CanvassingWe’re so used to the dominance of party politics and party alignment in the UK that it’s hard for us to notice that it’s disappearing, and increasingly quickly, in front of our eyes. In fact, at a national level in the UK, the single member constituency/ first past the post system is disguising the collapse of the main parties and the shifting landscape.

The political analyst Vernon Bogdanor pointed out in an article last week that UK party membership has collapsed. Conservative Party membership is currently 145,000 – down to a quarter of what it was in 2005.  (In 1975, the Conservatives had one and a half million members, ten times the present numbers). Labour’s slump in membership has been slightly slower, but no less woeful: 150,000 members now against 400,000 in 1996.

The long-term trend is also dramatic, as Bogdanor summarises:

Fifty years ago, one in 11 of us belonged to a party. Now, it is just one in 88. This decline in party membership is probably greatest among young people, and that is also the group least likely to vote. Generational change is fuelling scepticism towards the orthodoxies of tribal politics. The major parties, as mass organisations, are dying on their feet.

All of this is disguised in the UK’s overall system of representation by the first past the post system, which focusses attention on share of votes cast (largely overlooking proportions of those bothering to vote) and encourages people to vote for parties they don’t actually support strongly whose candidate has a chance of being elected in their constituency. There’s never such a thing as a controlled experiment in political systems – events keep getting in the way – but the gap between the shares at the last UK general election and the European elections is an indication of the gap: in 2005, 10% of those who turned out to vote voted for a party other than Labour, Conservatives, or Liberal. In the European election this year, conducted on a proportional representation system, those three parties got 60% of the vote:

The combined vote for Ukip, the Greens and the BNP was just 0.5% less than that of the winning Conservatives, who gained only 28% of the vote.

Similar proportions have been seen in recent opinion polls. In Scotland and Wales, where the nationalist parties are involved in government, it’s possible to argue that proportional representation has created more energy, and greater fairness, around representation. But it is important to separate the issue of representation from participation.

As Peter Mair demonstrated convincingly in an article memorably entitled ‘Ruling the Void?’ a couple of years ago in New Left Review (subscription required), the decline in party membership has occurred across Europe (even if the UK now manages to achieve some of the lowest numbers), regardless of voting system.

There’s a bigger question sitting underneath the data, if you like. It’s customary to respond to comments about the decline in the numbers involved in party politics, actively or passively, by observing that far more are involved in single issue campaigns, and that the internet enables this. The social research data also suggest that the overall levels of interest in politics – even among the young – is no lower than it used to be.

So there are two related issues here. Participation in party politics has fallen to levels that are all but terminal. (250 members per constituency does not mean 250 activists per constituency). There’s a clear gap between how people would choose to be represented in a fairer electoral system, and how they vote in the tightly constrained system we have. Both issues can lead – and probably will – to a democratic crisis. (It is quite likely that David Cameron’s Conservatives will have a substantial majority on the basis of the smallest numbers of votes per seat ever cast for a winning party). But even if we fix the representative issues, if we believe that democratic government matters, we’ll still have to sort the participatory issues. It may seem an old-fashioned view, in the digital networked age, but it is the active engagement of party members which stop representatives floating away into an ether in which their peer group is more important than the people. Party funding mechanisms are likely to be critical.

The picture is of Jack Straw canvassing in Blackburn ahead of the 2008 local elections (but could have been of any of the main parties). It is used under a Creative Commons licence from Wikimedia Commons.