|Voters looking for a clear policy statement to emerge from|
a party conference
1. We have really unpopular parties. Just 1% of us are members of a political party — a third of what it was 25 years ago and now the lowest in Western Europe. The parties themselves don’t worry about this too much, we have to choose between one of them on election day and we've got a voting system that plays into their hands. But for the last three elections, the real winner was the Abstention Party – more people stayed away than voted for the winning party. Something that never happened before 2001.
2. Voters are not apathetic, just underwhelmed. Brits do join things, if the cause is good enough. Just think of how many of us belong to the National Trust and the RSPB! A recent MORI poll showed 58 per cent of those interviewed saying they are interested in politics, the highest since the survey began. But Tory membership stands at under a tenth of what it was in the 1950s, and Labour is not much better. And the poor old Lib Dems? Membership down to around 60,000. In Brighton yesterday, Nick Clegg urged Labour: "Tell us who you are. Tell the country what you are for, not just what you are against." We'd like to hear that about all the parties, Nick.
3. Minority parties are seeing their membership rise. The Greens, SNP, UKIP and BNP are all attracting new members. OK, not vast numbers but they are bucking the downward trend seen with the major parties.
4. Enter the newbies: 38 Degrees and the TaxPayers’ Alliance. They started in 2009 and 2004 respectively. The TPA now has more supporters than the Lib Dems have members (and raises as much money from them). 38 Degrees is proving a brilliantly effective pressure group, with more than a million names on its database. They have a digital army of campaigners, who can be mobilised on fuel tax, NHS closures, etc. Their modern campaigning methods put the dowdy Westminster parties to shame.
5. The response of the parties? The Westminster parties are not trying hard enough: they look at the opinion polls and their percentage vote share, not at membership numbers. There is not enough focus on how to excite and enlist abstainers. They should be learning from the newbies. on how to engage and enthuse people, and incorporate some of the new causes. Instead they are run by party managers who see Britain through the columns of spreadsheets and ask: how do we win suburbanites in the southwest? How to woo women in the north? Party conferences used to be events where earthier, ruder questions were posed, like: who is this party for? Why should anyone join us?
6. There is all to play for. There are political issues that can enthuse voters: issues about changing Britain forever and for the better. The problem comes in persuading people that a political party is something worthy of support (and money). When Tony Blair took over Labour he inspired a 50 per cent rise in membership. This would later fall away, but it shows that there is nothing inevitable about party decline. The British voters have seldom had a greater appetite for decent political ideas. A great prize awaits the party that can provide them.
But don't expect to hear many of these ideas presented in the next three weeks. The party conference is dying.