Sunday, 6 September 2009

Parties on verge of falling below 1% threshold

A report in the Independent suggests the Conservatives have lost a further 40,000 members since Cameron became leader. They're not alone; both Labour's and the LibDem's members have continued to fall away. My best guess at current party memberships is that the Tories have 230,000, Labour 160,000 and the LibDems 60,000 - about 450,000 between them.

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.

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.

Astonishing, isn't it?

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?


talwin said...

Not sure that Party membership is much of an indicator of anything nowadays. People in general are so pissed off with the lot of them....etc.

And I'm not sure that disillusion with Brown means the disillusioned will say, 'Let's sign up with Dave and hand over 25 quid'.

Doesn't alter the fact that Brown and ghastly New Labour will, thankfully, get slaughtered at the GE.

Yokel said...

In Mandelson's "Post Democratic Age", one has no need for the Political Party any more. All needful decisions will be made on our behalf by those entrenched in the system, eg Common Purpose.

My guess is that the political party system will be some of the colateral damage in Mandelson's cynical support for Brown to delay the General Election. It is important that the election is held after the Irish referendum (and the subsequent confirmation of the Lisbon Constitution) so that David's BluLabour Party could not offer a referendum to UK voters.

Nick Drew said...

somewhat OT but i checked out UpMyStreet and they still have a bit more work to do

for my postcode they state "the main type of housing is one and two bedroom flats, most of which are purpose built and low rise"

there are in fact just two such blocks on the very edge of the area (outside the postcode itself) and the rest is 100% houses

which, comically, is validated when you call up the photos they also hold for the area ... (and could of course be checked in two ticks using google earth)

it may account for some of the junk mail we get, though, I suppose

talwin said...

Nick, sorry you seem to be a bit disappointed with Up my Street. I, apparently, live in an area with 'well-off managers', and 'living in larger house'. I am likely to be 'financially secure'.

Accurate, or not, I shall feel better (and slightly superior) for at least part of the day.

Weekend Yachtsman said...

Well my postcode is not classified. Apparently either the area's too large (Six houses? Maybe not...), or mostly accommodates people in halls of residence or other institutional accommodation (nope!), or is very new (20 years?) or, ominously, "part of a reorganisation by the Post Office.


Or maybe, like so much else, they only pay attention to the South of England.

Anonymous said...

WY - I think your last comment is spot on. Britain is split into two halves, the South and err...errr, the other bit"

Coney Island

Budgie said...

One way of reviving political parties and making them attentive to their members is to limit donations to individuals only (no businesses, no pressure groups and no trade unions) and limit the amount to, say, £1000 per year.

It would be hard at first but the parties would quickly adapt to genuine local associations and their members opinions rather than big business, big unions and big pressure groups.

TDK said...

The biggest problem is the risk of state funding of political parties which is being floated as a counter to the collapse of mass parties. We already have this to a certain extent in that "approved" charities and interest groups get state funding. If Greenpeace get state funding already then it is but a short step to funding the Green party or New Labour.

Despite the suggestion that a small party can be as effective as a bigger one, it is obvious that having full time workers and researchers clearly grant one an advantage over parties that don't.

Raedwald said...

TDK - yes, that's why a money-man looking to 'buy' a small party - funding full time researchers and workers - may get a very effective return on his investment.