This British Political Party Has a Membership Problem

This week, press reports surfaced in the U.K. that its Conservative Party suffered a massive decline in membership in recent years, leading to calls for a major change in approach. In other words, the Tories are having the same kinds of member issues associations do.

This may be the first story ever written that compares association membership to British politics. Niche just hit a whole ‘nother level.

But amid a report of dwindling numbers in the leading Conservative and Unionist Party, the issues it’s facing as far as declining membership may sound pretty familiar to you, even if you have no idea how British politics work. More details:

Imagine if they were to then convert one in twenty of those digital followers into a local party member? That would increase the average local association membership by 300 people.

The problem: While party membership was once more common among the British population—in the 1950s, the right-of-center Tories had as many as 3 million members [PDF]—political parties have seen their counts shrink across the board, with most, such as the Liberal Democrats and Labour parties holding onto memberships in the tens of thousands and the hundreds of thousands, respectively. The Conservative Party, which was on a bit of an upswing at the time current Prime Minister David Cameron took over the party’s leadership in 2005, may be feeling the membership pain the worst of all. According to numbers released this week, it’s member count is down by almost a full 50 percent since Cameron took the party’s reins, according to The Independent. Though not as bad as it could have been—some party leaders were concerned that its rolls had fallen below the psychological 100,000 barrier—the total of 134,000 members is still a major drop from the 253,600 who voted in the 2005 leadership contest.

The root causes: So, what’s causing the slide in membership? Well, it depends on who you ask—it being politics, after all, everyone has an opinion. In a speculative August piece on the issue, The Independent pointed out some of the potential problems at play: Some strategists point to the smaller UK Independence Party, a right-wing party that is known for its skeptical stance to the European Union, as a factor; it has seen its membership rolls double from around 15,000 to more than 30,000 in recent years. Others point to weaknesses in both Cameron and party leadership as a whole. Others suggest that the party model itself it outdated, with the political bodies failing to attract more new members as its elderly ones pass on. With the Tories’ paying members mostly among the elderly, this could be a problem. (That’s right, British political parties have the kind of membership issues everyone else does.)

What could be done? One party voice in particular has been pushing for reforms in party membership. Douglas Carswell, a Conservative member of Parliament whose reform-focused political stances have drawn attention, says that the party has not done enough to keep up with modern trends. For example, Carswell suggests a solid and effective social media campaign for members of Parliament could help build follower counts in various geographic regions in the country—and then try to convert those members. “Imagine if they were to then convert one in twenty of those digital followers into a local party member? That would increase the average local association membership by 300 people,” he wrote in a blog for The Telegraph. “Impossible? We are well on our way to achieving this in my Clacton constituency.” (Doesn’t that approach sound familiar?) Carswell then went a step further, recommending the party offer £1-per-year membership, as opposed to its current £25-per-year membership, which he said was a poor value proposition. (Again, sound familiar? My colleague Joe Rominiecki writes stuff like this all the time. Clearly the party should give Joe a call.)

An intriguing next step: The Tories realize that a modernized approach might be needed to grow membership … and with the ultra-modern political engagement approaches being taken in the United States, the party could certainly stand to borrow some ideas. But rather than simply emulating, Britain’s Conservatives went right to the source, hiring Obama for America mastermind Jim Messina to help strategize for its next campaign. With the Obama campaigns in 2008 and 2012 considered masterful at the art of email marketing and social media, the party could certainly do a lot worse.

So, if you’re reading this, you probably know a thing or two about leading a membership organization. Here’s an exercise for you: If you were running the Conservative Party, how would you improve the situation? Let’s hear your thoughts in the comments.

During British PM David Cameron's reign as head of the Conservative Party, membership has fallen by half. (photo by DFID - UK Department for International Development/Flickr)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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