Research by the Commons Library shows an inexorable decline in membership of UK political parties and affiliated organisations: http://bit.ly/cut085 A comprehensive research note collates all available figures on party membership, and documents trends in membership since 1928:
“In 2005, only 1.3% of the electorate was a member of one of the main political parties. The latest figures show the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties have memberships of approximately 250,000, 166,000 and 60,000 respectively. At the peak of membership in the early 1950s, however, the Conservatives claimed nearly 3 million members while Labour claimed more than 1 million members.”
The UK has one of the lowest rates of political party membership in Europe. Labour membership has been in decline since the 1960’s apart from a brief interregnum between 1994 and 1998 – rising to 405 000 at the high water mark of New Labour.
The decline has been particularly acute where affiliated trade unions are concerned. From a peak of 6.5m in 1979 today’s figure stands at approx 3m. In reality it is significantly less – affiliation figures for the Labour Party’s 15 trade union affiliates are as rare as hen’s teeth (although UNISON – by far the most transparent union where its political fund is concerned - has a stated figure of 430,000 Labour link levy payers).
The Labour Party has not published membership details of affiliated organisations since 1992 - ironically at the same time OMOV was being introduced and the block vote scaled down at Labour Party Conference in order to 'enhance party democracy'. In contrast to the heavily state regulated trade unions, political parties are not required by law to publish individual membership figures let alone those of affiliated organisations.
In 2008, the Daily Telegraph has claimed that Labour Party membership had fallen to the 'lowest level since it was founded in 1900': http://bit.ly/9qnkk7
Given the above trends it is no surprise that the recent UNISON NDC report on 'reviewing the effectiveness of UNISON's political fund' should identify the need for 'political engagement, lobbying and campaigning to be seen as a mainstream activity of the whole union, a natural and necessary extension of our work of representing and bargaining for members, and integral to the responsibilities of everyone in the union at all levels rather than the exclusive preserve of a few special sections, committees, or officers'.
In the context of the Con Dem government's austerity measures there will never be a better time to revive the union's political influence.
However a cautionary note. Led by Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude the Government is reviewing the funding of political parties. Earlier this month Maude expressed a view to the Committee on Standards in Public Life that the method of political fund payment by union members was 'a totally bogus process'. Inevitably the union-Labour link is under scrutiny by the Con Dems with a change in the method of trade union levy paying widely forecast. The current requirement to 'opt out' of political contribution may be replaced by a legal requirement to 'opt in' - the default position will switch to no levy payment: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/10544760
The Commons research notes that following the provisions of the Trade Disputes Act 1927 which altered the basis of the unions’ political levy to ‘contracting in’ rather than ‘contracting out’ there was 'a fall into the party’s affiliated union membership from 3.5 to 2 million and a drop of approximately 20 per cent in its union income.'
Therefore any attempts to restablish union political influence are likely to be taking place on shifting sand and will require at all levels leadership, persistence and rigour sadly lacking during the New Labour era.
UNISONActive is an unofficial blog produced by UNISON activists for UNISON activists. Bringing news, briefings and events from a progressive left perspective.