The UK electorate is currently a smidgeon over 45m. The combined memberships of the three big parties are therefore on the verge of falling below a 1% threshold - just one in a hundred electors being a member of any of the three.
As the old mass-membership parties have centralised both policymaking and power and have become consumer brands rather than associations over the last thirty years so millions of voters across the country have deserted them. The campaign language of the parties has become indistinguishable from that of brand marketeers; Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman. Using marketing tools such as ACORN, central parties can target campaigning down to street level.
Enter your postcode at Up My Street and you can get your own street profile; mine reads
Type 15 in the ACORN classification and 1.17% of the UK's population live in this type.Astonishing, isn't it?
Neighbourhoods fitting this profile are found primarily in London (Wandsworth, Hammersmith and Fulham, Merton, Kensington and Chelsea, Richmond-upon-Thames and Ealing) as well as in Oxford, Cambridge and Edinburgh.
These people live in affluent urban areas, where large attractive houses have often been converted into flats. Whilst many do own their home, the proportion of rented accommodation is relatively high.
People in this type are very highly qualified; one in four have postgraduate and professional qualifications. They work in professional and senior managerial occupations, with many spending very long hours at work.
Most residents are either young singles or couples. There are very few children and those there are tend to be under five, which suggests that young families move on from these areas.
As one of the highest earning types, they have relatively high disposable incomes. They invest in a broad range of products including high interest accounts, ISAs, and stocks and shares. They are comfortable using the Internet to do their financial research.
In the winter, this type is the most likely to go skiing. They will then take at least one other holiday which is usually foreign and often far flung. When at home they take advantage of the range of theatre and arts available to them from living in the city. They also enjoy good food and wine, both at home and in restaurants.
They are interested in current affairs and are very likely to buy a daily paper, which they probably read as they commute to work. They usually choose from The Guardian, Independent, The Times and Financial Times. At the weekend they like The Sunday Times and Observer.
In the wake of the Obama campaign, many political advisors on this side of the ditch have been speculating that the internet, email campaigns and Web 2.0 together with sophisticated marketing tools such as this can win election campaigns. So who needs members? Why is the 1% threshold important?
The answer is this. Membership size is the only thing that distinguishes large parties from small parties. The internet is pretty much free, and offers little competitive advantage to large, established parties. Emails cost nothing, and the Libertarian Party or the Socialist Alliance Party can send as many emails as Labour or the Conservatives. The web site of a party with 5,000 members can work better than a 100,000 member party's - it's down to design, not numbers. And as the playing field becomes increasingly level, parties will become increasingly dependent on large donations from a smaller number of individuals. As party political tribal loyaties dissipate amongst voters, as they are now doing, smaller parties backed by bigger money become viable candidates for election, for office and for power.
The barrier for new parties is brand recognition. Is the political 'market' like Cola, with brand loyalty owed to the incumbent market leaders being all but inpenetrable for new entrants? I don't think so.
And as the market becomes more open to new national political brands, as traditional memberships continue to shrink, what of democracy?