Lord Ashcroft has conducted a survey of voters after the Eastleigh by-election. No one by-election can be used to predict the future with any certainty, but this Eastleigh research sheds further light on declining voter loyalty.
At the Eastleigh by-election the Conservatives did best at retaining their voters from 2010, but they only managed to retain 59% of their 2010 voters. The LibDems managed to retain 51% of their voters and Labour just 50%. The survey did not show what proportion of Ukip voters remained loyal, but a separate question revealed that only 43% of by-election Ukip voters intended to vote for the party again in 2015.
Falling voter loyalty is clearly an issue (and an opportunity) for all parties and it is not a new phenomenon. Research by Andrew Russell and Edward Fieldhouse showed that even between the general elections of 1997 and 2001, when Labour was returned with a comfortable majority in both contests, only 67% of Labour voters remained loyal, compared to 66% of Conservative voters and only 54% of LibDem voters. On this occasion the swapping more or less cancelled itself out to produce a similar result, but the level of unseen volatility was already huge over a decade ago.
Overall membership of political parties has been falling for sixty years. At its peak in the 1950s, the Conservative Party claimed over 3 million members, the Labour Party peaked at over a million and even the Liberals had nearly quarter of a million members, at a time when they used to attract only 6% of the vote. The latest figures show Conservative Party membership down to 150,000 (another estimate said only 130,000), Labour at 193,000 and the Lib Dems on 49,000. A few smaller parties including Ukip are currently increasing their membership, but this hardly affects the overall decline. Fewer than 1% of British people are now a member of a political party. More people belong to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds than to all British political parties added together.
The issue for all parties is now as much about recruitment of voters at each election, as it is about retention. Gone are the days of class-based voting and of lifetime loyalty to any one party. Election campaigns could actually become much more important and exciting again. They will offer an opportunity to encourage a new breed of politician, or to help protect an endangered species.