In which I take my usual topical approach by talking about the LibDems and party membership 5 days after their UK conference has wound up. All sources for stats etc not linked are taken from the various Statements of Accounts published on the Electoral Commission website
Their last recorded membership figures had them at 3,080, and that only covers up to the end of 2011. The attrition rate since must have taken them below the 3,000 mark, with no stop sign in sight. Popular perception might be otherwise, but most political resignations don’t take the form of a flounce, or fiery letter decrying the leadership for betrayal, or headline-grabbing defections. They’re usually just someone quietly cancelling their direct debit and clearing out their wallet of their card and raffle tickets, and thanking some deity that they’ll never have to use the phrase “Any Other Competent Business” again.
When you drill right down into the figures§ provided by some constituency parties, the picture gets even worse for them. Seven constituencies* provide their membership figures as part of their annual accounts, so it’s possible to see how the ongoing train-wreck is affecting things at a micro level. You perhaps won’t surprised to hear that the phrase “membership was down on last year” crops up a few times.
But what’s apparent is that outside a few key areas, the LibDems are dead as a functioning political party. Those seven constituencies – out of 73 nationwide – account for 32% of the total Scottish membership, with one – Edinburgh South – holding on to 314 souls and thus providing over 10% of the total figure. The other 66 seats share 2,096 folk between them, an average of 31.75 (the philosophical debate as to what constitutes three-quarters of a LibDem is for another time). When you factor in the other areas of comparative strength for the party, but for whom no stats were available (e.g. North East Fife, the Borders), it’s entirely reasonable to assume a membership of less than 10 in some seats, with near to zero activists. That’s death for any political party, far less one for whom a great deal of their success has been based on hyper-activism, those seemingly unending reams of Focus leaflets dropping through the letterbox.
Their cataclysmic showing at May’s local elections, dropping from 166 to 71 seats, in turn removed a cadre of mostly full-time activists all of whom had the additional motivating factor of keeping themselves in a job, when considering whether to brave Tuesday nights in February. And, as Michael Crick pointed out in the aftermath of the 2011 Elections, the drop in income formerly provided by these elected representatives just adds another kick in the guts for the twitching zombie.
Money and activists: you might be able to mount a campaign without one, but end up bereft of both and you’re in a death spiral that requires a superhuman effort to be dragged out of. You’re so stretched you start making basic organisational mistakes, like neglecting to nominate a parliamentary candidate, or putting up a single candidate for an entire Central Belt local authority.
The stark reality for the LibDems in Scotland is a future based on guerrilla campaigning; nicking a ward here, holding onto a constituency or list seat there, restricted to a scant few geographical areas, with no national focus and certainly no national mandate. The Greens play the same game, but on the basis of sustainable and steady growth and expansion. For the bedraggled ranks of the fourth party, desperate for a chink of sunlight to wash over their fortunes, it’s about containing and grimly holding on to what they’ve got.
On the bright side, the coming years should provide some fascinating material for academics and psephologists; a chance to study in intricate detail the slow, lingering death of a decades’ old political party from the bottom up, caused by a decision taken from the top down.
§ An completely tedious and mind-numbing task, by the way, thanks to an Electoral Commission search function that is as user-friendly as an underwater cigarette. Thankfully I am a tedious and mind-numbing human being anyway, so no great harm done.
* Aberdeenshire East, Argyll & Bute, Edinburgh NE & Leith, Edinburgh West, Edinburgh South, Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch & Strathspey, and Ross, Skye & Lochaber. Two others provide accounts but no membership figures.