As is well known, there has been a steady decline in party membership and activism in Britain over the years. But the country is far from being unique in this respect. In a paper published last year Ingrid Van Biezen from the University of Leiden and her colleagues showed that party membership has declined in some 17 out of 23 European democracies since the late 1990s. This has happened in countries like Germany, Switzerland and Sweden, as well as in Britain. According to her estimates party membership in Britain has declined from about 840 thousand in 1998 to 535 thousand in 2008, a drop of more than 36 per cent.
Intriguingly it appears that southern European countries like Spain and Italy have avoided this problem experiencing an increase in party membership over these years, so it is a widespread but not universal trend. Of course it is one thing to identify what is happening to grassroots party organisations and another to explain why it is happening. There is an obvious factor, namely that ex-communist countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Poland have seen quite marked declines in party memberships. Communism left a legacy of mistrust and low levels of volunteering in these countries, so that after an initial burst of enthusiasm for democratic politics many of their citizens have subsequently turned away from political activity. But this argument does not apply to countries like Germany and Britain. So what could be happening there?
One clue is a development which has occurred in many countries. That is a growing relationship between the state and the mainstream political parties over time. Because parties are so important to the working of democratic states, making effective government impossible without them, they have received growing support from the state. As one researcher put it they have become a bit like public utilities, such as the power company or the internet service provider. They are so essential to modern society that they get state subsidies and support of various kinds. These take the form of direct payments, assistance in campaigning, legal privileges, and tax exemptions of various kinds. One group of researchers argue that mainstream parties in many countries have become cartels in which the participants compete with each other around a narrowly defined set of issues, but they co-operate closely when it comes to extracting state subsidies. In this way politics becomes largely devoid of ideological divisions, while at the same time parties are able to create significant barriers to entry for competitors.
In a recent paper published in the academic journal Party Politics I examine the decline of party membership and activism across the democratic world and test two hypotheses which might account for this trend. One is called the ‘state capture’ thesis and the other the ‘rival participation’ hypotheses. The first of these argues that voluntary activity is being undermined by this growing relationship with the state. State subsidies to political parties come with a price, namely greater regulation to ensure legal requirements are met and financial probity maintained. Consequently, as parties become increasingly close to the state, the increased regulation and control which accompanies this can turn key activists, in effect, into unpaid state bureaucrats. This is something which any activist who has been persuaded to take on the job of the local constituency party secretary, treasurer or election agent will readily recognize. This makes it much less attractive to take on these important tasks, and if a party cannot fill these roles it risks becoming moribund. The other side of the same coin is that if parties can rely on the state for funding their activities, then they have little incentive to recruit or retain members for financial reasons. Thus, the idea is that the state may be smothering voluntary party activity.
The second hypothesis argues that political parties are losing their activists and members because of the rise of relatively new forms of political participation, having their origins in wider social and technological changes. One consequence of growing affluence is that in many countries consumer participation has become an increasingly important feature of politics. This refers to activities like buying or boycotting goods for political or ethical reasons. This type of participation is much easier to do than traditional forms like campaigning for or joining a political party. A similar point can be made about internet participation consisting of such things as online petitions, blogs, chat-rooms, twitter, facebook etc. If many people see the new social media as being more effective vehicles for participating than more traditional activities, this might help to explain the observed trends in party membership. In fact the evidence from thirty-six countries suggests that there is support for the ‘state capture’ hypothesis, but not for the ‘rival participation’ hypothesis. In other words party membership has declined more in countries where political parties are heavily regulated compared with countries where they are not. Over-regulation undermines voluntary activity.
There is another factor at work as well. Italy and Spain are examples of countries which have devolved considerable powers to their regions and to local government over the last forty years. Their politics are far more local than they used to be with significant taxing and spending powers being exercised at the local level. This in turn helps to explain why these countries are gaining party members rather than losing them. When there is a lot at stake in local politics we might expect more people to get involved, partly because of a desire to make a difference but also because there is a lot to lose if people don’t stand up for their own interests. Tip O’Neil, the former speaker of the US House of Representative once said ‘All politics is local’. This captures an important truth. Britain has a highly centralised political system by European standards, despite devolution to Scotland and Wales. As a consequence local people have little incentive to get involved when their politics is dominated by Whitehall. If we really want to revive our political parties we should decentralise British politics and reign in some of the regulation.
Paul Whiteley is Professor of Government at the University of Essex and co-director of the British Election Study. His publications include True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership (Oxford University Press, 1994)