Lib Dem money woes grow as party membership hits new low

Party membership has fallen by 35% since 2010 to 42,501, resulting in a deficit of £411,000.

With typically little fanfare, the Electoral Commission has just published political parties' statement of accounts for 2012 - and there's much worthy of note. 

First, to the grim state of the Lib Dems. The party raised £6.02m last year but spent £6.4m resulting in a deficit of £410,951. Over the same period, its membership fell from 48,934 to 42,501, a fall of 35% since 2010 (when it stood at 65,038) and the lowest annual figure in the party's 23-year history. Based on the current rate of decline, UKIP, which now boasts more than 30,000 members, will soon supplant them as the third largest party by membership. 

The picture is rosier for Labour, which had a total income of £33m (aided by £6.7m of state funding - the "short money" received by opposition parties), up from £31.2m in 2011, and expenditure of £30.2m, leaving a surplus of £2.8m.

Less happily, party membership fell from 193,300 to 187,537 and it's also worth noting the hefty £7.96m received in affiliation fees from trade union members, around 90 per cent of which the party is likely to lose when the new opt-in system promised by Ed Miliband is introduced. 

Finally, to the Conservatives. They raised £24.2m, up from £23.7m last year, and spent £23.3m, leaving the kind of healthy surplus that has so eluded George Osborne.

The Tories don't release a central membership figure (the best available estimate puts it at around 130,000) but their income from this source has fallen from £863,000 to £747,000, a drop of 13% that suggests no small number of "swivel eyed loons" have decided to try their luck with Farage. 

Nick Clegg gestures as he takes questions from journalists after making a speech on immigration on March 22, 2013 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.