldn’t even find anyone willing to stand under its banner. The Independent identified over 1,000 seats with “missing” Lib Dem candidates, where Labour and the Tories contested the election but the Liberals didn’t.

The Lib Dems’ membership was hardly left wing. But a significant chunk bought into the idea that they were an “alternative” to the Tories and Labour.


Many disappointed members appear to have resigned when the coalition was formed. More followed over the party’s support for £9,000 student fees and the attacks on the NHS.

It’s not only the Lib Dems who are in trouble. The Tories don’t publish official membership statistics. But a study for the House of Commons library estimated their membership was 177,000 in 2010.

Latest estimates, from a survey by Tory website ConservativeHome, are that today’s figure could be as low as 130,000. When David Cameron won the Tory leadership contest in 2005, the estimated membership was 258,000. So he has presided over a halving of the party’s base.

But these Tories are not quitting because they feel the government’s policies are too right wing. A Telegraph survey in July found that many who leave the Tories do so over issues like gay marriage. Another poll showed 60 percent of all Tory activists want to form an electoral pact with Ukip.

Another sign that the Tory right is dissatisfied is that its rich donors aren’t giving as much. In 2011 the Tories’ income from donations halved compared to 2010, from £32 million to £14 million. This is the lowest level since 2003.

That doesn’t mean there are no Tories left. The Tories raised £1 million last year through the Conservative Weekly Draw—a modern version of a local Tory raffle.

But in the coalition, it seems, neither party can keep its supporters satisfied. And as the parties’ foundations erode away under the surface, it is surely creating cracks and weakening the government.

Unions dominate Labour’s donor list

The Labour party made much of its 65,000-member surge after Ed Miliband became leader in 2010. The latest figures, though, show that this enthusiasm was not sustained. In fact the party started 2011 with 193,261 members and ended it with 193,300—a net gain of just 39 people.

Still, it seems that the party has stemmed the long decline in membership it saw under Tony Blair. Blair had talked of taking the party’s membership up to one million—the number it had at its 1950s peak. Instead, during his government Labour membership fell from 405,000 in 1997 to 177,000 when he left office.

His motivation for wanting to draw in so many people wasn’t left wing. It was to carve out Labour party members of another category—trade union members who pay the political levy to Labour.

There are currently around 2.7 million union members who do so. They had long funded and sustained the party. The Blairites thought this mass base was too radical.

They aimed to replace it with big business donors and clever PR. But their project ultimately failed. Now, under Miliband, Labour’s donors list reads like a who’s who of the unions.

Heading up the list for 2011 were Unite with £3.6 million, Unison with £2 million and GMB with £1.9 million. They were followed by shop union Usdaw on £1.3 million and communications union CWU on £590,000.

In contrast the biggest individual donor, property developer turned NSPCC boss Andrew Rosenfeld, handed over just £121,000. The most high-profile of Labour’s big donors, Lord Sugar of The Apprentice fame, only stumped up £69,000 to either Labour or Miliband’s office in 2011.

Overall, some 84 percent of donations to Labour now come from the unions—£10 million out of £11.9 million. Unfortunately, 84 percent of the party’s policies don’t.

So just how big is Torytown?

If the membership of the political parties all lived together in a city, then Labour, with its 193,000 members, would be the size of Newcastle.

The Tories’ 130,000 strong membership is closest to the population of Slough. The Lib Dems’ 49,000, meanwhile, makes the party slightly smaller than the Welsh town of Barry.

Tories’ top five donors in 2011

  • Peter Cruddas, a city banker, gave £399,522

  • Hedge fund boss Michael Farmer donated £255,000

  • Stanley Fink, another hedge fund boss, gave £253,201

  • Digger company JCB gave £242,000

  • Phone firm Lycamobile donated £176,180

Membership is less than 1%

The latest dips in party membership mean that less than 1 percent of the population are now members of one of the “big three” political parties.

This has fallen by more than half even since New Labour took office in 1997, when it was 2 percent. In 1983 it was twice as high again, at almost 4 percent.


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