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17 June 2015

What does the Lib Dem membership surge mean for the struggling party?

The Liberal Democrats have increased their membership by 30 per cent since the election, even though they now only  have eight MPs. But can they turn members into votes?

By Barbara Speed

In the weeks following the general election, something strange happened to the Liberal Democrat party. Despite its evisceration in the polls, within six days its membership base had grown by 7,300. As of late last week, that figure had risen to around 15,000.

Granted, those numbers are dwarfed by the 20,000 new Labour members who joined in the single week following the election. But the surge, which the party is calling its “#LibDemFightback” in excitable social media posts, has so far boosted the Liberal Democrats’ membership base by 30 per cent – which isn’t bad for a party with only eight MPs and little chance of holding much sway in government anytime soon. It’s so substantial, in fact, that it’s difficult to peg it to a few guilty sign-ups or a desperate internal push to save the party from ruin.

This graph gives some idea of the scale of the rise:

Look further back, though, and the numbers tell a slightly different story. In 2010, the party’s membership stood at 65,000, which took a sudden nosedive once the coalition was announced. This current surge has effectively broguht the party back to nearly pre-2010 levels. Yet it’s worth noting that the Tory party has actually lost far more of its base: their membership base has reportedly halved during their first five years in government  – and there are no signs of them regaining it post-election. 

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Boarding a sinking ship?

So why the sudden rush to join a party which came in fourth place not only on seats, but on votes too?

First, a quick caveat: I was once membership secretary for one of the largest local Lib Dem parties in the country, Winchester. The constituency sits amid Tory heartlands (and went blue again back in 2010), but the Liberal Democrats held it through the 2000s through, as far as I could tell, a genuine commitment to local issues and an incredibly active membership. On election day in 2010, we had what I now realise was a phenomenal number of volunteers out on the doorsteps. Meanwhile, on duty at a polling station, I chatted to two gilet-wearing Tory volunteers, who kept asking me to tell them the name of the local candidate – they’d been shipped in from nearby Tory seats to boost the flagging local party.

This active local base may explain why, despite a freefall after 2010, Lib Dem membership actually started to climb again from 2012 – something very rare, and possibly even unique, in a party of government. I spoke to Wasim Yunus, head of member and supporter services at Liberal Democrat HQ, who says the local parties deserve a “substantial amount of credit” for the rise, both pre- and post- election. “We’re a grassroots party – campaigners have been knocking on doors throughout the election and beforehand, saying what we’ve achieved and what they believe in.” 

Post-election, the party pushed out a huge amount of material on social media. They managed to frame membership of the party as a way to push back against what was, for many, a devastating election result. “We became a lot more intelligent in how we got our message out on Twitter and Facebook,”  Yunus says. He believes that many new members were impressed by successful Liberal Democrat government policies, such as changes to tax brackets or the equal marriage bill.

He also doesn’t buy the argument that these people are treating membership as a one-off protest or financial donation. “Our members are intelligent, astute people. If they want to donate, they donate. If they join the party, it’s because of what they feel from within.”

Then, of course, there’s the tantalising prospect of a leadership election, and the fact that members can vote on policies at the party’s autumn conference. Yet the date before which new members will be able to vote for the new leader has now passed, and Yunus says the numbers have continued to rise.

In terms of demographics, the surge has been a relatively young one. The median age is around 30 – this despite the fact that only two thirds of 23-32 year olds identify with a political party at all. “There is so much bandied around about the young and their apathy to politics,” Yunus says, “But younger people are now standing up for what they believe in. and many are doing that by becoming members of the Liberal Democrats.”

Of the 15,000-odd new members, 1,403 identify as LGBT, 1,131 identify as disabled, and 1,417 are from ethnic minority backgrounds. A huge chunk of those new members – 3,428 – are from London, with more than a thousand in the North West, and around a thousand each in Scotland and the West Midlands.

Onwards and (possibly) upwards 

So far, so good. But, looking at it cynically, members are only useful insofar as they can bring in votes – especially for a party with MPs floundering in the single figures. If you divide the number of votes cast for each party by the number of members they had on polling day, Labour has the least (47), while the Lib Dems come second from bottom with 51. Ukip, by contrast, brought in 111 votes per member; the Tories, 75.  This suggests that more liberal parties aren’t particularly effective at turning members into votes. This may be because members join as an act of conscience and then do little in terms of campaigning. It might also imply that these parties are inward facing, with a loyal core of supporters who are more likely to become members, and less outside voters. 

Yet there’s also a more invisible, less measurable force at work in the Lib Dem surge: non-member supporters. Yunus says a substantial number of people have asked how they can help the party campaign against right-wing policies, but aren’t necessarily interested in becoming a card-carrying member: “Earlier this week, I had an 89 year-old-woman contact me asking what she can do to campaign from her home.”  

So there are two possibilities here: either, as one contact in the party suggested to me, those who voted for the party are becoming ever more committed in the face of defeat, which may well fail to translate into widespread support over the next five years. Or there’s the chance that, once again, the Liberal Democrats have become a party which appears to offer an alternative to the establishment. Either way, the fact that the party could bounce back up to pre-2010 membership levels by the end of the summer suggests that its defeat in May isn’t the end of the story.  

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