The party conference season is here again. On Saturday the Liberal Democrats return to Brighton for five days beside the sea. The following week Labour supporters assemble in Manchester and when they go home the Conservatives travel to Birmingham.
These gatherings were once big events that captured the headlines but years of steady shrinking membership mean that they have lost significance and impact.
In 1991 there were a million Conservatives but by 2011 this had shrunk to 177,000. Similarly Labour membership contracted from 261,000 to 190,000 and the Liberal Democrats from 91,000 to 66,000. To their numbers must be added the members of the smaller parties, the Greens, UKIP, Plaid Cymru and SNP but even so only 1% of Britons still belong to a party. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more members than all of them taken together.
There are a host of reasons for this. Increasingly the parties have become less ideological as they compete for the centre ground to win elections. At the same time single issue campaigns have attracted higher levels of support. Cynicism, disillusionment and apathy, reflected in lower turnout at elections, also play a part. The way we spend our leisure time is another factor. The Labour and Conservative Social Clubs, once important institutions in many communities, have lost their appeal. Even the Trimdon Labour Club, that was Tony Blair’s political base, has now closed.
Dwindling membership is a serious matter for the parties because it hits their funds and forces treasurers to look to wealthy benefactors to finance election campaigns. Each of the parties has in recent times suffered embarrassment from doing this so it is predictable that each of the conferences will hear calls for a renewed drive to enlist new members. The alternative is state funding which would be very unpopular.
For anyone concerned about the state of the nation, joining the party for which they are most likely to vote has several attractions. First is an opportunity to help choose the local candidates for local, national and European elections. In any constituency that has a ‘safe’ seat that means helping to choose the local councillors, MP, MEP and, where appropriate, MSP or Assembly member. Second, party members are able to contribute to policy debates through the local policy forum as well as the party conference. The absence of articulate and well-informed Christians from these activities in many constituencies is one of the reasons that Britain is being secularised and faith perspectives marginalised.
Cynicism and disillusionment do not have to mean opting out. Only joiners can have any hope of changing our parties, of securing the nomination of candidates with experience of life and work outside the Westminster village, of encouraging the development of a credible vision for Britain that reflects Christian values and beliefs, and seeks to serve the common good rather than some sectional interest. I will be at each of the conferences, hoping to find evidence of this for you.