This is a guest post from John Ward of Medway in Kent, who incidentally has been kindly offering me guidance and advice during these past two weeks.
Prompted by a post from a Labour blogger in my own area that is suggesting that "the Tory party is dying", I decided to check the facts for myself. The question arose from Conservative party co-chairman Baroness Warsi being unable to state, when asked, whether the party's membership had risen or fallen since David Cameron became party leader in 2005. It later turned out that it had fallen, quite substantially over those five years, which is admittedly quite a long period, especially in politics.
Now, as a former Conservative party member myself, I am aware that the question isn't as black-and-white as that, as Baroness Warsi tried to explain when asked; but it isn't an easy concept to put across (there are associate members as well as full members, paying a smaller subscription: do they count?) and it isn't helped by the party having apparently been poor at keeping and publishing accurate records over the years.
I consulted the Parliamentary document on party membership (PDF file), which currently goes up to 2008 only; but that's near enough to show what has been going on in recent years. I decided to concentrate on the post-Thatcher years, and even there I am suspicious of the "oh, around a million" kind of figure that was being put out by her party in those years. The graph below shows that, and several other things, quite clearly...
Therefore the real trend has been that all parties have seen their membership decline over the past decade and a half, though proportion-wise the Liberal Democrats have had far less of a fall-off, though starting from a much lower level.
Labour had a boost in the years leading up to Tony Blair's huge success in 1997; but interestingly the Conservatives' (estimated) fall in membership also seems to have halted during the same period. For one year, Labour had a fractionally higher membership than the Conservatives; but the situation soon reverted to the norm of being in second place, where they have remained ever since.
The Conservatives had their own membership boost during the Michael Howard years, and (in common with the other parties) a gradual tail-off thereafter. By 2008, which is the last year for which figures have been included in the House of Commons document, the by-then Cameron-led party still had half as many members again as the Blair/Brown crowd.
The current Coalition Government has split Liberal Democrat membership, and it is known that a chunk of them have since switched loyalty to Labour, some of those even joining that party. However, if one looks at the numbers, it still isn't going to make much difference: perhaps a few thousand, probably not even that many. From now on, the election of Ed rather than David Miliband as Labour leader will make waverers (who were probably waiting for the Labour leadership to be decided before jumping ship) very wary of Labour. They might leave the Lib Dems, but are very unlikely to sign up with a "Red Ed at the head" Labour party.
So, all parties have decreasing memberships, with occasionally "wobbles" affecting the broad trend for a time, but if any party is actually dying it sure ain't the Conservatives! Their membership is currently some 177,000: Labour's was just 60,000 or so in May (I can't find anything more recent, but it won't be in six figures or anywhere near!) which is little more than a third as many. Perhaps some Labour bloggers need to get the beam out of their own eye before pontificating on the motes in others' eyes...