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The decline of political party membership in Britain has profound and depressing implications for religion

We seem to be moving away from mass movements towards a more atomised society. What can we do about it?

By on Friday, 3 May 2013

Ed Miliband and Hastings parliamentry candidate Sarah Owen claim victory in yesterday's elections (Photo: PA)

Ed Miliband and Hastings parliamentry candidate Sarah Owen claim victory in yesterday's elections (Photo: PA)

As the results come in after yesterday’s local elections, it is worth reflecting on one of the great phenomena of our times, namely the steady and remorseless decline in political party membership in Britain. An interesting research paper giving the details of this trend can be found here. It is short and cogent and well worth reading in full.

Does it matter that political party membership is declining? According to the paper’s author, Fergal McGuinness, the parties themselves may not mind this too much:

Parties are less reliant on a wide membership network as mass communications allow them to reach voters directly. Funds gathered from wealthy donors and the state make parties less dependent on individual members’ subscriptions and small donations. Parties may even see a vocal membership as an electoral liability.

This last point may well resonate with some of the Tory grandees who have, it is reported, little time for their party’s rank and file. But it has to be said that a party does need a membership to survive. The members provide a pool of talent from which leaders emerge; and from the membership come the activists who pound the pavements at election time. Yes, we live in the internet age, but the leaflet through the post box is still the best way to get out the vote, through increasing name recognition for the local candidate. This is particularly true in municipal elections where someone standing in a ward is never likely to get airtime on national television.

The results are not yet all in, but it looks as though there will be little comfort for the Conservatives. Their party membership is now at an all-time low of 130,000, down from a million in 1990, and almost three million in 1951. The campaigners at grassroots level are disappearing, and the consequences may be catastrophic, though it is too soon to speak of the strange death of Tory England. But perhaps someone one day will do for Cameron’s Conservatives what George Dangerfield did for Asquith’s Liberals.

Mr McGuinness’s paper does point to one trend-bucking phenomenon, namely the surging membership of the National Trust. I have nothing against this organisation (I belong to the Scottish branch of it, funnily enough – a present from a kind friend) but this is very depressing, and for the following reasons. Joining the NT is simple, and you do not have to “do” anything to be a member. It takes up no time, requires no sacrifices, no commitment. On the contrary, it gives you a warm fuzzy feeling – quite unlike political involvement, which is based on the concept of improving society and struggling to do so. NT membership may cost you something in money, but existentially it is a bargain. It demands no sacrifices.

Given that people are no longer joining political organisations, and that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon, what is the Church to do? For in many ways these political trends run in parallel with religious trends. Just as delivering leaflets is hard work, though it may carry with it an eventual reward, so too religious practice requires fervour and devotion, though of a different sort. We are, in politics at least, moving away from mass movements and towards a more atomised society. This has profound implications for religion. For often it was the same people, or the same sort of people, who joined political parties and who went to church. I wish I knew what we could do about this.

  • Don Camillo

    The trouble with political parties is that they treat everything in a partisan way.

  • agent.provocateur

    No father, we are not moving towards more atomised society. We live in the atomised society. And what the Church can do? That’s simple – stop feminization of the church, start celebrating towards the East, no feminism courses in the seminary and last, but not least – start building normal churches again. No more Liverpool monsters. And no girls as altar servers of course. There is even one woman (old) who serves in the Westminster Cathedral as an altar server. If that is happening in the main church of England and Wales, are you then surprised the diocese of Clifton hosts New Age Enneagram workshop? Oh, just in case you are wondering that perhaps I am an old dreamer…I was born in 80′s, so still quite young(ish). God bless!

  • Jo

    Oh sure that will solve everything. Blame the women. Throw out all the women and then the whole of society will suddenly embrace Christianity and a strong dose of misogyny. What kind of solution is that? That’s what drove people away in the first place!!!!!!

  • Tridentinus

    Well they would, wouldn’t they?

  • James M

    The Church has a few problems herself – like her very foolish embrace of modernity in the 1960s, and the accompanying rejection of her tradition (in the sociological sense). She Blairified herself – out with the old, in with the new.

    One of the great flaws of V2′s documents is the complete lack of any mention of Hell – this failure to mention it fits all too well with the euphoria & air of unreality that penetrated the Council. At Vatican I, Pius IX resisted a similar temptation – he stood firm against the materialistic pride & euphoria that affected many in the Church. John XXIII, by contrast, opened the windows wide to all this nonsense. And his successors compounded the problem: which – as could have been predicted – has led to a sense of betrayal among many, when the Church got round to re-affirming what it should never have allowed to be obscured in the first place.

    The euphoria in the air at V2 led many to think that everything was up for grabs; countless clergy behaved as if this were so – so when the nasty Catholic stuff began to be emphasised again, millions of people didn’t like it. And by treating V2 as a “super-Council”, the Popes managed to Cameronise the CC. He ignores his “core vote”, in order to attract people who are not Tories, but who may vote him in if he can appeal to them; and in the process, he neglects and wrongs those who are Tories, & want to be a Tories. This is what the Popes have done, & and what many bishops have done. No wonder the Church is “atomised” – that is what comes of an imprudent “openness to the world”.

    And because the CC is governed from the top by a near-absolute ruler, & is not a democracy, the rot, having set in, has been assisted by the structure of the Church. Catholics have been accustomed to obeying the bishops, and trusting them to know what is in the interests of the Church – so when the bishops have rotten ideas, lay and priestly misgivings have been drowned out by weight of numbers or by unwillingness to scandalise others by seeming to be insubordinate. The result ? These evils have come upon the CC with tenfold force, though in other forms instead – and the Church has been corrupted even more effectively.

    The changes you mention are needed. Catholic churches that say “Me ? a Catholic church ?? You have to be joking !!!” are a denial of the principle of sacramentality. Altars are of solid stone, because Christ is the Rock on Whom the Church is founded – to use a wooden tables when stone is available is a deliberate denial of this symbolism. Incense should be restored; so should genuflections, & so – in particular – should the numerous Signs of the Cross made by the priest. The ordination rite should be made explicitly Catholic again.

  • anon

    Re: ‘no mention of Hell’
    Do you not have a copy of the Catechism of the Catholic Church? The relevant 2nd Vatican Council document is Lumen Gentium,
    cross-referencing to the Council of Trent.
    All documents are freely available from the Vatican website.

  • Julian Lord


    Are you confusing modernity with modernism ?

    The first is simply the reality of our times, that nobody could prevent any more than King Canute could order away the tide.

    The second is a heresy that has been pervasive both within the Church and without since the 19th century at least (though its roots lie in the 15th century).

  • Benedict Carter

    The modern era is defined by many things – by a rejection of objective truth, by the cult of celebrity, by a horizontal view of the world which sneers at expertise, experience and ability, by a shallowness in everything, by the feminisation of everything, by the ruthless commercialisation of everything.

    The Church could have remained above and beyond all that, shining like a beacon of sanity in an ever-madder world, a beacon pointed at God and Heaven in which sacrality, beauty and holiness would have been more starkly contrasted with the (large) part of the world which is the devil’s than perhaps at any time in history.

    Instead She chose to descend to the world’s level and mixed up Christ’s truth with the tawdry bangles of paganity – in Her theology, in Her soul, in Her liturgy and in Her doctrine.

    The result is absolutely catastrophic for the Church and Her members and just as catastrophic for the world where “the ruin of souls” proceeds at an ever-faster rate.

    Political parties and politics – the Church chose in the 1960′s to become one and to practice politics. Now She reaps the whirlwind.

    I urge all Catholics to start by reading “A letter to Confused Catholics” by Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

  • $27740841

    Where does Lumen Gentium mention Hell exactly?

  • Matthew Holder

    It is odd that a priest should consider that a decline in idolatry has “profound and depressing implications for religion”.

  • LocutusOP

    The decline of political parties can only be a good thing, and we should be rejoicing in it. For too long people have voted for a particular party because their parents did so. In today’s age, where all 3 main political parties in the U.K. have no substantial differences in core outlooks – save for different taxation rates – and they also seem to be on the wrong side of all these issues, there is no good reason why one should choose one over another. Maybe now people can elect MPs based on their individual accomplishments and not party affiliation, although I’ll not be holding my breath.

    I often say that it’s amazing the U.K. political system ever worked because on paper there cannot be many worse. You choose a local member of parliament personally – which means he should be representing you – but he ends up being more faithful to his party than to his constituents. Furthermore, you choose an MP who you like but that might mean that you end up with a prime minister who you did not want, and you have no way of influencing it.

    Then you have the odd situation whereby you have a prime minister who has presidential powers and is unelected by the people yet still claims legitimacy because other people of his own party have been elected. The MP candidates you have are drawn up by the parties in ways which are anything but transparent, and the central party structures can now seemingly pick and choose the most docile MPs, meaning they face little opposition when crafting even the most radical legislative measures.

    Then you have a country seemingly without a constitution, which worked well when the political parties respected tradition and common sense, but which is a disaster when you end up being governed by people who respect nothing but the applause given to them by their peers. You have a prime minister who gets to appoint bishops of a creed he does not believe in or even respect.

    I could go on and on, but suffice to say, whatever conditions kept the U.K. floating no longer exist.

    Quite why a priest should think that declining political party memberships is a bad thing though I have no idea. I suppose being a U.K. resident, there is confusion in thinking that the state and the Church have the same ends.

    If anything we should be happy that people – freed from party affiliation – will be more eager to the Gospel of the Church. Sadly, however, decreased party affiliation has come with an all-encompassing state, and it’s hard to see how we’ll penetrate the wall of misinformation that all 3 major parties have managed to create through control of the school system, public broadcasters, and a multitude of publicly-funded lobbying groups.

    As a side note…I don’t live in the U.K. so I’m not privy to all the details. I’m just an observer looking in at the circus that happens to be the modern U.K., and wondering whatever happened to the country that by and large spread the concept of liberty.

  • Julian Lord

    The word “Hell” may not appear therein, but Hell is explicitly referred to nevertheless :

    Lumen Gentium 48 : Since however we know not the day nor the hour, on Our Lord’s advice we must be constantly vigilant so that, having finished the course of our earthly life, we may merit to enter into the marriage feast with Him and to be numbered among the blessed and that we may not be ordered to go into eternal fire like the wicked and slothful servant, into the exterior darkness where “there will be the weeping and the gnashing of teeth”. For before we reign with Christ in glory, all of us will be made manifest “before the tribunal of Christ, so that each one may receive what he has won through the body, according to his works, whether good or evil” and at the end of the world “they who have done good shall come forth unto resurrection of life; but those who have done evil unto resurrection of judgment”.

    Vatican II’s not terribly “Spirit of Vatican II”, eh ?

  • James M

    “Are you confusing modernity with modernism ?”

    ## 1. No.

    2. Read James Hitchcock’s “Catholicism confronts Modernity”, published in 1979.

    Modernism is a (far from satisfactory) name for the entity (one hesitates to call it a movement; that could suggest a greater unity than it had) that goes by that name – it was modern 100 years ago, but no longer. It was more a confluence of tendencies than a single movement. What people call “modernism” now – without capitalisation, usually; perhaps because of the prevalence of illiteracy these days – goes far beyond anything condemned 100 years ago.

    A lot of Modernism is now taken for granted as being at home in Catholicism – modern modernism, (!), considered under its theological aspect, OTOH, is apt to be destructive of the central theological claims of Christianity.

    The difficulty with tracing the geneaologies of what are at some point regarded as heresies, is that they often derive from, or continue into, ideas or attitudes that are not thought objectionable. Conversely, orthodox ideas are often descended from ideas found rather questionable.

  • AlanP

    Our democracy could be greatly strengthened by a system which ensured that every MP had the support of at least 50% of the voters. Unfortunately when the public were offered the opportunity in the AV referendum, they rejected it. And now that we have 4 main parties (if the UKIP surge fails to subside) we shall have many more MPs elected with less than 30% support from their voters. How can this be a good thing?

  • James M

    I have the Flannery ET of the V2 documents, and several editions of the CCC:

    the 1994 French original
    the English ET
    the 1997 booklet that contains the 101 modifications to the text of the 1994 CCC
    & the Latin 1997 CCC.

    And the 1995 third printing of the 1994 Companion to the CCC – which contains the texts to which the footnotes refer, and is about 970 pages in length.

    I don’t have the Compendium of the CCC, but I do have the Catechism of Social Doctrine (or whatever it’s called). So on the whole, the answer is a “Yes” :) (Or is that an illogical reply to a question counched as a negative ? IDK) Any, yes, I have that stuff. In book form.

    When the Church really wants to teach something, it does not confine itself to footnotes – those are for geeks. If the Magisterium thinks something is important enough to be taught clearly, it teaches clearly, and that means often as well as explicitly. The lack of clarity about the severer side of God’s demands on us suggests weak faith. A pastor such as St. Alphonsus Liguori had a lot to say about Hell – not because he lacked compassion, but because of his love of souls, and his burning desire for their salvation. Christ is even explicit – as the gospels show; so why is V2 not ?

    V2 has a lot of wonderful things in it – like Lumen Gentium; it thought the Church was important enough to teach clearly about – but it does not teach clearly about Hell; one text from Lumen Gentium is easily ignored; it is a straw, in a cataract of very different ideas. Since Hell is a possibility, I for one want very much to be told explicitly that, clearly. A good guide warns the traveller of the dangers in the way; he does not leave the traveller in an ignorance that could end in his destruction. A faithful pastor will warn the people God has committed to his care – for whom he must render an exact & full account at the Last Day – of the danger of damnation. Much more should a Church Council do so – surely ?

  • James M

    One quotation ? Is that all ? Sorry, but if V2 thought Hell was important, it would not be so nearly silent about it. It mentions human rights, abortion, and other social issues, all the time – because they matter a great deal to it. But what is life on earth compared to the Beatific Vision ? And what misery on earth can exceed the loss of God for all eternity ? For that is what Hell is. To make a fuss about the lesser issues, while ignoring the greater, is crazy.

  • James M

    Beautiful second sentence – spot on.

  • Kevin

    “Given that people are no longer joining political organisations, and that this is a Europe-wide phenomenon”

    The common thread here may be the European Union.

    When your country’s sources of law include the decisions, regulations and directives of an unelected body made up of people who do not speak a common language and who lack a common culture and history, what impact can you have canvassing in your local neighbourhood?

    There is also a connection with modern Catholicism in that the use of the vernacular and inculturation have created a distance between Christians that should never have been.

    The solution? Support the TLM wherever you find it.

  • Benedict Carter

    It is, and you have just proved it.

  • Julian Lord

    In other words, yes, you are indeed confusing Modernism with modernity.

    Modernism is the heresy whereby the relationship of the individual with the teachings of the Church is subjected to that individual’s personal opinions in the false consideration that these personal opinions should impose upon doctrine, and consequently that doctrine should be obedient to the general opinions of the day and age.

    Modernity is the state of being of the culture that we have lived in since the inventions of printing and industrialisation. It certainly informs the general and individual opinions of the day and age, but this does not require that all of those with modern culture are therefore Modernists in the sense of being heretics.

    There is no intrinsic incompatibility between Catholic orthodoxy and modernity, despite the straightforward incompatibility between the orthodoxy and Modernism.

  • Julian Lord

    One quotation ? Is that all ?

    Lack of salvation is mentioned more than once in the document.

    I was responding to the FALSE claim that Vatican II “does not” mention Hell.

    Vatican II does NOT magically vanish away all other Catholic doctrine in the first place, and ANY suggestions that it does are FALSE and misleading.

    NOT all Catholic doctrines will mention Hell, nor should one automatically expect them to — the Encyclical Mystici Corpus Christi doesn’t mention it either, the canons of the Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon do not mention it, the fourth session of the Council of Trent said nothing about Hell, and other sessions of that Council either did or didn’t, the First Council of Lyons mentioned Hell not at all, etc etc etc

    The spirit of opposition in this false “Vatican II versus Tradition” hermeneutic is Modernist in nature, and it is intrinsically heterodox.

  • Julian Lord

    Much more should a Church Council do so – surely ?

    Not every Church Council has provided teachings on Hell. See above.

  • Yorkshire Catholic

    First sentence is pretty good too. One of your best posts Mr Carter.

  • $24570317

    “One of the great flaws of V2′s documents is the complete lack of any mention of Hell..”

    From the viewpoint of traditional Catholics, this is very true.

    The once common fear, indeed terror, among cradle Catholics (and some others), of eternal damnation in hell if they failed to abide by various bits of the Church’s teaching was a very strong incentive to toe the line.
    The Archbishop of Shrewsbury understands this very well.

    PS: JabbaP points out below that the threat or promise of hell is in fact still there – but it’s not perceived to be to anything like the same extent – except by those who listen seriously to the above-mentioned Archbishop and several others (including JabbaP himself).

  • Paul

    There’s one political party where membership is most definitely not declining but increasing rapidly, and is up by about 50% in far less than one year – UKIP has been gaining hundreds of new members a week since the start of 2013, and the rate has risen dramatically even more recently.

  • scary goat

    Yes, that is a very interesting book. Well worth a read.

  • scary goat

    I do know the only time I have ever heard the devil mentioned in a homily, ever, was a homily by an SSPX priest. I have never heard the devil nor hell mentioned in a mainstream parish homily. I have heard some pretty decent homilies and some pretty poor ones, but I’ve never heard any priest get down to the nitty-gritty and give such an amazingly useful homily as that one priest.

  • $24570317

    Political parties seek our votes in elections.

    Charles Moore, a couple of days ago in the Telegraph, wrote: “We vote because we believe that, by voting, we are choosing who will govern us.”

    But our parliament doesn’t govern us any more.

    So why vote?

    So why belong to a political party?

  • agent.provocateur

    Well said brother!

  • Julian Lord

    I do know the only time I have ever heard the devil mentioned in a homily, ever

    Then you are obviously unaware of Pope Francis’ homilies in recent weeks.

    I’d guess that the Devil is mentioned about once/month in our own parish, but that’s guesswork — it is a completely unsurprising occurrence in any case, it’s just ordinary Catholic teaching.

    Homilies actually *about* the Devil are things to be very wary of, unless the day’s readings should occasion them. Even well-intentioned teachings about the Devil can actually be a snare of the Devil himself, and theoretically only theologians, exorcists, Bishops, and some few other individuals with the relevant Charisms or Graces can licitly provide anything other than some of the more superficial teachings about the Devil to the Laity.

  • scary goat

    “Then you are obviously unaware of Pope Francis’ homilies in recent weeks.”

    Well, to be honest, I haven’t paid as much attention as I usually would. Been a bit tired. I was talking more about normal parish level though.

  • Benedict Carter

    ” … and theoretically only theologians, exorcists, Bishops, and some few other individuals with the relevant Charisms or Graces can licitly provide anything other than some of the more superficial teachings about the Devil to the Laity”.

    What balderdash. Whose “theory” is this Jabba? Yours?

    And the word is “sermons”.

  • Benedict Carter

    Aren’t you frightened of eternal hell fire?

    I am.

  • whytheworldisending

    Fight consumerism – the idea that we are all consumers and can, or even should, have whatever we want, when we want it as long as we are worth it (that is if we have enough money). It is nonsense, but it underpins the sort of individualism that leads people to believe that they must at all costs be different, and exercise choice each and every moment of their waking lives. It is a product of materialism, since it emerges from the fear that without eternal souls, we are merely the sum of our differences, and do not exist as individuals apart from those special tastes and preferences, which commercial interests use to target their advertising. If a political party isn’t exactly to our liking, we demand that our tastes are accomodated, and if not we shop around for another, just like we do with supermarkets. The same folly is applied to religion, but that is a big mistake. We cannot tell God what to do. He – not the customer – is always right.

  • James M

    No, no confusion. Hitchcock’s book is not about Modernism, except here and there – modernity is a far bigger problem. If they were the thing by two names, they would not be distinguishable :)

  • James M

    The only sermon on the Bible I have ever heard was also by a SSPX priest. And a very good sermon it was.

  • James M

    Depending on the context, “lack of salvation” might mean several things. Of which Hell is only one. Those who have not been evangelised “lack salvation” – it does not follow that they are in Hell.

    That other Councils do not mention Hell where mention of Hell is not relevant to what is being discussed, does not clear V2 of failing to mention it where it should be mentioned. Lyons II, like Florence, mentions it very clearly, in its recital of the Creed – but V2 does not. Even in contexts in which a mention of Hell was called for. That really is not very impressive :(

    “NOT all Catholic doctrines will mention Hell, nor should one automatically expect them to…”

    ## Of course not – neither was any such thing implied. That is is not the problem. The problem is the abject failure of V2 to mention it when it ought to have done so. Fobbing people off with a single heavy hint, when other Councils were prepared to be explicit, to use the word, and to speak at length on the matter (rather than slurring over the subject, as V2 does, so as to get back to more congenial topics), is unimpressive. If we can talk of Hell by name, and often – why couldn’t the Fathers of V2 ? How can people know what Christ saves them from, or why they need salvation, if Hell is not named ?

    A Hell-free Council goes all too well with a missionary-less Church – is it nothing but coincidence that the missionary work of the CC has vanished ? Christ spoke of Gehenna – by what right was V2 silent about it ?

  • James M

    See answer above :)

  • James M

    “JabbaP points out below that the threat or promise of hell is in fact still there – but it’s not perceived to be to anything like the same extent”

    ## And the perception is due in part to Vatican II. Not a good development, IMO

  • James M

    Not nearly long enough, though. But definitely a good read. Another good one is “A Bishop Speaks”.

  • scary goat

    Thanks. I’ll have to put that on my reading list. It’s getting a bit like my list of things to do/read is getting longer and longer. :-s

  • scary goat

    Sorry, but this is nonsense. Our Lady (the most revered woman of all time) is a woman. Many saints are women. Nuns are women. Mothers are women (the ones who have the important role of raising the next generation). Right now feminism is the fad…and the Church seems to have gone along with it. Fads and fashions pass. There is nothing so outdated as last year’s “current thinking”. Already many women of a more religious bent (and some current thinkers) are looking into the problems caused by feminism. This goes hand in hand with other problems the Church is experiencing. You can’t please all of the people all of the time. The Church, more so than anyone/anything else, needs to be clear about what she is…then people have the choice. Going on a people-pleasing mission doesn’t work.

  • Benedict Carter

    Good post Scary.

  • CIR

    Put back “Holy” into “Holy Mass”. Remove the sign of peace in the Holy Mass. Remove female altar servers. Kneel before the tabernacle, no bowing or bobbing akin to a circus act. Put back reverence and respect for the Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ into the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Mass and all its celebrations.