I write much about the growth and decline of Christian churches. Still, given the political events in the UK following the EU referendum, I thought I would compare church membership with political party membership to see who is the stronger. One result of the referendum was a vote of no confidence in the Labour Party leader by most of his MPs, followed by a 60,000 increase in party membership in one week [1]. In church terms, that would be a massive revival! But what does it mean in political party terms?

Membership of UK Political Parties

First, let me give a sense of the size of the main parties in the UK. Figure 1 shows changes in party membership since 2000 where such data exists [2,3]. The memberships of both the Labour and Conservative Parties have declined through the period, though both are significantly bigger than the other parties.

Figure 1: Recent Membership of UK Political Parties

Since the appointment of Jeremy Corbyn as its leader, the Labour Party has seen a significant membership rise to over 400,000, probably due to an imminent leadership election. Thus, Labour easily has the largest membership in the UK, over 2.5 times that of the Conservatives, despite its relative lack of success in recent elections [4]. Both the Liberal Democrats (Lib Dem) and Green Party have seen recent rises in membership, taking them past the 60,000 mark, well above the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) on 47,000. There is little correlation between party size and electoral performance or party size with the referendum result!

Declining Churches and Political Parties Compared

Figure 2 compares the memberships of the Church of England and the Conservative Party since the 1940s [5]. The Conservatives had a massive post-war recruitment campaign but have since fallen from a peak of nearly 3 million to just 150,000 members. The Church of England, by contrast, has fallen far more slowly from 3 million to just under a million [6]. Despite the well-publicised decline of the established church, it almost looks healthy compared with the Conservative Party! The Church of England was once nicknamed the “Conservative Party at prayer”. I doubt if that is an accurate description these days. From figure 2, it looks as if the Conservative Party better start praying again!

Figure 2: Membership of the Conservative Party and the CHurch of England

A similar pattern of decline is seen by comparing the Methodist Church with the Labour Party, figure 3. In this case, the two almost match each other, though there is no apparent reason why this should be so. Both had just under 800,000 members in 1960 and about 200,000 in 2012.

Figure 3: Membership of the Labour party and the Methodist Church

It is immediately evident from figures 2 and 3 that changes in party membership are far more volatile than that of churches. There are several reasons for this:

  1. Unlike churches, most party members need to renew their membership each year; thus, they are more likely to disaffiliate if there are events that disturb them. Note the drop in Labour following its divisions and election loss in the late 1970s and a similar drop in the Conservatives in the early 1990s for similar reasons.
  2. Unlike churches, joining a political party does not require any participation in regular meetings. Churches meet weekly, and for some, you must make a public confession of faith before you join. That is a level of commitment I doubt many political parties would wish to introduce [7]!

Thus political parties are much easier to join and leave and can be done so with little commitment. Note the rapid rise of both parties from 1945-1953. The recruitment campaigns behind this increase have similar dynamics to that of Christian revival. A research student of mine explained this rise with a similar model to the Limited Enthusiasm Model of church growth – word of mouth dynamics [3,8]. There was a similar revival in the Labour Party in the late 1990s (figure 3) when Tony Blair came to power. But the general trend of both mainstream parties is down. It is estimated that in these periods of political revival, most party members were completely inactive [3].

Growing Churches and Political Parties Compared

Yes, there are growing churches! As the mainline denominations decline, other denominations are growing and taking up some of the Christian landscape’s vacant space. Figure 4 compares the decline of the Methodists with the growth of Pentecostalism, the Eastern Orthodox, and the “New” churches. The latter are independent charismatic churches, including New Frontiers and Vineyard, which came about as a result of the charismatic revival that started in the 1960-70s. Their growth has slowed of late, though not ceased, as many of these churches are transitioning from the first generation of leadership.

Figure 4: Changes in UK Church Landscape

Notice both Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox have now passed the Methodist Church. Both are enhanced by immigration, the Orthodox being largely Greek. However, there is strong revival growth in Pentecostalism as well.   How does this growth compare with political parties? Figure 5 compares the sum of the revival churches, Pentecostals and “New” with the Labour Party and the sum of the Lim Dems, UKIP, Greens and the Scottish National Party (SNP), all of whom boast of growth. The revival churches are far larger than both political groupings, even with the recent surge in Labour membership.

Figure 5: Growth Comparison of Political Parties and Churches

Just as important as the level of membership of the revival churches is the consistency of their growth, reflecting their long-term member commitment and regular meetings. We live in times where churches are scorned, secularism applauded, and political parties get much media attention for their growth. But from figure 5, it is clear that churches have a far healthier and more sustainable growth pattern. I could have added to their number all the independent evangelical churches and all evangelical and charismatic churches in the mainstream denominations. Evangelical revival is dwarfing political party revival!

Membership in 2016

Indeed Christianity has far greater membership than political parties. Figure 6 shows the state of play at this point in time in 2016. Of course, church attendance is lower than membership, but political party activism is also much lower than their membership [3]. Thus membership comparison between the two types of organisations is a fair measure of their relative strength.

Figure 6: Membership of UK Poltical Parties and Churches 2016

Despite its decline, the established Church of England is by far the largest grouping, figure 6. By contrast, the Conservatives, the party of government, are dwarfed by Pentecostals and the Eastern Orthodox. Lib Dems, Green and UKIP look tiny by comparison. Though note the SNP is significantly larger than other “small” parties despite drawing from the smaller base of Scotland. Proportionally the SNP is the most successful UK political party in membership terms at present.

 The largest political party is the Labour Party, figure 6, and it may well be even bigger by the time I post this blog as people are joining so fast! Nevertheless, it is still only the same size as each of the Pentecostal and Eastern Orthodox churches. It is possible that once Labour has had its membership election, it will decline again, perhaps forming two parties, due to disputes about leadership and direction.

The British National Party (BNP), estimated at 4,200, cannot be seen on this scale, figure 6. Even the Momentum group, currently influencing the Labour Party, barely registers, even though it doubled from 6,000 to 12,000 recently [1]. There is little correlation between party size and media coverage. If only churches could get the same positive media attention as Momentum and UKIP do! Well, Jesus never went down well with the powers that be, so we Christians can’t really expect positive press!

Even when it comes to change over time, churches fare better than political parties. Figure 7 shows the Anglican Church falling less than the Conservatives over the last 60 years, as already noted [9]. However, the figure also shows the dramatic drop in participation of all organisations over this period.

Figure 7: Changes in Poltical Party and Church Membership 1953-2016

Why such a drop in involvement in voluntary organisations? There are probably many reasons; rising wealth is one. Most people now have the money and the time to spend on pleasure pursuits. That is an external reason. Another may be organisational atrophy, an internal reason. Older churches and mainstream political parties have become institutionalised. That is, they have large bureaucracies to maintain, and they occupy prominent positions in society. Such organisations lose the ability, and perhaps the will, to recruit to their cause. I have been modelling this with system dynamics, showing that most organisations have a lifecycle and find it very hard to survive without a serious dismantling of their institutional structures [10].

Perhaps we are seeing the demise of the older political parties and churches and the rise of new ones to replace them. Figure 8 compares the growth of the newer parties with churches, showing that the Christian Church is doing a better job of this growth than its political counterparts. Rather than secularism taking hold, it looks as if Christianity is having a revival.

Figure 8: Changes in Smaller Political Parties and Church Membership 1953-2016

Ideological Battle 

Of course, organisational membership is not the whole story. As I have previously written, Christianity is losing out in the public space to a new ideology, which I named Diversity [11]. It is humanist in belief and uses various single-issue movements, especially the diversity/inclusion/equality one, to pursue its cause. It has no party, as such, but all political parties acknowledge it and promote it to some degree, as do some of the older church denominations. It is this battle where secularism is winning over Christianity, driving churches to the margins of society, even though those churches are numerically healthier than political parties.

So although Christianity can take some comfort that is having more success than political parties, with some churches having a measure of revival, it comes at a cost – public hostility. Not from all the public, not even from most of it, but the hostility of activists and their various elites in government, media, campaign groups and employment. However, we can take comfort as Biblically we know true revival is given so we can face persecution and, through it, win many to Christ.

References & Notes

  1. Labour leader issues defiant message as pro-Corbyn organisation doubles its membership in a week, The Independent, 4/7/16. By the time I post the blog, the Labour Party may have increased by over 100,000 members.  
  2. Membership of UK Political Parties, Richard Keen, House of Commons Library Briefing Paper SN05125, 11/8/15. Also, previous versions: Keen (2014), McGuiness (2012), Marshall (2009).  
  3. Activist Model of Political Party Growth. Jeffs R.A., Hayward J., Roach P.A. & Wyburn J.Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications, 442, 359-372, (2016).
  4. Figures for Labour Party membership are for full members. In addition, Labour has affiliated members from Trade Unions and registered supporters who may vote in leadership elections but not in branch meetings.  
  5. Membership figures for the Conservatives are limited, partly due to its organisational structure. Like most parties, they are reluctant to release membership figures when they do not tell a good story.  
  6. Church membership figures are taken from:  
    • Religious Trends, Volumes 1-7, Peter Brierley, Christian Research (1991-2008).
    • UK Church Statistics 2010-2020, Peter Brierley, Brierley Consultancy (2014).
    • Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700. Currie, R., Gilbert, A. D., & Horsley, L. S. Oxford University Press, USA, (1977).
    • Statistics For Mission. Various volumes from 2007-2014, Research and Statistics Department Archbishops’ Council.
    • Statistics for Mission. Various volumes. The Methodist Church.
  7. Churches are primarily about worship – thus, are God-centred and have a sense of eternal destiny. Political parties are about events of this world and changing things in the near future. Those differences could make changes in party membership more volatile than that of churches.  
  8. The Limited Enthusiasm model of church growth is explained in a number of publications, e.g. A General Model of Church Growth and Decline. Hayward J. Journal of Mathematical Sociology, 29(3), 177-207, (2005).   For further information, see Tipping the Church into Growth,
  9. The start figure of 1953 was chosen because it was a year when membership figures were known across all organisations.  
  10. Institutionalism and Church Decline
    The institutional model of church growth applied to GB Methodist Church
  11. The New Ideology – Part1: Model Construction
    Conversion to the Diversity Ideology – Part 2: Justification of Hypotheses


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