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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.