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.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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