Wednesday, June 25, 2008

We Should Look to the Germans on Party Membership

It seems Britain is not the only country where party membership figures are plummeting. German party membership has fallen by about 50% since 1990, which is perhaps not such a steep fall as in Britain. Compare the UK figures with those in the graph above (from Der Spiegel).

Conservative 240,000
Labour 190,000
LibDems 75,000*

If you include parties like UKIP, BNP and the Greens I reckon the total membership of political parties in the UK is around 500,000**. This is a million fewer than in Germany. In Britain about 1 in 120 people is likely to be a member of a political party. In Germany the figure is 1 in 59.

Interestingly it is the centre right parties in both countries which have managed to hold onto most of their members, while those on the left have been in sharp decline. Perhaps some of the academics out there could give us some figures for other countries. Is Britain the country with the fewest party members pro rata in the EU? It wouldn't surprise me at all.

Perhaps UK political parties could learn a few lessons from their German counterparts.

* These figures are approximate. If anyone has accurate figures, do let me know.
** Figure updated


Glenn Vowles said...

Interesting to see from the graph that the only party whose membership is not on a downward trend in Germany is the Greens (admittedly on a small membership though).

Anonymous said...

I think I might be right in saying that party membership in Germany still helps in gaining employment in some sectors. That may be outdated, or just plain inaccurate, suggestion, but I may be right. In that case, obviously party memberships can be expected to be higher.

tory boys never grow up said...

Perhaps you should also show the German figures for state funding of political parties if you want to have a serious discussion in this area.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm to be fair party memberhsip is not really a necessity for many jobs in this country, while in Germany...

Johnny Norfolk said...

Iain Off Topic

Do you have to have that advert for Total Politics at the top of your opening page.

If my pointer crosses it, a giant image of Brown appears, It is just to much to take and it is such a shock. There should be a warning about it.

Raedwald said...

Not strange when one considers the other differences, including the British democratic deficit. The first figure below is the total number of elected administrative units at the lowest level (district council in the UK) and the second is the average number of electors:

France: 36,880 - 1,580
Germany: 16,514 - 4,925
Spain: 8,149 - 4,930
Italy: 8,215 - 7,130
USA: 35,958 - 7,000
United Kingdom: 472 - 118,400

Amongst the democratic world, the UK is by far the most deficient in democratic representation. This is linked to two other important indicators of democratic health; voter turn-out in local elections, and memberships of political parties. Our voter turn-outs are also the worst in Europe, with barely one elector in three bothering to vote. And as demonstrated in a previous post, barely 1.4% of the electorate are members of one of the three big parties. This is not apathy; people are passionately engaged in local issues. What it reflects is the failure of a State that has become increasingly centralised since 1979, under both Conservative and Labour governments, and centralised parties that have alienated and marginalised local political engagement.

Anonymous said...

Simon Jenkins' traced the decline in membership of UK political parties to the emasculation of local government under Mrs Thatcher.

Quote below from Big Bang Localism [PDF]:

"The decline in participation through membership of political parties was phenomenal:

Year Lab Con Lib Dem
1979 666,000 1,350,000 145,000
1997 405,000 400,000 100,000
2001 360,000 325,000 80,000

A million Tories simply evaporated.The most serious losses were of suburban and county activists for whom executive power on local councils was a quid pro quo for loyalty at national elections. Visiting a group of Hampshire Tories at the time, I found them bitterly marginalised by the Thatcher and Major governments. They were no longer trusted to fix their rates or spend them responsibly. Thatcher had abandoned a celebrated tenet of her hero, Hayek, that, “Nowhere has democracy worked well without a great measure of local self- provides a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders.”

All over Britain the Tory Party’s “little platoons”packed their bags and went home."

So perhaps the decentralisation of power that the Conservatives are currently advocating will reinvigorate political party membership?

Raedwald said...

dave b -

'So perhaps the decentralisation of power that the Conservatives are currently advocating will reinvigorate political party membership?'

No, I don't think it will. Mass membership parties in the UK were a thing of the 50s and 60s, when the Tories had 2m members and Labour around 1m. I'm sure they were just an evolutionary phase in British politics.

If you like, the big national parties are still 'Fordist' at a time when the population has grown used to specifying not only its own body and upholstery colours but every other feature imaginable. Why should the same manifesto appeal to voters in both Stiffkey and Aston?

I should have given Jenkins a credit for the figs in my previous BTW.

Alex said...

Limit the amount of individual donations, legislate against parties borrowing and they will drive up membership.

The problem is that at the moment Labour and Conservative MP's think that the membership of a party is a bit of a burden.

Anonymous said...

"Perhaps you should also show the German figures for state funding of political parties if you want to have a serious discussion in this area."

The Conservatives tried, but alas a certain party didn't want to cap union donations. Now we can see why...

Anonymous said...

dave b. A million Tories simply evaporated. There is a God...!

Anonymous said...

Iain your maths isn't up to much, 240,000+190,000+75,000 equals 505,000, way above your 'total' figure of 400,000

anyway, i thought Labour had less than that, or does that include members that joined through the unions?

Anonymous said...


If we had a more responsive voting system, perhaps more people would be interested in joining political parties. STV (at least at local level) would give your Tory in South Yorkshire, and your Socialist in Surrey, something to vote for!

Anonymous said...

On an international comparison, check out Austria, where "Proporz" still means that a party card is a real meal-ticket.

As a kid in Durham in the sixties, even I knew that head-teachers had to be Labour Party members, but now the Union is "worth" more than Party.

A more interesting chart is of the votes the Unions buy at Conference (remember Smith'n'Jones' "five million for coffee, three and half million for tea"?)

Anonymous said...

David Lindsay's BPA party has gone against the trend. Its membership has doubled in recent weeks.

It now has 4 members. Mind you, 3 of those are imaginary.

Anonymous said...

Your maths is a bit out Iain. the 3 main parties add up to 505,000. So probably nearer 600,000 for all parties. Still less than our German friends, but the comparison isn't quite as poor.

DiscoveredJoys said...

Arguably the larger parties (centre-right, centre-left, and centre-centre) in the UK do not discuss the issues that potential voters are concerned about. There is little important gap between them.

Whatever your point of view on the issues themselves, none of the large parties appears to be interested in substantial debate about immigration, capital punishment, or the direction of the EU. It is left to the little (i.e. non powerful) single issue parties to try and spur debate.

Similarly there appears to be little practical difference in the local government policies.

Hardly suprising that people feel that no-one really represents them, and a vote is a merely a means of changing the faces at the top.

What can be done? More 'free' votes in the Commons might be a good start - at least you could see if your representative was truly doing their job properly and not just being steamrollered by the party whips.

Anonymous said...

Iain the last publicly available figures are

Labour 2006 = 182,370
LD end 2007 64,727

Your Conservatives est of 240,000 looks as good a guess as any.

Expect Labour now to be circa 155,000 and LDs to be 62,000.

In a year's time Labour could be under 150,000 and LDs under 60,000.

Anonymous said...

We'll have to both hope and push for a Conservative government, so that we can see who's right. Twenty pence says I win. :-)

@molesworth_1 said...

Yes, but joining things is just not very British is it. A bit too keen, a bit too mainstream, frankly, not cool. We like to hedge our bets & play our cards close to our chest. From the outside, joining a political party is seen as joining a fan-club for the leader & accepting every party policy, however indefensible. It is the root of our inate scepticism about Europe. Individualism incarnate, asw it were.

Anonymous said...

20-odd years ago I loved the cut and thrust of politics. It seemed like arguments really could make a difference to policy.

Nowadays most of the laws that are passed in this country are simply edicts from Brussels (though there doesn't seem much appetite in advertising the fact).

That takes a large amount of the interest out of things.

Bill Quango MP said...

I will happily fund any party that

1] has an automatic mass resignation clause if it reverses any of its manifesto promises
2] doesn't talk about 'a desire to' do something instead of a commitment
3] doesn't use the phrase 'the global economic crisis that started in America' 10 times a day.
4] has a PM who is wired up to a lie detector with a loud siren on it at PMQ's
5] Anyone who will answer a straight question with a straight answer
6]Stops weekly bin collections due to EU landfill laws. Doesn't increase my bin capacity to compensate just gives me a box that can hold 3 tims and a newspaper and then fines me for leaving my bin open, while blaming me for the death of the planet while all the time selling off my recycled material to make some cash, while now charging me double what it did before, ALL FOR MY CONVENIENCE!
7] Any party that promises if someone cocks up they will resign and NOT be reinstaed somewhere else where they can do more harm the following week
8]Any party that can say 'is this going to be worth it?' about any gummint project like the Dome or the Olympics or Concorde or the Euro fighter. etc
9] Any party that has an exit plan if it ever decides to invade another country
10] Any party that won't have Gordon Brown in it in any capacity whatsoever..

Anonymous said...

Conservative 240,000?
You're having a laugh!

Tapestry said...

Brits are the least religious, least political, least 'group-minded' race in the world. No news there.

Also Brits are the biggest binge drinkers, have highest teenage pregnancy and lowest savings rate.

Why anyone thinks we fit inside a bloc of countries conditioned by a culture of political consensus such as Germany, defeats me.

The Germans are gaining in political confidence, and might well reject Lisbon and even dump the Euro. That might force their internal politics to come to life.

Never mind Party membership, which in Britain is a lost cause. Germany could be the key to releasing Europe from its current anti-democratic bind.

Germans lived in small local self-governing regions, where it paid to conform with authority, and only unifed in the 19th century...with initially disasterous consequences.

If Germans at last stand up against the authority of the EU, they might at last become a working democracy, able to kick out corrupt and unproductive governments. It would also give Europe a new start.

As for Brits, I blame the Norman Conquest. After 300 years of oppressive French rule, we never trusted governments or politicians since.

Anonymous said...

Still no mention of the elephant in the room or does this count as the Germans are 'European'?

Ilja Nieuwland said...

With regard to Germany, keep in mind that the 1990 figure predominantly represents WEST Germans. The fall of membership figures not only shows that the two mainstream parties have lost backing in the old republic, but also that the political parties have been unable to reach out to the people in the new Länder of the old GDR, and that is a worrying trend, more so thanks to the marginalisation of politics in those areas to either Die Linke (extreme left) or the DVU (extreme violent right).

Some aspects of the graphs can be explained. The sharp fall of the CDU was helped along by the Kohl scandals of the late 1990s, that of the SPD by their failure to live up to promises in the coalition with the Greens.

Two more observations:
- The FDP (libdems but slightly more right-wing) seems to be the only party that has made any real progress since 2000.
- The CSU (Bavarian Christian Democrats) figure has remained roughly stable, but that is hardly an indication of political vigour, as anyone in the know about Bavarian politics can testify. Like in Austria (although not to that degree), the CSU membership is a sine qua non for many jobs.

Luke Akehurst said...


you ask "Is Britain the country with the fewest party members pro rata in the EU?"

The answer is definitely not.

In France there is no cultural tradition of mass membership parties, or indeed of mass membership anything - they consider joining clubs etc a strange Anglo-Saxon habit.

The Partie Socialiste has a membership about 1/4 to 1/3 the size of the British Labour Party.