Focus on: Political parties

Background

Political parties act as platforms to elect politicians (eg MPs, mayors or councillors) who generally are tasked with upholding manifesto pledges in their elected bodies. Members can participate via local branch activities, national groups and events, campaigning. Parties can either register as a ‘major political party’ that can run in UK elections, or a ‘minor party’ restricted to local elections. All parties in the UK must register with the Electoral Commission and are responsible for compliance with electoral law including governance and financial disclosure.

For this section where we have used Electoral Commission data, our definition of political parties combines account data for both central parties and their separate party accounting units that are constituent or affiliated units of a political party, including constituency parties, which have separate finances from the central party.

Size and scope

There are over 300 political parties in the UK

According to the Electoral Commission, there are 378 registered parties currently registered in the UK.[1] Of these 318 field candidates in England, 160 in Scotland, 158 in Wales and 31 in Northern Ireland.

Party membership has increased over the last decade, though has started to decline again for most parties

According to the House of Commons library, Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat membership has risen to about 1.7% of the electorate in 2019, compared to a historic low of 0.8% in 2013

There were just over one million members across Labour, Conservatives, Liberal Democrats, Scottish National Party (SNP), the Green Party and the UK Independence Party (UKIP) at the end of 2018. Political parties represented in parliament have seen a membership revival in recent years which has been mostly driven by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, Greens and SNP[2]. While the number of members has increased over the last decade, these numbers are still lower than in previous decades. In more recent years too, most parties that saw an increase in membership have already hit their peak and have begun to decline again.

Research from the Mile End Institute showed that members of the three main parties tended to differ demographically from the rest of the population. Party members were more likely to be male, including 71% of Conservatives, 63% of Liberal Democrats and 57% of Labour, compared to 49% of the total population. Members also tended to be older with 44% of Conservatives, 30% of the Liberal Democrats and 29% of Labour members aged 65 and over compared to 18% of the population, and at least 96% of members of each party were white compared to 87% of the population.

Party members were also significantly more affluent than the general population, with 88% of Liberal Democrats, 86% of Conservatives and 77% of Labour being upper and middle class compared to 57% of the population. Specific regions were also overrepresented in party membership, with 45% of Liberal Democrat, 42% of Conservative and 34% of Labour members from the south (excluding London) compared to 31% of the population, while 29% of Labour members were from the north compared to 24% of the population.

Financials

Major parties account for most of the income generated by political parties

Labour (£49m), Conservatives (£49m) and Liberal Democrats (£15m) made up 87% of income for all parties in 2018 (£131m).

Major political parties received almost all donations made to political parties

In 2018, donations made up £44m of all major party income; £22m for the Conservatives, £17m for Labour and £5m for the Liberal Democrats. These parties received 88% of all donations made to political parties during that year.

Donations to political parties were almost entirely national (91% to central parties/ parliamentary offices in 2018) with the rest going to local, devolved/regional parties and internal affiliate groups.

Major parties spent more than they earned in 2018 – a change from the previous election year

Major parties had spent more than they earned in 2018, with 2017 bolstered by election donations.

The latest Electoral Commission data on election expenses, for the 2017 general election campaign, shows that all parties reported a combined £39m in election expenses with the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats accounting for £36m.

Over a third (34%) of spending went towards unsolicited material to electors (£13m), followed by advertising (26%; £10m) and market research/canvassing (19%; £7m).

The three major parties held the majority of net assets in 2018

In 2018, the Conservatives held 47% (£52m) of net assets of all political parties, followed by Labour (£43m; 39%) and the Liberal Democrats (£5m; 5%).[3]

The wealthiest local branches are in the south of England

Local party net assets data reveals interesting regional and incumbency patterns.

Richmond Park Conservatives were the top branch by net assets (£2.4m) followed by Bristol North West Conservatives (£1.7m) in 2018. While Conservatives made up seven of the top 10, they were not the incumbent party in Bristol North West, Ealing Central and Acton or Dulwich & West Norwood.[4] Similarly, Labour did not hold Bath or Guildford. All top ten branches were in the South: five in London, two each in the South East and South West and one in the East of England.

Workforce

It is not compulsory for political parties to report staff numbers, which therefore makes the total size of this workforce difficult to measure. Of the main parties, Labour employed 441 paid staff in 2018, more than the Conservatives (330) and Liberal Democrats (71).[5]

Spotlight on: Donor status

Individuals were the largest donor group, making up 35% (£17m) of all donors in 2018, followed by public funds (£15m or 29%) companies (£8m or 16%) and trade unions (£6m or 12%).[6] The Conservatives were the largest recipient of individual (78%) and company donations (84%) while Labour had the most trade union donations (almost 100%) and public funds (62%).

However in 2019 the proportion of giving by donor status was quite different, likely because it was an election year. Donations made during the six-week pre-polling period before the election totalled £31m alone compared to £50m for the whole of 2018. During the entire year, individuals made up a much higher percentage with 53% of all donations while trade unions were slightly higher with 14%. Public funds made up half the proportion than in 2018 on 14% while companies were a bit lower with 15% of donations.

Proportion of donation by status group were similar between 2018 and 2019 with the exception that the Conservatives experienced a drop in proportion of individual donations with 57%, but this might be explained by the Brexit Party also receiving 21% of these donations.

Reflections

Has a wider public shift towards issue-based politics made party membership more volatile?

It is clear that the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats still dominate political party membership, income, donations and assets. However, the most noticeable trend is that membership for the three major parties and emerging parties has increased overall since 2008.

Despite this overall rise in membership, most parties’ membership growth having already peaked and started to decline. In 2018, Labour membership stood at 518,659 a 312% increase since 2008, which could be attributed to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as party leader in 2015, as prior to this, membership increases had been minimal. However, Labour membership in 2018 was down 45,784 from the previous year. Conservative membership has halved since 2008 to 124,000, possibly due to being in government since 2010. The Liberal Democrats doubled their membership to 93,649 during the same period, possibly due to both exiting government and its position on Brexit though still lost about 5,000 compared to the previous year. The SNP continued to increase, having grown membership eightfold, probably due to 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and its role in the Scottish Government in the Brexit debate. While the Greens increase peaked in 2015, they have already lost some of their membership gains, likely due to Labour adopting similar policies.

Wider public shifts in support for political parties has moved in recent years from class-based loyalties towards values and issues-based politics. Party membership has been noticeably volatile, with big changes happening in reaction to social issues like Brexit, climate change, and Scottish independence, or political party leadership like the case with Labour. Any changes in public opinion or political outcomes on a major issue, or even a leadership change could have an impact on party membership numbers.

Footnotes

  1. Electoral Commission holds separate party registers for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland register includes some parties that also exist in the GB.

  2. We have chosen national parties with a sizeable membership with the exception of the SNP because membership is higher than the Greens and UKIP. The Conservative party does not provide figures on membership in their annual accounts to the Electoral Commission, so this data is from estimates compiled by the House of Commons Library.

  3. According to a guide on cash accounting, assets includes things like money in the bank, computers and property (such as local constituency offices and party headquarters etc).

  4. Incumbent means that the political party is represented by the sitting MP.

  5. Staff numbers as reported by central party annual accounts in 2018. It should be highlighted that different parties mention their staff differently – for example Labour uses total while Conservatives and Liberal Democrats use average number. This also includes full-time and part-time staff.

  6. Public funds include parliament (70% Commons and Lords), Electoral Commission (25%) while the rest is primarily from devolved parliaments to local parties (ie Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland).