Conservative Party membership is now down to 134,000 compared with 253,000 in 2005, according to figures published on ConservativeHome and pretty much every national newspaper. Inevitably, the alarm bells have sounded from various quarters. Are the grass roots disillusioned? Is David Cameron’s authority and agenda are being questioned? Are there enough activists to mount proper challenges in the seats that could win the Tories a majority come 2015.
These are all legitimate questions – and yes, the point about a lack of local activists is a very serious issue if the Conservatives are seriously to chase a majority at the next General Election. But this ignores a bigger problem of declining levels of political engagement in the UK.
After all, the Conservatives are not the only party to be experiencing membership problems. Labour has recently been embroiled in difficulties over its relationship with the trade unions – and if that saga has proven anything, it’s that a lot of trade unionists wouldn’t put their hands in their pockets for Labour if given the choice. The Liberal Democrats have also lost members – a fact that Nick Clegg himself acknowledged during his speech to his party’s annual conference this week.
The fact that all three major parties have had and are having membership trouble is symptomatic not of political militancy but of a growing political apathy. This is more than troubling less than two years from a General Election that is arguably the most important of the last 20 years, given that the results will either sustain or fundamentally change the country’s path to economic recovery and the delivery of public services. All three parties will face an enormous challenge to engage the public in the next 18 months if we are to avoid slipping below the pretty lamentable turnout of 59% at the 2001 General Election and the only marginally more impressive 65% in 2010.