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The parties are over

The old mass parties of left and right alike are a thing of the past, says James Heartfield

The Conservative Party has been losing an average of 64 000 members every year since 1960. If the decline continues at current rates, the party will have fewer than 100 000 members by the end of the century. Even if the party does manage to hold on to more of its members, many thousands could be expected to die in the next decade. The average age of today's 756 000 Tory Party members is 62, nearly half are at least 66, and only five per cent are under 35. These are the conclusions of a survey of Conservative Party members conducted by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson (True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership).

In fact Whiteley et al have probably overestimated the party's membership, since, according to Michael Pinto-Duschinsky, just 500 000 members are paying dues, at an average of £10 a year (Times, 11 October 1994). Historically the Conservative Party has been the largest mass party in Britain, with a membership of between 2.5m and 3m in the 1950s. But the state of the party today begs the question whether the Conservative Party of 1995 bears any relation to its namesake of 1955.

A recent Young Conservatives conference underlined the party's difficulties. There were just 400 young Tories present. On that turnout the Young Conservatives is an organisation with less weight than the weekly January meetings of Brightlingsea Against Live Exports (average attendance 600). In the 1950s there were around 100 000 Young Conservatives.

Estimates of the active membership of the party are even lower than the dues-paying membership. Just 135 000 party members canvassed for the Tories during the 1992 general election - fewer than the 170 000 who canvassed for Labour. According to Whiteley etal,165 000 members are regularly involved in some party activity, though they estimate that 17 per cent of members have stopped being active over the past five years, suggesting a'"de-energising" of the grassroots party over time' (p69).

In arrears

Even nine years ago, at the height of Thatcherism, the party was considerably more active than today. In1986, according to Richard Kelly, at least one local or regional party conference took place somewhere in the country every week, involving about 20 000 participants overall (Conservative PartyConferences, 1989). Today the big showcase rally is largely a thing of the past.

The decline of the Tory Party is a drain on the finances of Central Office, whose debts run into millions. Last year Central Office raised £14.1m, of which only £745 000 came from the constituencies. Some big companies have already stopped giving money to the party, and as business donors grow more impatient with the Tories, cash is likely to become a real problem. Already dozens of constituency associations are subsidised by their MPs through House of Commons allowances for research and secretarial support (Times, 11 October 1994).

The decline of the Conservative Party is a historic trend that was not reversed by Margaret Thatcher. It might sound like good news to the party's rivals, but in fact Labour is locked into a similar decline. Previous research by Seyd and Whiteley put Labour's membership at just 311 152 in 1990, falling steadily from its 1952 peak of 1014 524 (Labour's Grass Roots). According to John McIlroy, of the 279 000 members with which Labour started the 1992 general election year, 130 000 were up to three months in arrears with their party subscription and another 18 000 up to one year in arrears (Trade Unions in Britain Today).

Labour HQ in Walworth Road has claimed a rise in membership of 10 000 since the election of Tony Blair as leader. In fact Labour has been trying to rebuild its grassroots organisation since 1993 when it appointed 24 fulltime agents to work with local parties. Behind the unspectacular attempts to recruit new members to Blair's New Labour, the social base of the party has been transformed.

Middle class, middle-aged

Historically, Labour's constituency party was an afterthought. The party was formed, financed and run by the trade union leaders. The constituency parties only came into existence so that middle class sympathisers could be roped into the party organisation.

Over the past 15 years the trade unions have become less important to Labour. Trade unions generally have fewer members due to the effects of Tory trade union legislation and job cuts in traditional industries. Since reaching a high point in 1979 of 13 289 000, membership of TUC-affiliated unions has been falling every year, reaching 8 928 000 in 1992. Trade unions have failed to organise in new industries as is shown by the falling density of union membership from 56.9 per cent of the workforce in1979 to just 41.8 per cent in 1992 (Trade Unions in Britain Today).

In line with the falling membership, fewer union members are affiliated to the Labour Party. In 1980, 6.45m union members were affiliated to Labour; the number had dropped to 5.3m in 1990. Since then affiliations have continued to fall. The largest union, the Transport and General Workers' Union, reduced its affiliation from 1.25m in 1990 to 750 000 in 1994. Affiliations are not a true guide to party support since union officials often affiliate more members than actually pay the political fund levy on top of their union fees. And since only 46 per cent of union members voted for Labour in the last election, it is safe to assume that not every political levy payer means to subscribe to Labour.

The decreasing importance of trade union affiliation for the Labour Party was recognised when the 1993 Labour Party conference increased the role of constituency parties under the 'One member, one vote' reforms. Only19.5 per cent of trade union affiliates participated in the election for the new Labour leader last year, against 69 per cent of constituency party members.

The consequences of Labour's transformation from a party principally of trade union affiliates to one of constituency members are more important than the dry arithmetic suggests. Trade union affiliation was the only way that any number of working class people were represented in conventional party politics. Even that kind of representation was pretty tangential. Trade union delegations hardly ever consulted their members about how they should vote at Labour Party conference. But now there is no avenue at all for working class representation in parliament.

As one might expect the Conservative Party is overwhelmingly a middle class party--55 per cent of its membership is drawn from the salariat (teachers are the largest single occupational group) and 42 per cent earn more than £20 000. But then 49 per cent of the Labour Party is drawn from the salariat and as many as 30 per cent earn more than £20 000. And the Labour Party is ageing, perhaps not as much as the Tories, but with an average age of 48. Labour without the unions has been reduced to the middle class rump that the constituency parties were designed to involve.

Under Tony Blair the Labour Party has made a virtue of its middle class appeal, while carefully downgrading any policies that smack of its past links with the working class, like the commitment to nationalisation in Clause IV of its constitution. There are already signs that Labour is not only picking up middle class votes from the Conservatives, but that working class Labour voters are not bothering to turn out - as happened in February's Islwyn by-election.

As a consequence of Labour's selfconscious transformation into a party of Middle England, the electoral sphere has narrowed. Politics today is the preserve of polite society. The working class is not welcome in today's media-conscious political parties. The mass parties that were created to contest elections under full adult suffrage have been downsized as the working class has been elbowed out of the electoral sphere.

Same the world over

The decline of mass parties evident in British politics is not unique to this country. Every major Western nation has experienced a shrinking of its base of active political involvement. From France and Italy to America, the end of the Cold War removed the raison d'etre of the old parties of both left and right. Throughout Europe a pattern evolved where first the parties of the left lost support in the eighties, and then in the nineties the parties of the right were also deserted.

The decline of the British Conservative Party is part of a wider decline of right-wing parties due to the collapse of the old left/right framework of party politics. And the Conservative Party is probably one of the most established ruling class parties in the world.

The collapse of the old political framework is long overdue. Neither the parties of left or right had any solution for the problems that blight working people's lives today. Unfortunately the immediate consequence is that the political sphere has shrunk to exclude the majority altogether. However working people organise themselves in the future, it will have to be in opposition to the narrow and decaying political framework of Westminster.

True Blues: The Politics of Conservative Party Membership by Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd and Jeremy Richardson and Labour's Grass Roots by Paul Whiteley and Patrick Seyd are published by Clarendon Press, Oxford. Trade Unions in Britain Today (Second Edition) by John McIlroy is published by Manchester University Press.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 78, April 1995



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