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January 06, 2006

The Future Doesn't Last Long: How the decline of mass membership parties has made Tony Blair and David Cameron possible - and why it means that both their appeal is transient

Posted by Jon Davies

Tony Blair was - and David Cameron now is - seen not only as the future but also as a new kind of politician. Jon Davies - recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University and for many years a member of Newcastle City Council - agrees that they are a new type of politician in that they communicate over the heads of their respective party memberships directly with the populace at large. It is the decline of mass membership political parties that has made this possible. Party members are often seen as unrepresentative of the populace at large.

Yet - argues Jon Davies - when politicians can ignore their party membership they do not become accountable to everyone, they become accountable to no-one. And as politicians sell themselves as if they were aspirant pop stars, they may be popular now but their brand will soon enough become tarnished. The future soon becomes the past.

Amongst the many interesting things about the recent Conservative Party leadership election, perhaps the most important thing to notice was the fact that the number of people who voted was quite small. In the earlier election of 2001 between Iain Duncan Smith and Kenneth Clarke roughly 260,000 votes were cast: Iain Duncan Smith got roughly 156,000 (155,933), and Mr Clarke roughly 101,000 (100,864). About 200,000 (198,844) Conservative Party members voted in the 2005 contest between David Cameron and David Davis: Cameron roughly 135,000 (134,446), and Davis roughly 64,000 (64,398). That gives an average (voting) membership of about 300 for each of the 646 constituencies - although the Conservatives now claim to have about 60,000 more members than voted in the leadership election.

At its height, the Conservative party probably had about 2,000,000 members. The Labour Party, from a membership of well over a million, is experiencing a similar rate of decline. Membership of all political parties is less than one quarter of what it was in 1964. By 1998 the ratio of party membership to electorate was 1:92, whereas it was 4:12 in 1980. In 1964, 44% of the British population expressed "strong support" for a political party, whereas by 1997 only 15% felt the same way. This move towards political indifference is particularly pronounced among the young, where we find a declining propensity to vote, never mind to take part in politics more actively.

In contrast, the elderly constitute a very large proportion of party political membership and activists. The "active" element of party membership will, of course, be many fewer than the nominal membership. There is therefore a dwindling reservoir from which party activists and party affiliation can be drawn. Obviously, things can change; party membership does fluctuate though usually as an eccentric upward blip, followed by more decline, an inert or inactive "membership", and an increasingly a-political electorate. At present rates of decline, political parties will have disappeared completely in ten years time. Not even the Church of England can match such a trajectory.

Things are not much different in Europe, where no party membership exceeds 10% of the electorate; while the UK has seen a 50% decline in party membership (1980-1998), the French figure is 65% [SAGE Publications, Party Politics, vol.7, no.1, 2001].

Does this matter? Have not political parties, the "selectorate", usually been billed as the enemies of true representative democracy? Perhaps some re-thinking is required. We should, I think, look upon political parties as the civil society of political life, a barrier to the evolution of "mass society" politics, the kind of politics practised by Mr Blair and now by Mr Cameron.

Two days after David Cameron was announced as the winner of the Conservative Party election, my wife received a glossy "letter" from him urging her to join him in the "new" woman-friendly politics associated with his victory. Such letters, or variants of them, seem to have gone out all over the country: a Gerard Noel of Southsea wrote to the Daily Telegraph (December 18th 2005):

I recently received a computer-generated letter the opening paragraph of which read "Thank you so much for writing to David Cameron he has asked me to thank you and to say that he appreciated what you had to say enormously".
As it happened, Mr Cameron's letter to my wife arrived on the same day as a "letter" from one of Mr Blair's aides, apologising for the fact that the Prime Minister was too busy to be able to answer her himself she had written about nuclear power. Even though Mr Blair's "letter" was at least a genuine reply, it had a "too-busy-to-bother-with-you" quality about it which led my wife to make favourable comments about Mr Cameron, and rude remarks about Mr Blair. Mr Cameron's letter, of course, was neither letter nor reply: it was a piece of paper in an envelope, sent by a stranger to a stranger.

The Cameron "letter" must have been in press and in addressed envelopes well before the result was announced: Mr Cameron's hold on the future clearly begins before it does. But his "letter" was no more a letter than was Mr Blair's. While it was much better written, it was, and had to be, totally indifferent to the nature and circumstances of the recipient, known to the sender (whoever that was) only as "a woman": it was mass society mailing.

For many decades British politics, organised on party lines, inserted a selectorate between the candidate or elected member and the electorate. It was this selectorate, explicitly and insistently "sectional" in origin and purpose, which located the member of Parliament in his constituency, and which ensured a two-way flow of ideas, argument and information. It was the selectorate which inhibited the development of a mass society kind of politics, characterised by a top-down flow of information and an atomised electorate.

No "conversation" between MP and electorate can exist without the selectorate: the weaker the selectorate, the more manipulable the electorate. The selectorate was doubly important in constituencies which changed hands from time to time, being in such places the true and permanent expression of political thought and action party political thought and action, it is true, but an active form of politics none the less. In conversations with members of the selectorate, conversations in which the MP or candidate was more in need of support than anyone else, issues of policy and administration could be discussed, dissected and if necessary altered. The selectorate will usually be "ordinary" people, to whom politics is a part-time interest, something done while getting on with the more important matters of job and family life, the "realities" to which Westminster life can render politicians indifferent.

In Mr Cameron as in Mr Blair we have political leaders who have never done anything other than politics: they will be good at politics, good at getting out millions of letters to my wife (and others). Without a strong selectorate there will be little to attach such professional politicians, directly, to the occupational, geographical and demographic particularities (and peculiarities) of life in the various parts of Britain, where life is not about politics. Small selectorates will lack the confidence or sense of legitimacy to press a point or argue a case; and will only too easily be persuaded that their own very evidently unrepresentative numbers disqualify them from determining or affecting policy. Mr Cameron has shown how aware he is of this by the ease and confidence with which he has torn up an almost brand-new Election Manifesto - most of which he wrote. Given the size of the Conservative party, he will be able to talk over its head, addressing the electorate directly: the selectorate can be ignored, the electorate has to be wooed, only the celebrity-politician can do it.

Mr Cameron will of course be subject to pressure from Grandees, centrally and locally based. Indeed, in many "safe" constituencies, where the (much diminished) selectorate in effect chooses the MP, the number of relevant votes will be about the same size as in many a pre-1832 pocket borough. Special interest groups, such as Muslims or public sector workers in the Labour Party, or business folk in the Conservative Party will acquire powers amounting to a "whip" over the activities of "their" MP.

Given the imperative need, and opportunity, to address the electorate centrally and directly, the main competitor of mass society politicians will be the mass media. The kinds of communications currently being sent out by Mr Cameron are the mirror image of the endless flow of communication sent out, to an equally anonymised "audience", by the ceaseless chattering of radio and television "personalities" and their sponsored "celebrities". In the recent "elections" for the X Factor over 10,000,000 people "voted", a number greater than voted for any political party in the recent election. The reduction of a populace to a mere audience is the aim of the game for both mass media and mass politics. For both, "market research", of both the pro-active and re-active sort, will identify and target particular sub-sets of the audience: and these sub-sets or special interest groups will take the place of party members as the weather-gauge of policy formulation.

Mr Cameron was quite right in telling Mr Blair that "he was the future, once". In the late 90s, Mr Blair caught the moment, and was as young as it was. Mr Cameron should notice, however, that such moments do not last long. He will be history far sooner than he thinks.

Jon Davies recently retired as Head of Religious Studies at Newcastle University. He is the author and editor of books on urban planning, contemporary social attitudes, and death in the ancient world; and is currently working on a book on the patterns of enmities surrounding the West.

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I have seen it claimed that Sinn Fein (North and South, presumably) have more members than either the Tories or Labour. A terrifying statistic if true, although I must say I'm sceptical - three hundred thousand-odd members sounds like an awful lot. Anyone know?

Posted by: jim mcqueen at January 7, 2006 11:55 PM

The total population of Northern Irelands (according to the 2001 census) is around 1,700,000 (1,685,267). The population of the Irish Republic is around. According to the online "CIA - The World Factbook" (which the CIA makes generously available to us all to show what a non-sinister cuddly organisation it is), the population of the Republic of Ireland is around 4,000,000 (4,015,676). So we have a total - of all ages - population in Ireland of roughly 5,700,000. A membership of Sinn Fein of 300,000 would suggest that over 5% of the totalm population of Ireland is a member of Sinn Fein. This simply is not credible to me - I cannot see that it could possibly be true.

Looking at votes cost - Sinn Fein received 174,530 votes in Northern Ireland in 2005.

Posted by: David at January 9, 2006 10:11 AM

The key reference on the hollowing out of politics is now the Power Report .

David Cameron sounds as hollow as a well-tuned drum, but not much more so than the young Disraeli. Disreali stole the Liberals' clothes, won a general election, and went on to define a politiocal position and philosophy from there.

David Cameron seems to be trying to do something similar with New Labour. Because defineable and adoptable policies are rather hard to find in the flurries of New Labour initiatives, he seems to be reduced to trying to steal the make-up which Tony Blair's worn political face can no longer wear. David Cameron may find substance yet, but his initial try - calling on the able but aged Michael Hestletine to re-invent the inner-city initiatives that Tony Blair took over and devalued (the Millenium Dome was Hestletine's mistake; Blair turned it into a very expensive bad joke) - does not suggest that Cameron has much idea of what political substance is.

Posted by: David Heigham at March 6, 2006 03:28 PM
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