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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Why Theresa May can't end speculation of an early general election

Both Conservative and Labour MPs regard a contest next year as the solution to their problems. 

One of Theresa May’s first acts as a Conservative leadership candidate was to rule out an early general election. After a tumultuous 2015 contest and the EU referendum, her view was that the country required a period of stability (a view shared by voters). Many newly-elected Tory MPs, fearful of a Brexit-inspired Ukip or Liberal Democrat surge, supported her on this condition.

After entering Downing Street, May reaffirmed her stance. “The Prime Minister could not have been clearer,” a senior source told me. “There won’t be an early election.” Maintaining this pledge is an important part of May’s straight-talking image.

But though No.10 has wisely avoided publicly contemplating an election (unlike Gordon Brown), the question refuses to die. The Conservatives have a majority of just 12 - the smallest of any single-party government since 1974 - and, as David Cameron found, legislative defeats almost inevitably follow. May’s vow to lift the ban on new grammar schools looks to many like an unachievable task. Former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry are among the Tories leading the charge against the measure (which did not feature in the 2015 Conservative manifesto).  

To this problem, an early election appears to be the solution. The Tories retain a substantial opinion poll lead over Labour, the most divided opposition in recent history. An election victory would give May the mandate for new policies that she presently lacks.

“I don’t believe Theresa May wishes to hold an early election which there is evidence that the country doesn’t want and which, given the current state of the Labour Party, might be seen as opportunistic,” Nigel Lawson told today’s Times“If, however, the government were to find that it couldn’t get its legislation through the House of Commons, then a wholly new situation would arise.”

It is not only Conservatives who are keeping the possibility of an early election alive. Many Labour MPs are pleading for one in the belief that it would end Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. An early contest would also pre-empt the boundary changes planned in 2018, which are forecast to cost the party 23 seats.

For Corbyn, the possibility of an election is a vital means of disciplining MPs. Allies also hope that the failed revolt against his leadership, which Labour members blame for the party’s unpopularity, would allow him to remain leader even if defeated.

Unlike her predecessors, May faces the obstacle of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act (under which the next election will be on 7 May 2020). Yet it is not an insurmountable one. The legislation can be suspended with the backing of two-thirds of MPs, or through a vote of no confidence in the government. Alternatively, the act could simply be repealed or amended. Labour and the Liberal Democrats, who have demanded an early election, would struggle to resist May if she called their bluff.

To many, it simply looks like an offer too good to refuse. Which is why, however hard May swats this fly, it will keep coming back. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.