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Partied out

Political party membership

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Mass political party membership became a phenomenon in Britain only after 1945.

The Labour Party first formed in 1900, but only started collating its membership figures from 1928. The Conservative Party is a less centralised affiliation of local associations and estimates of total membership are available only sporadically. There are no firm figures for membership of the Conservative Party prior to 1945, but it was probably 1m to 1.5m during the inter-war years.

Membership of political parties has been declining from its peak in the early 1950s. At that time, there were around 2.8m Conservative Party and 1m Labour Party members. Members of trade unions affiliated to the Labour Party and of the Socialist and Cooperative parties boosted the total Labour Party movement by 5m to 6m in the years after 1945 until the early 1990s, since when they started to decline to around 3.5m today.

Changes in political party membership are just one indicator of civic participation. Another, which has also been in decline, is church attendance. In the early 1960s, typically around 2m people attended weekly Catholic Mass in England and Wales; and there were a similar number taking communion at Church of England Easter Sunday services. The latest data show both these figures have fallen below 1m.

By contrast, some membership organisations, particularly those associated with the environment, have seen their numbers grow. The National Trust, for example, had half a million members in 1975, a figure which has grown to 4m today. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds had 7,850 members in 1945; by 1960 the figure was still only 10,000, but it reached 1.1m by 2011, more than twice as many as the three main political parties combined.

Card carriers
The chart shows membership of the three main political parties since 1928. Note: The yellow dotted line represents predecessor parties to the current Liberal Democrats.

The chart shows membership of the three main political parties since 1928

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