As if as a rejoinder to my post yesterday about the declining importance of political parties, there’s been a surge in membership for the pro-independence parties in Scotland since the referendum. The SNP are on course to become the third largest party in the UK in terms of members and according to one comment I saw the Scottish Greens have doubled their membership since Thursday.
As I said, the general trend in membership in UK parties is downward, and previous large surges (Labour when Blair became leader, the Tories when Cameron became leader) have been minor upward bubbles that disappeared soon after, leaving the trend as it was before. It’s way too early to say if this is the case with the current Scottish surge, but what’s most fascinating is the scale of it.
The SNP’s membership before this surge was around 25,000 which is approximately 0.5% of the population of Scotland. The interesting thing is that this was anomalous in the UK as a whole, where the largest membership was 0.3% for the Labour Party. Now, the SNP is on course to have 1% or more of the population of Scotland as members. As comparison, the last time a UK-wide party had a membership on this level was the Tories in the late 80s (Labour haven’t reached that level since the late 70s). It’s a return to an era of mass party membership, which could herald an interesting time in Scottish politics.
Of course, the question is whether this sudden surge in party membership will last. It’s obviously been driven by the after-effects of the referendum, but will this remain as a salient and motivating factor next year? The presence of the Westminster election next year and the Holyrood election the year in 2016 may help in cementing the loyalty of the new members by giving them something to focus on.
What’s also interesting to wonder is what effect this will have on the Scottish political system and the SNP itself. Can they use these motivated new members to win seats in 2015, and how will people who’ve cut their activist teeth in a referendum campaign deal with an electoral one? Also (and as has been pointed out, it’s a good problem to have), how will the party’s structures cope with the new membership? It’s not intentional entryism, but having a large number of people who’ve joined for one reason is surely going to lead to some interesting issues. The SNP is already relatively large by the current standards of UK political parties, and making it bigger makes things very interesting.
There aren’t any conclusions to this at the moment, as we’re right in the middle of the event, but it’s definitely something of interest and worthy of note. Growth on this scale, in this short a time, is possibly unique in UK politics (previous surges didn’t have the internet – particularly social media – to facilitate them as much) and the long-term effects of it are going to be worth keeping a close eye on, as though we weren’t all paying attention to Scottish politics anyway.