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  • Published in Analysis

Nicola Sturgeon addresses a crowd of 10,000 SNP members at the SSE Hydro. Photo: Daily Record

The membership of mainstream parties is plummeting, but people are joining parties if they look as if they are going to take on the elite, argues John Rees

All three mainstream political parties have been haemorrhaging membership for two generations. The Tory decline is the most remarkable. From the Churchillian post war peak of nearly 3 million members it collapsed to less than half that figure as it was bypassed by the welfare state consensus and the new age ushered in by the 1960s. These figures come from the House of Commons library and even if they are exaggerated by half due to inflated reporting the decline is still precipitous. Tory membership stabilised for a while and then came Margaret Thatcher. In the middle of her reign, the age of the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax, Tory membership halved again. It's been in slow decline ever since.

Labour membership has also been a pretty relentless tale of decline. Labour was once able to boast a million members. When Tony Blair was leader of the opposition Labour membership picked up from a previous low and hit 400,000 by the time of his landslide victory in 1997. But support for the Iraq War and the constant adherence to neoliberal economics has thrown that boost away. Nothing like the revival of membership that took place while Labour was in opposition last time has occurred under Miliband.

Source: House of Commons Library 'Membership of UK Political Parties'

The Liberals have been in decline since the rise of the Labour Party in the early 20th century. Long sustained by being the swinging receptacle for protest votes, depending on who was in power and in which part of the country the by-election was being held, only participation in the Tory Coalition has been able to lower their already rock-bottom location in British establishment politics. Liberal Party membership plummeted from 65,000 at the 2010 general election to just 44,000 earlier this year.

And party membership is mirrored by electoral performance. In the 1950s the Labour and Tory vote alone was over 95 percent of those cast. In 2010 the three main parties were down to an 88 percent share. Projections for next May's election have them at below 80 percent.

Politics, parties and movements

The decline in support for the main parties should not be read as disinterest in politics. The British Social Attitudes survey, by far the most authoritative source of statistics about opinion in the UK, found the following: In 1986 29 percent of people said they were interested in politics either a ‘great deal’ or ‘quite a lot’. In 2012 36 percent of people did so. The percentage of people to describe themselves as having ‘not much’ interest in politics or ‘none at all’ had also fallen between these years by 7 percentage points, to 32 percent in 2012. What many people do feel is that establishment politics doesn't reflect their political views. A third of the population, asked to rank their feelings about the statement ‘how democratic do you think Britain is overall' from 1 to 10, chose the least approving end of that range.

All this has led for a decade and a half the rise of social movements as the predominant form of social struggle. This process has been analysed in great depth by Ady Cousins in his pathbreaking The Crisis of the British Regime. A recent House of Commons study underlines his findings: 'Non party political activity, trade union and charitable bodies have featured prominently in the UK’s post-war political history and...continue to do so'. The study lists as examples the Stop the War Coalition, the People's Assembly and CND, on the left, and the Campaign to Protect Rural England and the Countryside Alliance.

The growth of social movements was a response not just to the decay of establishment political parties but also to a specific crisis of both trade union struggle and, more recently, of far left non-establishment parties. This has been the age of the anti-globalisation struggle, of the global anti-war movement, of Occupy and the anti-G8, G20, and Nato protests.

But the autonomist account which simply counterposes movement and party organisation has never been accurate. In many places political parties were central to these mobilisations, especially parties of the left. Far left organisation was key to the construction of the Stop the War Coalition and the People's Assembly in the UK, Rifondazione Communista in Italy was central to the largest (and most violent) confrontations between the anti-globalisation movement and the state. But this was not always how it seemed at the time. And the subsequent splits in some of the organisations involved in these protests added to the appearance that party organisation was either unnecessary to the wider struggle or positively harmful.

This long established trend now looks as if it is changing, at least in some crucial aspects. The rise of Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain are the best known cases. But recent figures for the membership of the Scottish National Party and the Greens on the left, and Ukip on the right, show a dramatic increase in party membership in the UK as well.

Source: House of Commons Library 'Membership of UK Political Parties', updated with 2014 figures from online reports: Greens, Ukip, SNP

The rise in the membership of the SNP is the most dramatic, far outstripping Ukip. The increase from 23,000 members just after the Scottish referendum in September to 92,000 members today means that the SNP have a membership in the same league as the mainstream UK electoral parties....and only in Scotland of course. The SNP's growth is a direct outcome of its role in the much wider social movement for independence.

The growth in the Greens has been slower but still significant. They had about 9,500 members in 2008 rising to over 13,000 at the end of last year. The recent Green surge is to an important degree also a product of Scottish events. The Greens campaigned for a Yes vote and have prospered accordingly, increasing membership in Scotland from 1,500 to over 7,000 this year. North and South of the border the Greens are gaining as an electorally credible alternative to the mainstream partly because their representatives are willing to identify with (and get arrested alongside) anti-austerity, anti war, environmental activists and Occupy protestors.

There is not much that the rise in Ukip membership has in common with the rise in the membership of the SNP and the Greens except this: it too is a response to the collapse in faith of the centre parties neoliberal economic policies and neo-conservative foreign policy. Other than that it is a product to the massive publicity boost that the Tories and the media provide for Ukip. In some ways, given the wall to wall publicity, its surprising that Ukip's membership isn't higher.

The thing that unites them is that they all look like outsiders, even if this is entirely a fake in the case of Ukip.

The lesson is simple: membership figures are falling off a cliff in parties that defend the elite but they are rising in parties that seem to be challenging the elite. And the biggest rise of all is for the party that became identified with the greatest popular mobilisation against the elite, the Yes campaign in the Scottish referendum. This is something it has in common with Syriza and Podemos, both of which were products of a wider extra-parliamentary struggle.

That said, party affiliation is likely to be weak. Members are new. They are not the product of  generations long political affiliation embedded in a broader family, community, or union environment.

And the parties themselves are likely to disappoint. Perhaps not soon, but eventually.

Ukip will disappoint because it is a right wing populist version of racist Toryism and cannot therefore long remain the all things to all people that it currently attempts to be.

The Greens are an electoral party who are not as radical as some of their new supporters. This is partly because electoral politics cannot deliver the kind of fundamental change for which many are looking. And the Greens retain an overall reformist political strategy.

But the Greens are often not even making the most of the prominence they have achieved. Brighton's Green council behaved as badly, if not worse, than a Labour council in implementing cuts and job losses. It's good that Dame Jenny Jones was willing to be arrested at Occupy Parliament Square...but why accept a a place in the House of Lords in the first place? These pressures will not lessen if the party becomes more successful.

The SNP is the most interesting case. Its growth is a direct product of losing the referendum. Had it won and then become the governing party of  medium sized capitalist state it is unlikely that the radicalism generated by the Yes campaign would have flowed into the SNP channel, or at least by no means on the scale that it has done. The SNP's membership hike is a sign of disgust with Labour for saving the Union and a declaration of the intent to keep up the struggle for independence by other electoral means.

This momentum can certainly be sustained until the British general election and perhaps beyond. But it will come under pressure because the limits of what the SNP can achieve in Holyrood will become more apparent and compromise with the Westminster elite may become more likely the more successful the SNP is at the general election.

But for now we should note that sizeable numbers of activists have concluded that party organisation in some form is necessary for political struggle. They are right in this. Movements, however essential, are blunt instruments. And movement's without strong party participation are, in the UK at least, small, hard to sustain over time, and weak at articulating clear political positions other than a broad opposition to the system.

Why parties are necessary

Party politics deals with an analysis of society in general, has its own intellectual traditions, sustains itself across time, and fights on many fronts. It is, at least in principle, capable of fighting on every front from the street to the workplace to the ballot box.It has internal decision making structures and permanent organisation.

There are of course dangers. Even right wing parties can of course atrophy. And when they do an important supporting structure of the ruling class is weakened. But elite parties can survive this because their relationship with their supporters is only one of the many social structures, from public schools to business associations, which help sustain ruling class power.

Party organisation is much more central to the effectiveness of the working class and the oppressed. Only trade unions are as important. So among working people the issue of what sort of party we need is an absolutely central question.

Reformist parties will always exist because they represent a fundamental form of working class consciousness: the belief that we must fight for a better world but only within the structures of existing capitalist society.  Even in the midst of revolutionary upheavals, as all historical experience shows, a section of the working class will still adhere to this view.

This 'within and against' the system approach has some fatal weaknesses. It is, for instance, why reformist parties can develop bureaucracies that represent their own interests not those of its members. And it is also why they can become a mechanism for feeding elite politics into the mass of the population, not a weapon in the hands of the mass for the purposes of fighting the elite. In fact, in parties that are reformist this is inevitable.

A party that limits itself to the prison of electoral politics is much more likely to compromise and atrophy than one that is in principle a fighting organisation committed to every struggle that arises to challenge the system. Parties that see the electoral struggle as central  are more likely to disappoint their followers for the simple reason that parliamentary democracy has never been able challenge entrenched elite economic power. Parties based in essence on extra-parliamentary struggles are less likely to exploit wider movements for their own narrow purposes.

This is the fundamental division between revolutionary parties that base themselves on a militant minority of workers and those that aim to base themselves on the average consciousness of the class, as any party wishing to be successful in an election must do.

There are two models of how a socialist organisation should relate to the wider movements of the class at stake here. The electoralist party seeks to represent the class, or a broad section of it, as it exists and with only a secondary function of challenging reactionary ideas or identifying with militant minorities which enter into struggles that may be unpopular, at least in the beginning, with wider sections of the class.

Revolutionary parties do not seek to cut themselves off from the wider sections of the class, although sectarian versions of this party model, and they litter the landscape of the far left, do just this. But genuine revolutionary organisations seek to identify with the most active elements of resistance within the class in order to connect them with wider sections of the class and so lift the combativity and consciousness of the whole class.

Nothing about the necessity of this division has disappeared under modern capitalism. If anything the rise of neoliberal economics, the hollowing  out of democratic structures and the weakness of working class organisation has made if more difficult for a successful reformist strategy to be enacted, and more vital that effective revolutionary organisation is built.

This is not, of course, an argument for revolutionaries to stand aloof from the new mood that wants to create new reformist parties because the old ones have failed. The SNP's growth is a response to the failure of Labour, just as the rise of Syriza is a response to the failure of PASOK and the rise of Podemos a response to the failure of the Spanish Socialist Workers Party.

In all cases revolutionaries should work for the success of these initiatives. A new reformist party built out of the social movements is likely to be more radical than an old, decayed and disgraced reformist party. New parties depend on activists to establish themselves whereas old parties that have grafted on to old society have other forms of support, money and power. In a new party therefore the activists are likely to have more weight. But revolutionaries must also look ahead and support the new parties without the illusion that these parties will be able to deliver on all the hopes invested in them.

What recent trends seem to indicate is that many activists, aware of the dangers of party organisation, nevertheless find it indispensable. We should welcome this. But we need to insist on two other vital propositions. The first is that these parties cannot sustain themselves unless they also sustain the movements which gave them life in the first place. Building the movements is the life blood of these initiatives. Departing from this task once the parties are established, especially if this is done in the name of electoral strategy, will be to kill the goose that laid the golden egg.

The second is that building a broad electoral initiative only makes sense as part of a revolutionary strategy and not as an end in itself. What, after all, would be the point of the Greens or the SNP replacing the Labour Party only to repeat its errors? Are we supporting Syriza merely to replace PASOK? Podemos' inherited autonomist attitudes ('we are neither left not right', internal elections driven by their media prominent leader) should already be cause for concern.

In the end the strongest guarantee that the new broad parties meet their full potential is that there exists within them a powerful, well organised and non-sectarian revolutionary organisation.

In short, an electoral party is not the only necessity. There are of course bad, 'revolutionary' sects out there. But there are also revolutionary organisations seeking to extend and strengthen the working class movement. They are both necessary and desirable. The struggle, including the construction of new left electoral initiatives, can and will take place if they are not there. But it will be stronger and get further if they are present.

John Rees

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.

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