"SNP Live", 2016. Image, YouTube, Fair Use.
The SNP has more members than the Conservatives. Labour is the biggest it’s been since the Sixties. The Lib Dems recruited nearly 20,000 people over 2017 and are the biggest they’ve been in 20 years, and the Greens have around twice as many members as UKIP.
These figures, published by the House of Commons library last week, tell an important story about the future of our politics.
Zombie members and PR nationalism
Conservative party membership peaked at 2.8 million in the 1950s and has declined rapidly ever since. By 2003 it had fallen to 273,000. It then halved under David Cameron and is now 124,000. UKIP’s membership has fallen since the Brexit referendum, from 34,293 in December 2016 to 23,280 now. And while the Tories look ripe for infiltration, the attempt by former UKIP funder Arron Banks to lead the charge seems to be failing, with, according to the Daily Express, only around 100 people joining the so-called ‘blue wave’. It seems the Brexit movement has moved on.
The long-term collapse in Conservative membership correlates with a drastic fall in the size of three other traditional institutions of conservatism: the Church of England, the armed forces and farming.
It seems that neoliberalism has done two things to the ruling class. First, it has taught people that they can attain more power through the market than through politics: better to be a banker than an MP. Second, it’s replaced Conservative values of loyalty, discipline and hierarchy with market ‘choice’ and individualism – not notions that drive you to join a political party.
What this means in practice is that both of Britain’s major right-wing parties will rely more than ever on a small group of the hyper-rich to fund them, and so will increasingly represent the interests of the hyper-rich. How, for example, can a party close the loopholes that allow massive tax evasion if most of its money comes from those who squeeze through them? In the 2010 general election, the Tories got half their funding from the City – effectively a bribe not to regulate the big banks after the financial crisis (they didn’t). In the next election, even more of their income can be expected to come from the plutocrats (and they already get more cash in legacies from dead members than those who are alive).
Similarly, the loss of Tory members indicates a lost activist base, removing both a direct line into the shifting priorities of their core voters, and vital leafletters and canvassers.
Historically the right would make up for that through the media, with a largely oligarch-owned press keen to push voters towards more pro-rich parties. But, just like other conservative institutions, the traditional newspapers are in freefall, as advertising revenue disappears to Google and Facebook.
Instead it seems likely that the Conservatives (and UKIP) will rely ever more on the growing data-driven securitised public-relations industry to reach voters through social media. Just like rich donors, this sector will expect rewards in return for loyal service. Already we’re seeing lucrative government contracts shuffle in their direction – through, for example, the privatisation of military propaganda, as we’ve seen with Cambridge Analytica and Bell Pottinger, and more generally through tacit state support for digital platform monopolies like Facebook.
As we’ve seen with Trump and Brexit, the strategy adopted by this nexus of offshore money and mercenary propaganda firms is to copy the divide-and-rule tactics learned in centuries of imperialism. Many of the institutions that helped construct traditional Anglo-Britishness – Protestantism, the print media, the army and the Conservative and Unionist Party – are disappearing, and so the Tories are having to switch from subtler appeals to nationalism to more explicit flag-waving. The only majority the Conservative party has won in 25 years was on the back of a campaign of Scot-bashing English nationalism, and we can expect much more of that.
Mass memberships and platform parties
On the left and centre, though, something very different is happening. In the nineties and noughties, the common refrain was that young people joined single-issue campaigns and social movements, but not political parties; those with moral concerns around the world were encouraged by much of the media to channel them through consumerism, rather than politics. Worried about global poverty? Buy Fairtrade! Worried about climate change? Use low-energy light bulbs!
From around 2009, things started to change. Obama had been elected in the United States, meaning that for the first time since Kennedy the coolest person on earth was a politician, and banks had collapsed, meaning my generation knew we would graduate into a recession. I wrote in the spring of that year about how recent student elections had seen turnout records smashed as the cohort who had been teenagers during the Iraq war came of age. Towards the end of that year, the Copenhagen climate talks fell apart, after which the climate movement dissipated, with many of its best activists resolving to change tactics.
Much of the energy of students and recent graduates was swept into Cleggmania in the 2010 election, and then onto the streets as the Lib Dems sold out those voters only months later. As the students of 2010/11 occupied lecture theatres and Topshops, they developed a politics of their own, fit for the age of austerity.
In September 2014 the great party turn began as these social movements flooded into political parties. First, in Scotland, tens of thousands of people joined the SNP, Scottish Greens and Scottish Socialist Party in the wake of the independence referendum.
In January the following year, the Green Party of England and Wales followed suit, with the ‘Green surge’. When Caroline Lucas was elected an MP in 2010, there were just over 10,000 signed-up Green members across the UK. In mid-September 2014, there were still fewer than 20,000. By March 2015, the number was nearly 70,000 (now it’s 47,000). These members came, largely, from those who had been active in – or at least politicised by – the social movements of the previous decade, who had developed a large political conversation outside the traditional media and parties.
Prominent political commentators mock Corbyn or SNP supporters as a cult, before prostrating themselves on the holy turf of Westminster
Then came the Corbyn surge, as huge numbers rushed into Labour, smelling the first chance to secure real change through one of the main parties of the British state for the first time in decades. Many came from the same world as the people who had joined the Greens, and some were literally the same people. Others were trade unionists who had lost automatic votes in Labour leadership elections in an attempt to cut them off from the party, but who shocked the Westminster consensus by signing up to have their say in vast numbers.
Meanwhile Brexit happened. With the idea that joining a political party was once more ‘a thing I can do about this’ in the air, the Lib Dems found themselves able to attract (or re-attract) thousands of members after the damage of the coalition years; in Scotland, the SNP has seen another growth in membership as Europhiles leapt onto the independence life-raft.
What are members for?
the traditional media doesn’t like mass parties because editors enjoy being the gate-keepers of political debate
When these members are discussed, it’s usually in terms of the cash they bring the parties – Labour got £14.4 million from its members in 2016, compared with Tory membership subs of £1.5 million. During elections, they are recognised as potential campaigners. But generally, much of the old press treats party members with the scorn that you’d expect from journalists who are remnants of a wilting industry most of which has been wrong about every major event of the past decade. Prominent political commentators mock Corbyn or SNP supporters as a cult, before prostrating themselves on the holy turf of Westminster, muttering an incantation to one of its small gods (the mythic David Miliband or the ghost of Nigel Farage, dependent on denomination) and declaring that, while their previously predicted date for Corbynism’s demise may have been wrong, its end is, indeed, still nigh.
In part, the traditional media doesn’t like mass parties because editors enjoy being the gate-keepers of political debate. More people pay membership fees to the Labour party than buy a copy of The Times every day – or of any paper but The Sun or The Daily Mail. The SNP now has 3% of Scottish voters on its membership database, meaning its internal newsletter has six times the circulation of The Scotsman. Journalists are used to shaping the language and boundaries of political discourse, and the re-emergence of other forums for national debate is a real threat to that power.
Talk to vocal online supporters of the SNP or Corbyn, and you usually discover that their tone is a product of this hostility. While they are often intelligent and independently minded, they tend to see their role on social media as providing solidarity and support to their side. Whatever specific differences they may have with their leaderships, they understand that the choice is between having journalists and opponents portray them as a cult or being dismissed as split. In that context, people tend to choose discipline over discussion, ‘cult’ over conversation.
This is, however, a problem. Because if progressive politics is now expressed through parties, then parties must be spaces in which people can debate and discuss, where the most interesting conversation is taking place. They must create space for people to grow. They should tap into the collective genius of their members. They should be how we re-learn the art of democratic discourse in the digital age and where we develop our understanding of the world. They should be the democratic platforms through which we organise to take back control of our politics.
Yet the Labour NEC election and the Green leadership election – both of which declared last week – produced little discussion about what members are for, and were instead dominated by debates about antisemitism and trans rights, respectively. Labour's democracy review seems so far to have included very few ideas about how to actually empower ordinary members and, worse, many Labour MPs treat their new party colleagues as a threat. Any suggestion that some of the new talent which has joined the party since 2015 might be allowed to replace some of the mediocre white men that make up most of the Labour back benches is treated as sacrilege. Online abuse is, of course, unacceptable. But the way in which so many people who have only just started to find their political voice are lumped in with abusers is also deeply worrying.
Meanwhile, the SNP recently outsourced its economic strategy to a panel headed by a corporate lobbyist and the Lib Dems seem to have run out of ideas, and so are attempting to launch their own cargo-cult version of Momentum.
The parties of the left and centre have an extraordinary opportunity to reshape politics for a generation if they can work out how to empower their mass memberships in the internet age. But if they fail, they will be crushed by the hedge-fund-funded, security-digital complex of future conservatism.