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The benefits and costs of joining a political party


5 June 2010

Although I have known the facts for a long time, every time I think about it I am surprised by how few British citizens are members of a political party. In the UK we have approximately 45 million people eligible to vote. While the parties publish limited details on their membership numbers, I suspect that if we added all of them together party membership might struggle to reach even one million.

Again, although I have no hard statistics, I believe that Muslims are underrepresented amongst political parties. Muslims are almost 4% of the population and the Conservative Party has about 300,000 members. However, I do not believe there are anything like 12,000 Muslims inside the Conservative Party, and expect the same under-representation to exist in the other parties.

The clear implication is that most Britons in general, and Muslims in particular, regard party membership as unimportant. To a large extent I suspect that reflects a more general apathy about how our country is governed. Such apathy is of course foolish since the more apathetic the citizenry; the worse will be the quality of our governance. If Muslims do not speak up, only non-Muslim voices will be heard.

Paradoxically, there are many people who have extremely strong views about how our country should be governed who also fail to join political parties. They obviously see no connection between the two; I believe their analysis is wholly incorrect.

Even for a single individual, joining a political party significantly magnifies their impact on the governance of our country compared with being a citizen who votes in elections but has no party affiliation. There is a spectrum of activity that you can engage in once you become a party member. The logical approach is to rank this in order of increasing time commitment.

Never attend a meeting

But I can't find a party I agree with 100%!

You never will.

I have been a Conservative Party member for over 25 years, and cannot recall a single occasion where I agreed exactly with every single Conservative Party policy. The real world is not like that.

Even if you miraculously find a party where you do agree exactly with all of its policies, there is no guarantee that state of affairs will continue. Over time the party will change its policies, and also you will change your views, so the likelihood of them staying identical is essentially zero.

What you have to find is the party whose policies you agree with most. Once you are inside the party, its position will have shifted, initially microscopically, simply because you have joined it. The more active you become within the party, the more its policies are likely to change towards your views.

However nobody, not even David Cameron, Ed Miliband or Nick Clegg can make their parties agree with them 100%. So it is completely unrealistic to think that you can find a party all of whose policies you agree with.

At the most basic, if you are a member of one of the three main parties, even if you never attend a single event, as long as you pay your annual subscription, every so often voting papers will land through your letterbox asking you to choose between two (or possibly more depending upon the party rules) candidates for leadership of the party.

As a member of the Conservative party I cast my vote when the party elected William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and David Cameron. The total numbers voting in each of these ballots was relatively small, (198,844 when David Cameron was elected) and tiny compared with the size of the national electorate. Unless you think the identity of the party leader is unimportant (and if you do I think you are plain wrong) then it is worth joining a party even if the only thing you do is to cast your postal ballot in the occasional leadership election.


Attend one meeting every five years

The above activity does not require you to leave your house, ever. The next one along in order of increasing time commitment requires you to turn up at one meeting roughly every five years. That is the meeting at which the local party branch selects its candidate for the parliamentary election. You will normally be confronted by a shortlist of perhaps three or four candidates who make their pitch and then you cast your vote to decide who the candidate will be.

The numbers attending a selection meeting can be astonishingly small. I attended the meeting at which the Conservative party chose its candidates for the recent general election for the inner-city seats in Manchester. There were about six people voting in respect of each constituency.

Realistically, the party had no hope of winning any of the seats. However serious candidates from all round the country travelled to Manchester to attend this selection meeting because they knew that fighting a hopeless seat can be the first step in a political career and that their performance in Manchester might help them to be selected for a winnable seat next time around. Six people in each constituency were deciding between them, and while we had no impact on who would be the MP from those constituencies, the decisions that we made may have repercussions for years to come as the future careers of the candidates at that selection meeting develop, or indeed fail to develop because they never got started.

Obviously, in a safe seat the party is likely to be stronger but even then the attendance at a selection meeting may be no more than one or two hundred; in practice those people are deciding who will be the next MP for the constituency. Bear in mind this involves turning up at one meeting every five years.

Attending one meeting per year

Candidates for local council elections are also determined by the local party branches. Typically with three councillors per ward, there will be a selection meeting each year. So now the time commitment has increased to one meeting per year, but this is hardly onerous.

Regular branch activity

The next step up is to become actively involved in your local branch. This will entail attending meetings not far from home, and doing other things to support the party such as delivering leaflets. In return, it is quite easy to get involved in running the party association, including being on the shortlisting committee that deals with potential election candidates. This is the committee that may receive dozens of applications from aspirant candidates, especially if it is a safe seat, and has the responsibility for reducing the number down to three or four. The power being exercised by this committee is obvious; becoming a member is relatively easy if you are a well-established and active member of the local party branch.

Other activity

If you are willing to travel away from home, once a year you can attend the annual party conference. At one time places at party conferences were heavily rationed but now if you are willing to register in advance and pay the fee, you will get a place since reduced party membership has reduced the competition for places at the party conference. Being at the party conference is an excellent opportunity to buttonhole MPs and prospective Parliamentary candidates, and to take part in a number of interesting fringe meetings. The least useful activity is sitting in the main auditorium listening to speeches from the podium where your main role is to provide a background audience for the TV cameras!

If you are willing and have the capability to contribute, you can get involved in the policy formation process, especially when your party is in opposition. When the party is in government, this is much harder as the Civil Service plays a large role and also you will be competing with more people who are trying to influence the government. The time to really make friends with politicians is when they are down, in opposition, and need a friend!

How do I join?

Being a member of a political party so that you have a party membership card is the essential first step to all of the influence outlined above. So what does it cost? In the table below I have set out the costs and also included links which will allow you to join a party. If you care about our country and its future, don't hesitate but instead do it now!

The reason only three parties are listed is that in England, under our current electoral system, the many other political parties established in England have no realistic prospects of any form of political power. If you reside in Scotland or Wales, the respective nationalist party is a realistic fourth option to add to the ones listed below.

Party home page.

You can find the joining page from there.

Current annual subscription for working adult

The Conservative Party


The Labour Party


The Liberal Democrat Party




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