By Dr Matthew Ashton
The loss of the NHS vote at the Liberal Democrat spring conference puts Nick Clegg and his colleagues in a difficult position. While the vote is non-binding it leaves Clegg in the predicament of either ignoring the will of his members or risking a serious split in the coalition. If he chooses the former then it'll be yet another blow to his party's claims to be the most democratic in Westminster. It'll also further alienate the Lib Dem grassroots.
This dilemma is representative of a wider problem facing all of the major UK political parties. What is the point of their members? Equally their members could just as easily ask, 'what's the point of being in a political party?'
In the first half of the twentieth century Labour and the Conservatives had memberships in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions. They're now a shadow of their former selves. What members they do have are increasingly elderly, and so far the party elites have been singularly ineffective in recruiting the next generation. With a few brief blips the general trend over the last 50 years has been downwards. Party memberships are a bit like a vestigial tail rendered irrelevant by evolution. The most worrying thing about this is that the party leaderships have been mostly complicit in this process.
The academic Otto Kirchheimer predicted this would happen back in the 1960s when he wrote about the rise of what he called 'catch-all parties'. He argued that as parties gradually moved to the centre ground to maximise their potential vote, their policies would become increasingly similar and the public would quite rightly begin to wonder why they should join. If party A has virtually identical policies to party B, why would anyone want to join one over another? It could equally be argued that this had also led to a decline in the number of people voting.
At the same time two of the main roles of members have become less significant. Parties used to get a huge amount of their income from their members but this has been generally replaced by millionaire donors and trade unions. Members were also seen as a vital electoral resource going out to canvass and drum up support. However this job has become less important as election campaigns are more and more about TV debates and advertising.
On the other side of the equation, parties no longer have much to offer perspective members of the public. All the potential benefits have been eroded by the party elites. It used to be the case that as a member you could have a say in the creation of the party manifesto at conferences. Now that job is almost exclusively the role of the leaders; aided by pollsters, spin-doctors and focus groups chasing the elusive median voter. Even the local member's important role of choosing their MP is being significantly weakened as more candidates are parachuted in or imposed by central office.
In a way this isn't necessarily a bad thing from the politician's perspective. After all, most of the party members for the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats are more radical than their MPs. Labour spent most of the 1980s trying to marginalise their most vocal critics in their membership and the Conservatives went through a similar process in the 1990s.
Does all of this matter? I'd argue very much so. To be effective in their main role of articulating the views of the public, parties should be strongly rooted within civil society. Without a significant number of ordinary members this link becomes tenuous at best. As a result parties are now embedded in the state, giving them a vested interest in preserving the status-quo in their favour. This combined with the rise of professional politicians, people who have never had a job outside of politics, makes them increasingly out of touch and unrepresentative of ordinary people. What members they do still have are like a democratic fig-leaf used to cover their own inadequacies.
The creation of e-petitions could be seen as a desperate and largely ineffective attempt by Westminster to prove that they are still in touch with the public. However I doubt this will do much to bridge the democratic deficit. In the long term, making more of an effort to recruit new members and listening to them might be a better strategy.
Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.