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Democratic role of political parties

Does the party system assist the working of democracy?

2.2.3 Parties as membership organisations

How far are parties effective membership organisations, and how far are members able to influence party policy and candidate selection?

All UK political parties, large or small, operate in the context of a long-run decline in the proportion of the UK population who are party members. While an estimated 10 per cent of the electorate were party members in 1964, this had fallen to around 1 per cent in 2010, and there is also compelling evidence to suggest declining levels of activism among the party members who remain. Despite these common trends, the extent to which members are able to influence party policy varies enormously between parties. Finally, candidate selection has become a matter of controversy between party leaders and some local party units, especially for Labour and the Conservatives.

Parties as membership organisations

Reliable figures for party membership in the UK are notoriously difficult to obtain. There is a general belief that all parties tend to inflate the number of paid-up members. In addition, the Conservative Party has generally been reluctant to release membership figures at all, and there are particularly strong grounds for assuming that estimates for the period before the 1990s greatly exaggerate Conservative membership. Despite these caveats, by combining the various pieces of evidence available it is possible to construct some reasonable estimates of how membership of the three main parties has changed since 1964. Figure 2.2f, which draws together the figures published in eight different sources, highlights that all three of the UK's main political parties have experienced a dramatic decline in membership levels since the 1960s.

The decline in Conservative Party membership has been most dramatic, falling by over nine-tenths since the mid-1960s. Current figures suggest that the Conservatives now have around 175,000 members, compared to more than 2 million in the mid-1960s. Similarly, there has been almost continual decline in Labour membership since the early 1960s - when there were almost 1 million in the party. Despite a brief surge in membership after Blair became leader in the mid-1990s, Labour’s reported membership of  156,000 in 2009 represented about one-eighth of the peak membership figure of 1.2 million reported in 1952 (Flinn et al., 2005). Finally, while Liberal Democrat membership levels have proved more stable over the past decade, the party’s current 65,000 members represents less than a quarter of the 280,000 claimed by the Liberals in 1964. Current figures therefore suggest that the three main parties can count a current combined membership of, at most, 450,000 -  equating to about one per every 100 electors. If the estimates for previous decades are at least somewhat plausible, then there were some 3.3 million UK party members in 1964, one for every 11 electors.

Figure 2.2f: Membership of the three main parties in general election years, 1964-2010

Figure 2.2f: Membership of the three main parties in general election years, 1964-2010

Sources: Labour Party ‒ membership figures to 2000 are from Butler and Butler (2000, p. 159); figures from 2001-2009 are taken from Labour's annual reports and accounts as submitted to the Electoral Commission; the figure for 2010 is the reported number of ballots issued to individual members for the Labour leadership election that year. Conservative Party ‒ membership figures to 2001 are derived from Butler and Butler (2000, p.141), Beetham et al. (2002), and T. Bale (2011, p. 143). The latter provides the number of ballot papers issued to members for the 1997 and 2001 leadership contests. Figures for 2005 and 2010 are from Conservative Home. Liberals/Alliance/Liberal Democrat – membership figures to 1987 from Beetham et al. (2002, p.113); figures for 1988-2000 are from Marshall (2009); figures from 2001-2009 are taken from the Liberal Democrats’ annual reports and accounts as submitted to the Electoral Commission; the 2010 figure represents the number of ballot papers issued for the election of the party president and Federal Executive. 

In our 2002 Audit we suggested that 'British political parties are not likely to increase in size ever again’ (Beetham et al., 2002, p. 114). The evidence we have compiled for this Audit reaffirms our past assessment that declining party membership may prove irreversible, not least because the problem may be greater than we were previously aware. In 2002, we estimated that there were a total of around 840,000 members of political parties in the UK, based on the data then available. The membership information contained in the annual accounts submitted by political parties to the Electoral Commission since 2000 has enabled us to revise our estimates. Based on this evidence, we have downgraded our broad estimate of total party membership in the UK in 2002 to 700,000 - of whom about 650,000 were members of the three main three parties. On the same basis, we estimate that the combined membership of all UK political parties in 2010 had fallen to about 0.5 million, about 420,000 of whom were drawn from the three main parties. This decline in combined party membership of roughly 200,000 in under a decade is almost entirely explained by Labour and the Conservatives losing roughly 100,000 members each. As Childs (2006, p. 69) notes, 'the era of mass parties is clearly over’.

It is not just party membership which is in decline, but also party activism (Driver, 2011). Seyd and Whiteley (2004) found that the proportion of Labour Party members who delivered leaflets during an election fell from 77 per cent in 1990 to 61 per cent in 1999. Party members doing at least some door-to-door canvassing (i.e. knocking on doors to talk to voters) fell from 55 to 32 per cent over the same period. James Graham (2006) estimated that 10-24 per cent of local Labour party members were active during the 2005 general election campaign. Labour’s experience is by no means unique; available evidence suggests levels of activism among Conservative and Liberal Democrat members declined just as rapidly during the 1990s (Seyd and Whiteley, 2004). The Conservative Party’s 2009 membership survey found that only a third of members defined themselves as 'active’, prompting Bale (2011, p. 407) to comment that 'even that proportion would come as a surprise to many of those who do actually deliver leaflets and knock on doors'. Even if we make the generous assumption that one third of all UK party members are active, the combined activist base therefore amounts to no more than 160,000 individuals - roughly 250 per parliamentary constituency. Yet, other evidence suggests that this figure almost certainly represents a considerable over-estimate of levels of activism. For instance, based on interviews with local party secretaries in Burnley and Harrogate and Knaresborough, Wilks-Heeg and Clayton (2006) estimated that there were a total of about 100 party activists in each constituency in 2005.

There is evidence of a growth in the membership of smaller parties during the 2000s (Driver, 2011), although on nothing like the scale that would be required to compensate for the loss of members among the main two parties. As Table 2.2c shows, the Greens, the SNP and the BNP all gained members from 2003-2009, reflecting their growing significance in the UK political system (most notably in local, devolved and European elections). Moreover, there were clear surges in the membership of both UKIP and Respect in the mid-2000s - some of which is likely to have arisen from defections from the Conservatives and Labour respectively. Yet, based on the figures available, it would appear that we need to combine the membership of a dozen or so of the more significant smaller parties to obtain a figure broadly equivalent to the membership of the Liberal Democrats.

Table 2.2c: Membership of smaller parties, 2002-2009

  2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007 2008 2009
Green Party (England & Wales) 5,268 5,858 6,281 7,110 7,019 7,441 7,553 9,630
SNP --- 9,450 10,854 10,995 12,571 13,944 15,097 15,644
UKIP 10,000 16,000 26,000 19,000 16,000 15,878 14,630 16,252
BNP 3,487 5,737 7,916 6,008 6,281 9,784 9,801 12,632
Respect --- --- 3,751 5,674 5,739 2,472 494 1,085

Source: Annual reports and accounts as submitted to the Electoral Commission

The UK is not alone in witnessing a decline in formal political participation associated with party politics. As with electoral turnout, party membership is declining in virtually all established democracies. Van Biezen et al. (2011) estimate that, since the 1980s, party membership has declined by around 50 per cent or more in France, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Switzerland and Ireland. Nonetheless, the picture in the UK appears especially worrying; our figures suggest a 75 per cent decline in party membership in the UK over the same period. As a consequence, the share of the UK electorate belonging to a political party now ranks clearly among the lowest in Europe (Driver, 2011).

Figure 2.2g compares two sources of information about party membership in Western Europe. The first source is derived from surveys of the general public from 2002-04 and the second from the membership figures published by political parties during 2006-09 (in both cases, the level of party membership is expressed as a percentage of the total electorate). There are some discrepancies between the two sets of estimates for each country. In particular, the figures based on party data almost certainly overestimate levels of party membership in Austria and Italy. Conversely, Figure 2.2g suggests either that survey-based estimates inflate the figures for Sweden, Ireland and the UK, or that party membership in these countries dropped very sharply from the mid-2000s (the latter is highly possible, and clearly true of the UK).

These caveats aside, the pattern which emerges from these estimates is very clear. While as few as two per cent of electors in the UK, France and Germany were members of political parties in the 2000s, the average figure for West European democracies at that time was five to six per cent. The UK compares especially poorly against the 'consensual democracies’ of northern Europe and also the Nordic states - notwithstanding the evidence of a rapid decline in party membership in many of these countries. Indeed, even if party membership in the UK now stabilises, probably at less than one per cent of the electorate, it is likely to remain close to the bottom of the international league table for years to come.

Figure 2.2g: Estimates of party membership levels in Western Europe, 2002-04 and 2006-09

Figure 2.2g: Estimates of party membership levels in Western Europe, 2002-04 and 2006-09

Sources: Scarrow and Gzegor (2010); Van Biezen et al. (2011)

Political scientists have put forward both supply-side and demand-side explanations for the decline in party membership and activism (Webb, 2000; Seyd and Whiteley, 2004; Driver, 2011). Supply-side accounts emphasise factors such as reduced personal attachment to political parties, particularly as a result of declining class-identity (see Section 2.1.6), and the rapid growth of single-issue pressure organisations (see Section 3.2.2). Conversely, demand-side explanations focus on the strategies followed by the political parties themselves, notably the shift from local to national campaigning and the growing dependence of parties on big donations rather than membership fees and member-led fundraising (see Section 2.2.5). Table 2.2d (c.f. Childs, 2006, p. 70) summarises the main factors identified by these competing perspectives.

Table 2.2d: Explaining the decline in party membership and activism: supply- and demand-side accounts

Table 2.2d: Explaining the decline in party membership and activism: supply- and demand-side accounts

Source: Adapted from Childs (2006, p. 70)

It would be misleading to see supply- and demand-side explanations as mutually exclusive. It has been widely noted that UK political parties are moving from mass-membership organisations to 'electoral professional parties’ (c.f. Webb, 2000). Increasingly, political parties adopt a more centralised and top-down approach centred on maximising electoral prospects via opinion polling and sophisticated political communications (Heffernan, 2009). Underpinning this shift is a mutually-reinforcing cycle of change characterised by the interaction of the supply and demand side factors identified above. As one recent account explains:

'The steady decay of parties as mass membership, activist organisations has had a profound impact on party finances and on campaign strategies. The three main parties have become increasingly reliant on forms of corporate support as membership dues wither away, a tendency accelerated by the steady displacement of 'old style’, door-to-door election campaigns by financially costlier, but less labour-intensive, political marketing strategies. This drift towards centralisation within the parties has, in turn, impacted negatively on the scope for, and scale of, local activism' (Wilks-Heeg, 2010, pp. 379-380).

The changing nature of political parties, including their declining significance as membership organisations, therefore has significant implications for the role of those members who do remain. It is to this matter that we now turn.

Influence of members on party policy

While there is much truth in the characterisation of contemporary UK political parties as 'electoral professional’ organisations, it can also be argued that it 'does not quite describe the realities of modern British party politics’ (Childs, 2006, p. 69). Indeed, as Childs notes, there is plenty of evidence that party leaders would like to have more members and activists to call on, and that they would prefer their parties to be less reliant on big donors. In many ways, the more significant tension is that 'despite wanting to attract more members, party leaderships remain wary of giving their membership too much power' (Childs, 2006, p. 71).

It is equally important to distinguish between the membership at large and the rather smaller core of party activists who, in the past, mediated much of the interaction between members and leaders. It is widely accepted, for instance, that internal Labour Party reforms from the early 1990s onwards were motivated by a desire to empower members as a check on the influence of activists, who were deemed by party leaders to be more left-wing than either the parliamentary party or the wider membership. In this sense, apparently democratising reforms can be managed by party leaders to help modernise a party and enhance central control (Lees-Marshment and Quayle, 2001; Hopkin, 2009). For these reasons, our 2002 Audit noted that signs of UK political parties becoming more internally democratic tended to co-exist alongside indicators of the very opposite trend (Beetham et al., 2002).

The most obvious sign of increased democracy within UK political parties in recent decades has been in the selection of party leaders. In the period since the mid-1970s all three of the UK's largest political parties have introduced reforms granting party members at least some influence in the process of how a leader is chosen. To some extent, the UK experience appears to reflect a wider international trend. As Cross and Blais (2011) note, mechanisms designed to enhance the influence of members over decisions about who leads the party have been introduced in a number of English-speaking Westminster democracies. As well as in the UK, there has been a general shift towards political parties in Canada and Ireland expanding the 'selectorate' responsible for choosing the party leader, although such moves have been resisted by parties in New Zealand and Australia.

Within the UK, the Liberal Party was the first to introduce all-member ballots to choose a leader, adopting this mechanism in 1976. The SDP followed suit after its foundation in 1981, and when the Liberals and the SDP merged in 1988, the use of all-member ballots to select the new party's leader was retained. By contrast, Labour moved initially to the use of an electoral college in 1981, in which the votes were cast by individual members of the Parliamentary Labour Party as well as by Constituency Labour Parties and trade unions. In 1993, further reforms resulted in the introduction of 'one member one vote’ (OMOV). More recently, the Conservatives introduced reforms under William Hague's leadership in 1998 which allow party members to vote on a short-list of two candidates, as determined by members of the parliamentary party.

In each case, reforms were initially demanded by party members and were met with resistance from the party leadership. This was most evident in the case of the Labour Party, where a group of party members formed the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy in 1973 to push for 'a package of reforms which would have had the effect of curbing the nearly exclusive control of the parliamentary wing’ (LeDuc, 2001, p. 329). Yet, while ballots of members may appear to be an impeccably democratic means of a party electing a leader, there is also evidence to suggest that there is more central or elite control over the process than immediately meets the eye. Heffernan (2009, p. 450) suggests that in both the Conservative and Labour parties  'widening the franchise to elect the party leader beyond the parliamentary party [...] has served to strengthen, not weaken, the party leader’. As the same author also points out, the wider franchise does little or nothing to enable members to remove a leader meaning that, in practice, a leader’s survival will still depend on them maintaining the support of their parliamentary party (Heffernan, 2009). Similarly, Cross and Blais (2011) also point to the power which Labour and Conservative MPs retain in determining the leadership of the party, arguing that the role of parliamentary parties is especially significant when a party is in government. Thus, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) effectively decided that Gordon Brown would replace Tony Blair as leader, and therefore as prime minister, since no other MP was able to secure a sufficient number of nominations to stand.  There is every chance that the Conservative Party would handle a leadership transition in a similar way at a time when the party is in government.

While the manner in which UK parties select their leaders shows a degree of convergence, mechanisms for involving members and, indeed, non-members in other aspects of party decision-making exhibit quite different trends.  The degree of internal democracy within the UK’s political parties varies enormously. Prior to the last general election, the campaign organisation Unlock Democracy (2010) evaluated the extent to which the UK’s nine largest political parties showed a strong commitment to democracy, including an assessment of the degree to which members and non-members could influence party policy and candidate selection. As Table 2.2e illustrates, this assessment suggested that, among the three main parties, internal democracy is weakest within the Conservative Party and strongest within the Liberal Democrats, although Labour gains some recognition for granting a role for members of affiliated trade unions and socialist societies. Among the smaller parties, internal democracy is generally much stronger – most notably in the cases of the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the SNP, although Unlock Democracy found limited evidence of mechanisms for engaging non-members. The BNP, by contrast, was found to be highly centralised.

Table 2.2e: Unlock Democracy’s Evaluation of Internal Party Democracy (2010)

Party Extent of Member and Non-Member Influence
Conservatives Limited internal democracy: members have no formal role in shaping policy, which is determined 'almost exclusively by the Leader’. The party’s attempts to encourage adoption of more female and ethnic minority candidates has rendered candidate selection increasingly centralised. 
Labour Encourages participation of trade unions and socialist societies in the party, providing for the involvement of civic society in party politics; internal party democracy is not as strong as that of some other parties.
Liberal Democrats Strong culture of active participation among party members, but less evidence of broadening participation to include non-members.
Green Party Strong internal democracy within the party but the party’s commitment to  participatory democracy does not appear to extend to engaging people who are not members.
Plaid Cymru Internal democracy is strong and allows members to engage in decision-making in the party, but little evidence that the party encourages participation from non-members.
SNP Exhibits strong internal democracy although it could go further in involving non-members in decision-making.
Respect Appears to have good internal democracy and it seeks to involve trade unionists in the party.
BNP While the BNP does have a formal policy-making structure that involves members, power is generally centralised within the party and essentially resides  with the party’s chairman.
UKIP Insufficient information provided to enable an assessment to be made.

Source: Derived from Unlock Democracy (2010)

The nature of membership involvement in party conferences offers important clues about the extent of member influence on political parties more generally. The role of party conferences in determining party policy contrasts markedly between the three main parties. These differences have been neatly captured by Peter Facey, Unlock Democracy’s Director, in the following terms: 'the Liberal Democrat conference thinks it makes policy and it does, the Labour conference thinks it makes policy but doesn't and the Conservative conference knows it doesn't make policy and doesn't care’ (cited in Graham, 2007). That said, there has been something of a common trend across the three largest parties for conferences to become showcase media events, rather than forums for policy deliberation (Kelly, 2001; Driver, 2011), although this tendency is clearly less pronounced for the Liberal Democrats. To some extent these developments are understandable. Party leaders are keen to avoid what they see as highly damaging media coverage of disunity or adoption of policies which risk being a 'difficult sell' to voters. Yet, the changing nature of party conferences has clearly become a source of frustration for some party members, as Tony Benn expressed in his reflections on Labour's 2000 annual conference:

'Once we had regular and proper argument [...] now we just let off balloons, sing pop songs, greet showbiz celebrities and, if we're lucky, have the odd debate' (Tony Benn, cited in Kelly, 2001, p. 329).

While Benn’s nostalgia for the atmosphere of past Labour conferences will not be universally shared within the party, his observations do help highlight wider issues about how members are supposed to be able to shape party policy. Labour’s formal processes for engaging party members in policy development are complex and reflect a wider tendency for party leaders to attempt to recast opportunities for member involvement in a way which shifts policy debate away from party conferences. Reforms were introduced by Tony Blair in 1997 as part of his Partnership in Power agenda, through which 'Labour’s policy machinery was completely revamped' (Laffin et al., 2007, p. 96). Under these arrangements, Labour Party policy is determined by a National Policy Forum, based on reports from six policy commissions and with the process steered by a Joint Policy Committee (see Case Study 2.2b for details, including details of arrangements for devolved matters).  As Case Study 2.2b suggests, despite some relatively optimistic initial assessment of these reforms, dissatisfaction with them began to mount during the 2000s - notwithstanding attempts to bolster the role of policy commissions. The mechanisms for policy-making within the party are currently being reviewed as part of the 'Refounding Labour’ initiative, overseen by Peter Hain MP.

Case Study 2.2b: Labour’s National Policy Forum

Under the reforms introduced during Tony Blair’s leadership of the party, policy-making within the Labour Party was radically overhauled. The centrepiece of Labour's new approach to policy-making was to become the National Policy Forum (supplemented by Scottish and Welsh Policy Forums responsible for policy development on devolved matters). Operating on a two-year rolling cycle, the National Policy Forum (with around 180 members) receives reports from six Policy Commissions, whose work is coordinated by a Joint Policy Committee. Acting as a steering group for the National Policy Forum, the Joint Policy Committee is chaired by the party leaders and comprises members from the party’s National Executive Committee, the National Policy Forum and the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Views have always differed on the extent to which the reforms allowed members any genuine influence over party policy. Both Kelly (2001) and Russell (2005) offered relatively positive evaluations in the period after the changes were introduced, while Driver (2011, p. 103) suggests the changes 'reinforced the power of the leadership and allowed it to exert even greater control over the party'. Evidence that party members were unhappy with the arrangements began to mount, particularly as a result of the imposition of policies by senior party figures, such as the abolition of the 10p tax rate, which proved deeply unpopular with members and voters alike. The procedures were subject to further reform following reviews during the 2000s. From 2005, attempts were made to empower the Policy Commissions to play a stronger role in driving the process and to encourage them to engage beyond the party. Further changes followed in 2007, when the party conference was given a clearer role in driving the work of the National Policy Forum; a duty was placed on Constituency Labour Parties to engage with the wider community; and a requirement was introduced that members’ endorsement of a policy programme be secured  via a postal ballot prior to a general election.

Despite such changes, by the time Labour lost office in 2010 there was a widely-held view within the party that policy-making centred on the National Policy Forum was not working well and that the process had become too distant from ordinary members. Following his election as party leader in Autumn 2010, Ed Miliband appointed Peter Hain to lead Labour's National Policy Forum, with a view to addressing the concerns which had mounted among members while the party was in government. In an interview with the Guardian (2010), Hain gave clear indications that radical changes were required to the way in which party policy was determined, stating: 'I defend the policy forum principle, but there is a great deal of cynicism amongst party members that we need to address. If you disempower your membership, you start down the road to losing, and that is what happened during our 13 years of power’.

It is widely recognised that, of the three main parties,  the Liberal Democrats grant the fullest degree of influence over policy to their members. Formally, the Liberal Democrats are a highly decentralised party, organised on a federal basis, and with considerable autonomy provided to: the state parties (England, Scotland and Wales), regional parties (for the English regions), local parties, and Specified Associated Organisations (e.g. Association of Liberal Democrat Councillors; Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats). All of these organisational sub-units can, for instance, submit motions to the federal conference, which serves as the sovereign policy-making body for the party.  However, it is generally recognised that most substantive policy is developed by the Federal Policy Committee, which is chaired by the party leader. It has also been argued that the reality of policy-making within the Liberal Democrats is that MPs play a far more significant role than is generally recognised: 'the parliamentary party has established a relatively tight grip on the policy-making mechanisms within the Liberal Democrats despite the constitutional limits on its power’ (Russell et al., 2007, p. 96). Much the same argument can be made with regard to the role of the parliamentary party in determining who leads the party, as the 'coups' to oust both Charles Kennedy and then Ming Campbell underline (Russell et al., 2007; Driver, 2011).

The influence of Liberal Democrat MPs and peers in shaping party policy has clearly grown as the size of the parliamentary party has expanded - in part because of the staffing and other resources which MPs, in particular, have access to (Driver, 2011). This tendency for Liberal Democrat parliamentarians to exercise power far beyond that ascribed to them in the party's constitution has almost certainly been strengthened since the Liberal Democrats formed a coalition government with the Conservatives in May 2010. Even the party’s 'triple-lock mechanism’, designed to provide members with the power of veto over significant changes of strategic direction, is perhaps best understood as a case of party members following the lead of the parliamentary party (see Case Study 2.2c)

Case Study 2.2c: The Liberal Democrats’ ‘triple-lock’ mechanism

The Liberal Democrats’ so-called 'triple lock' mechanism is designed to ensure that the party provides 'positive consent' to any proposals involving significant changes in strategy or positioning, particularly 'any substantial proposal which could affect the Party’s independence of political action'. The nature of the mechanism was widely discussed in the run-up to the 2010 general election, when the prospect of a 'hung parliament’ raised the prospect of the Liberal Democrats becoming engaged with one or both of the two main parties about forming a government. Subsequently, this 'triple lock’ had to be undone after talks with the Conservatives resulted in proposals to form a coalition government following the election. 

The three stages which must be negotiated in order to endorse such a change in strategy or positioning are as follows. First, the consent of a majority of members of the parliamentary party in the House of Commons and the Federal Executive must be forthcoming. Second, unless the ratio of those in favour of the proposal to those against is at least 3:1 in both of these groups, a special conference must be convened to discuss and vote on the proposal. Third, if the conference fails to achieve a two-thirds majority in favour of the proposal, the matter is then put to a ballot of all members, with a simple majority being required to provide consent. Writing prior to the election, Steve Richards of The Independent predicted that these provisions would make forming a coalition a near-impossibility:

'Clegg would need the agreement of his MPs, the party's executive and the membership. By the time he had secured such agreement a Prime Minister, let alone the rolling television news channels, would have collapsed with impatience. There is no guarantee he would get such agreement anyway. It is not going to happen. There will be no coalition' (Independent, 2010a).

In the final event, the 'triple-lock’ presented no such barrier to the Liberal Democrats forming a coalition. During the evening of 11 May, following Gordon Brown’s sudden resignation as prime minister, meetings of both Liberal Democrat MPs and the party’s Federal Executive were hastily convened to seek endorsement of the draft coalition agreement with the Conservatives (Fox, 2011).  All but one of the Liberal Democrats’ MP’s voted to endorse the agreement with the Conservatives (it later emerged that the former party leader, Charles Kennedy, had abstained), while the Federal Executive were unanimous in their support.  As such, the third-stage in the process, securing the consent of members, was not required - although a special conference was anyway convened, in great haste, in Birmingham on 16 May, to seek such endorsement. Coming five days after party leader Nick Clegg had accepted the post as deputy prime minister in a coalition government, the vote was largely symbolic, and only about a dozen of the 2000 delegates present voted against accepting the coalition agreement.

Of the three main parties, the Conservative Party grants least influence to members in the formulation of policy. As Bale (2011, p. 16) notes, the party leader dominates the Conservative Party and, in opposition in particular, the party operates as 'an essentially top-down organization'. Indeed, Bale portrays the Conservative Party’s vesting of power and autonomy in its leader as almost the polar opposite of the Labour Party’s model of organisation, while noting that with this power comes very clear personal responsibility; compared to Labour, the Conservative Party tends to be ruthlessly effective in removing leaders who do not deliver. Nonetheless, disquiet within the Conservative Party is not always restricted to concerns about how a leader is performing. Clear tensions emerged between constituency parties and the parliamentary party after the Conservatives’ 1997 election defeat and the, admittedly 'tiny’, Charter Movement within the party began to push for greater internal democracy (Bale, 2011, p. 75).

These dynamics were a significant, but by no means the only, factor in William Hague promising delegates at the 1997 party conference that the 'party is going to involve its members more than ever before’ (quoted in Lees-Marshment and Quayle, 2001, p. 205). As well as the introduction of one member one vote elections in the final round of leadership contests (see above), Hague’s reforms included the use of regular ballots of the membership to consult on policy development (see Case Study 2.2d for details and discussion) and the introduction of new policy forums. However, these changes were clearly not a response to member demands alone, and it would be naïve to assume either that the measures significantly empowered members, or that they were ever intended to. While designed to assuage disquiet among constituency parties and the party membership at large, the wider package of reforms introduced by Hague are widely recognised to have been motivated by a desire to modernise and centralise the party (Lees-Marshment and Quayle, 2001; Bale, 2011). As Bale (2011, p. 75) notes, 'the reforms also granted unprecedented rights to the centre [...] to intervene in the affairs of associations deemed to be failing to meet specified “minimum criteria” on membership, fund-raising and campaigning’. In a similar vein, Driver (2011, p. 82) finds that neither Hague's policy forums nor the later specialist groups appointed to develop policy under David Cameron have undermined the 'firm grip' of the party leadership on the determination of party policy.

Case Study 2.2d: Consulting Conservative Party Members on Policy

The Conservative Party has never granted its members any real influence over policy, which has generally been the preserve of senior party figures (albeit with significant influence from leading right-of-centre think-tanks in recent decades). However, following William Hague’s elevation to the leadership in 1997, the Conservative Party began to consult its membership on policy via periodic membership ballots. In contrast to the use of OMOV to select a party leader, introduced as part of the same package of reforms, these ballots asked members to endorse anything from a set of principles to a single policy position or an entire draft manifesto. In total, five such ballots took place after 1997, beginning with the October 1997 vote to endorse the principles outlined by Hague following his election as leader under the previous system (in which only Conservative MPs had been able to vote). Further ballots followed in February 1998 on Hague’s proposed party reforms (entitled Fresh Future) and, in October 1998, on the specific issue of the party’s position on EU membership.

Conservative Party Membership Ballots, 1997-2006 (excluding leadership elections)

Subject Date Total votes Yes No
Endorsement of principles of Hague’s leadership October 1997 176,314 142,299 (80.7%) 34,092 (19.3%)
Endorsement of Fresh Future proposals February 1998 114,590 110,165 (96.1%) 4,425 (3.9%)
Approving Hague’s policy of ruling out UK membership of a single currency in this parliament and the next October 1998 207,050 175,558 (84.8%) 31,492 (5.2%
Endorsement of Believing in Britain (draft manifesto) October 2000 50,499 49,932 (98.8%) 676 (1.2%)
Endorsement of Built to Last (statement of aims and values) September 2006 65,646 60,859 (92.7%) 4,787 (7.3%)

Sources: Lees-Marshment and Quayle (2001); ConservativeHome (2006).

Relatively high levels of participation in these first three ballots, and the large majorities in support of the central party in each instance, provided a sense of legitimacy for Hague’s leadership. However, the fourth ballot in October 2000, in which members were asked to endorse the draft manifesto, Believing in Britain, saw a sharp drop in the number of ballots returned to just over 50,000, representing a 'turnout' of around 16 per cent. Moreover, subsequent party leaders were less enthusiastic than Hague about the use of membership ballots on matters of policy. There were no such ballots under Iain Duncan-Smith or Michael Howard and the only time the membership has been balloted by David Cameron was on his Built to Last statement of aims and values in September 2006. As Bale (2011, p. 312) notes, this last membership ballot proved to be something of a 'damp squib', with only a quarter of the membership participating. Of possibly greater concern, however, was that the number of ballot papers issued (247,000) seriously undermined the party's earlier claims that membership levels had surged under Cameron (Bale, 2011).

For the main three UK parties there had been suggestions that the creation of new, sub-state arenas for political decision-making might trigger parallel processes of intra-party decentralisation (Hopkin, 2009). However, while the effects of devolution on intra-party dynamics are not particularly well understood, it appears that the process has not resulted in drastic changes with regard to member involvement. Large-scale re-organisations of state-wide party hierarchies have been avoided; and although changes to party structures were witnessed during the period following devolution, these have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary (Hopkin and Bradbury, 2006). Certainly, the Scottish and Welsh units of each of the three major parties have all been ceded a degree of control over leadership elections and candidate selection, but the powers of these units vary between parties (Hopkin and Bradbury, 2006).

Within the Labour Party, for instance, the Welsh and Scottish parties can now formulate policies pertaining to areas which fall within the jurisdiction of their respective assemblies (Laffin and Shaw, 2007); enjoy reasonable freedom over campaigning (Fabre, 2008); and have made some effort to differentiate themselves from the national leadership. However, the changes in overall party structure and operations remain fairly small (Hopkin, 2009). Labour’s NEC retains the right to formulate candidate selection rules for all elections which the party contests, and also continues to control the party’s finances (Laffin and Shaw, 2007). Regional leaders have made some effort to make their own parties distinctive - and have, on occasion, come into conflict with the national leadership over matters of policy. For the Conservatives, it is notable that the Scottish Conservative Party was re-established as a constitutionally sovereign body just before the process of devolution began, although less autonomy has been ceded to the Welsh Conservatives (Fabre, 2008). This asymmetrical approach has not been shared by the Liberal Democrats, however. Instead, the Liberal Democrats' federal structure has allowed it to avoid the difficult political and organisational questions that have exercised others, with the party happy to allow regional branches to develop their own policies (Fabre, 2008).

As with the larger parties, the degree of internal democracy within smaller parties varies enormously. The Leaders of the SNP, Plaid Cymru and the Greens are all elected via a ballot of the entire membership, and national officers are also elected (either by postal ballot or by members at conference). The constitutions of these three parties all invest supreme authority in their party conferences, with policy development taking place between conferences via designated forums or committees. In the case of the SNP, branches are held to have remained the backbone of the party and its 'decentralised political culture’ since its foundation in the 1930s (Lynch, 2002). However, other small parties are far less democratic. UKIP’s party constitution, for instance, explicitly states that the decisions of party conferences are not binding; whilst the BNP has historically invested all power in the party’s chairman (Copsey, 2004).

Influence of members on candidate selection

Granting local parties the power to select candidates for election is very much the international norm. Bille (2001) found that the vast majority of political parties in Western Europe empowered sub-national party units to select candidates, either by allowing them complete control over the process or through the party units submitting their nominations for approval by the party centrally. In addition, Bille (2001) found that a growing proportion of west European political parties were using membership ballots to select candidates (while under one-fifth had done so in 1960, around a quarter had by 1990).

In the UK context, it has been noted that 'the right to select candidates for Westminster has long been recognised as an incentive that party members value and one which they will robustly defend’ (Childs, 2006, p. 73). The trouble with this much-cherished form of internal party democracy, however, is that it may conflict with other democratic objectives - such as ensuring social representativeness in candidate selection. As Bogdanor (1984, p. 113) has noted, where decisions are made by local party selection committees they show a tendency to opt for candidates 'who will be as near to an identikit model of an MP as it is possible to find. The candidate will be white, middle-aged and male'.

It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that candidate selection has been one of the greatest sources of tension between party leaders and party members over the last decade or so. As we noted in Section 2.1.5, the leaderships of all three main parties have sought to take steps to promote the adoption of more female and ethnic minority candidates. Concerted efforts began with Labour’s decision to introduce all-women shortlists (AWS) in winnable seats from the early 1990s, while the Conservative Party adopted an alternative approach, using a national 'Priority List’ of candidates, after 2005.  As Childs (2006) notes, such interventions are necessarily top-down in character and involve the central party restricting the autonomy of local parties in their choice of election candidates, essentially out of recognition that, left to their own devices, local party choices will reinforce the usual pattern of selections. While experience suggests that such forms of central direction are almost certainly essential to ensuring the selection of female and ethnic minority candidates, some local parties have, unsurprisingly, resented their 'imposition’. 

As was noted in Section 2.1.5, Labour's use of AWS encountered early resistance from some local parties in the run up to the 1997 general election and was subsequently subject to a successful legal challenge. This challenge was brought by two male party members, Peter Jepson and Roger Dyas-Elliot, who sought legal redress after being unable to apply as prospective candidates, for Regents Park and Kensington North, and Keighley, respectively (Russell, 2000). However, the most notable controversy occurred after parliament passed the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act 2002, thereby enabling Labour to reinstate the use of AWS. This conflict concerned the selection of Labour’s candidate to fight the safe seat of Blaenau Gwent at the 2005 general election. In this instance, resistance to AWS was such that the majority of local party members boycotted the selection process. After Maggie Jones was nonetheless selected from the shortlist to contest the seat, the Welsh assembly member for Blaenau Gwent, Peter Law, opted to stand as an independent. Law gained the support of some other local party members in doing so, subsequently winning the contest by a margin of more than 9,000 votes and declaring to the national Labour Party:  'this is what happens when you don’t listen’ (Cutts et al., 2008).

A similar degree of controversy became evident after 2005 as a result of David Cameron’s decision to adopt measures to promote greater diversity among Conservative candidates contesting safe and marginal seats. Under this initiative, announced within the first week of his leadership, the party’s Candidates Committee was charged with recruiting 100 especially able candidates.  At least 50 of these candidates were to be female and an undefined share from ethnic minority groups. Other than in exceptional circumstances, local parties selecting candidates for safe or winnable seats were expected to choose from this list. Following the announcement, the Daily Telegraph (2005) noted that 'the imposition of a priority list would not be popular with many local Conservative associations, which have jealously guarded their right to select their own candidates’. Quickly dubbed the 'A’-list, dissent among party members duly emerged, particularly as the identities of some of the chosen candidates, initially kept secret by Conservative Central Office, began to leak out. Criticism was especially vocal on the ConservativeHome website, but grumblings were also heard within the parliamentary party and there was early evidence of constituency associations seeking to avoid selections from the Priority List (Bale, 2011). Nonetheless, Cameron retained the policy, later adding a requirement that Conservative Associations should select from a shortlist of four candidates, at least two of whom must be female. The significant increase in the number of female and ethnic minority MPs elected for the Conservatives in 2010 almost certainly owes a great deal to Cameron's determination to face down opposition to the policy within his own party. Indeed, focus groups and surveys of party members suggested that, while there was a willingness to accept the principle of a more socially representative parliamentary party, there was also clear hostility to the use of any 'positive discrimination' mechanism to achieve this goal (Childs et al., 2009).

Uniquely among all political parties, the Conservative Party has also experimented with the use of American-style primaries to select parliamentary candidates. Under this system, candidates are selected either at an open meeting of all local party members (closed primary) or by allowing all electors in the constituency vote for their preferred candidate to represent the party (open primary). Although the promotion of primaries has also been associated with Cameron’s leadership, a small number had been held to select candidates for the 2005 general election (Childs, 2006). Since 2005, the party claims to have operated over 100 primaries, although the vast majority of these appear to have taken the form of meetings attended principally by party members (Williams and Paun, 2011). Genuinely open primaries have been especially rare, with the principal examples being the Totnes primary in August 2009 and the Gosport primary in December 2009. In these two instances, all registered voters in each of these constituencies were sent a ballot allowing them to vote for one of three candidates from the local party’s shortlist. About one quarter of Totnes voters and just under one-fifth of Gosport voters participated in these primaries, which cost an estimated £40,000 each. In both cases, they resulted in a local female candidate being selected - Sarah Wollaston in Totnes and Caroline Dinenage in Gosport, both of whom were elected for the Conservatives in 2010 (McSweeney, 2010). Although limited, Conservative experiments with open primaries do stand in contrast to the more general trend towards UK political parties becoming more centralised.

While we have noted that some of the smaller parties boast a more internally democratic set of arrangements than their larger counterparts, they do not tend to trust local members enough to make binding decisions on candidate selection. Whilst Plaid Cymru and SNP members are given the responsibility for choosing their local candidates, they can only - in most cases - select candidates who have been approved by the national executive committee. The selection of candidates by UKIP party members  are subject to similar 'safeguards’. They too may choose their own council and parliamentary candidates. However, the latter must be drawn from a list of centrally-approved candidates; selections for either can be effectively vetoed by the central party; and the selection procedures for other elections are conducted at the discretion of the UKIP NEC.

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