The issue of political disillusionment and partisan dealignment is in the news again. While the Conservative Party will not reveal their exact number of members, some prominent conservatives put the figure at 130,000 or less. To put this in context, membership in 1951 was around 2.9 million, while the figure was 258,000 in 2005, when David Cameron took over the party’s leadership.
This is partially a result of current issues such as right-wing migration to the UK Independence Party, who estimate they now have 30,000 members, compared to only 19,000 last year. However, membership in both the Conservative and Labour parties has been falling steadily since the 1950s. Labour membership is currently at a record low of around 200,000 compared to a peak of 876,000 in 1951.
Partisan dealignment is generally seen as a negative result of disillusionment and disenfranchisement. The end result, so it is said, is a disempowered populace who abandon political activity and retreat into nihilistic apathy.
There is no need for assessment of the situation to be so bleak. The apparent root cause of dealignment is a combination of increasingly unrepresentative party platforms, a breakdown in group identification, and a vague feeling that politics is ‘broken’. The perception that ‘they don’t speak for us’ is totally accurate, and feelings of cynicism toward politicians are a natural response. However, this can be seen as a step in the right direction, rather than as a problem.
It is not a peculiarity of modernity that those in power do not have the interests of their subjects at heart, nor is it true that the decline of class-defined party affiliation (e.g. being a working-class Labour voter) is simply due to a general trend of declining collective identity. Rather, disenchantment with both leaders and mass-membership organisations stems primarily from increased access to information.
In reaction to improved information about political leaders’ behavior, people are increasingly convinced that political representation is intrinsically unreliable. It is possible for someone to represent a specific interest in a specific context. Also, loose group identities can be maintained through specific interests (such as caravanning*). However, mass movements based on vague identities and abstract ideals cannot truly speak for all of their members; they will naturally attract people who do not agree on various issues. Similarly, a government ‘representative’ of a thousand people will inevitably fail to represent many of their constituents.
Although this is particularly the case with larger parties, with their generalised messages and ‘safe’ policies, any political organisation with a defined ideology has similar problems. Although pressure groups and small parties, with more ‘uncompromising’ ideologies, may present themselves as an alternative to the ‘out-of-touch mainstream’, they are a slight improvement at best. They still presume to represent various people who in reality have diverging interests, and have leadership which is able to make decisions which many members disagree with. Further, political organizations in general tend to feed on and perpetuate feelings of collective identity, decreasing people’s sense of individual responsibility.
Withdrawal from organised movements does not necessarily equate to apathy or despondency. In fact, recognising that you cannot trust others to act in your interests leads to greater independence, along with disavowal of the dagnerous notion that all important decisions must be made in the public sphere.
Individuals and smaller, voluntary social organisations, which are focused on specific interests, are better placed to deal with the problems of society. The discrediting of large movements, and of their ambitious programs of social engineering, thus creates the opportunity for more people to take charge of their own lives.
Disillusionment with politics and a rejection of organised collective institutions and movements is a positive process. It is caused by, and further facilitates, greater realisation that ‘public’ sanction for what people choose to do with their lives is almost always unnecessary.
*Incidentally, there are more members in the UK Caravan Club than there are in all UK political parties combined.
Image credit to withfriendship.com.