Of course, the political party never really went away. If you take the period from the 2005 general election to the eve of the Scottish referendum, despite falling combined memberships and dislocation from the constituencies of people that breathed life into them parties remained relevant. They formed governments and councils, sent their members to the European Parliament and devolved bodies, they won elections and pushed through policies. Insurgents from the far left and far right challenged incumbents successfully through the party form. For all of the talk of party breakdown and the erosion of stable identification, the success of self-styled independents remain sporadic and highly localised.
Yet for anyone interested in the health of representative democracy, and that includes those who are well aware of its limitations and might perhaps like to see more participatory and democratic forms eventually develop, the weakness of political parties are bad news. It can exacerbate other pressures constantly bearing down on the state that contribute to the withering of democratic accountability. Party weakness can let undesirables through too. In Stoke the BNP's rise during the 00s had many roots, and one of them was the complete absence of the Conservatives from most local election contests.
From the liberal democratic perspective then, parties are necessary. And this is why seas of ink have been poured over the problem of declining parties and hollowed out polities. It's a problem that's exercised me too. Both Conservatives and Labour have undergone a progressive diminution of influence as tectonics of classes and class fractions have shifted beneath their feet. It's a symptom of their own decadence as declining forces that they act against their own interests. I believe Labour can come back from this, but only if it appreciates itself as a movement in society - not a PLP of latte slurping wonks for whom the party is an adjunct. As for the Tories? More on that another time.
If the main parties are in decline then, and mainstream political participation is low and election turnouts have practically flatlined, where is this sudden about turn coming from? If the multitude of social trends are responsible for miniaturising parties and presumably still working them over, what are the counterveiling forces? There are a few things going on. Some are short-term and episodic events, others may have longer term salience.
1. The reaction to defeat can drive political people who, for whatever reason, haven't taken up party membership beforehand to do so. It's the realisation that no one else is going to participate and build the sort of party you want in your absence, so it's up to you. This is certainly the case for Labour and the LibDems. Indeed, when Labour were dumped out of office in 2010 it put on 50,000 members in the space of six months in reaction to the formation of the coalition. Fear is a great motivator, as we have seen with those angsty voters that gifted the general election to the Tories.
2. A low-level feeder to be sure, but way after Blair ceased displaying Bambi's qualities, the procession of young careerists into Labour continued unabated. Regardless of what's going on in wider society, there is a small section for whom politics is a career choice: there will always be seats to fill, constituency offices to be staffed, council candidates needed, and various other jobs to be taken up. From this position, joining a party is a long-term investment. Networks have to be built, notables flattered, activism undertaken, favours accumulated and banked. Also, opportunities in politics, depending on what you're looking for, can come up frequently. I can't but help think that a substantial number of people pouring into the LibDems presently are aware that the next five-ten years will see more opportunities open for aspiring activists as it recovers.
3. Events, dear boy, events. The Scottish referendum and the spectacularly stupid way Labour in Scotland and UK-wide handled it saw them dynamite their own citadels north of the border. The spectacular growth of the SNP was won on the back of a mass politicisation that coincided with monumental strategic blunders, a moribund party, and those long-term trends. Similarly in England and Wales, the surge that saw the Green Party overtake UKIP and the LibDems in terms of members were driven by one-off events. That doesn't necessarily mean both parties are now likely to fall back. I can't speak for the Greens, but I know the SNP's left in its trade union group are looking to set up the kinds of workplace linkages that used to nourish Labour and provide it generations of activists, thinkers, and politicians. With a Parliament pregnant with tumultuous potential, a few 'one-off' events might act as triggers of active political participation and therefore party membership.
4. Perhaps the most important long-term driver partially replacing the transmission belts of old is social media. Like nearly every political Twitter user I know, my feed is little better than an echo chamber. The vast majority are labour movement people from all corners of the broad tent, but we hold some basic positions in common. It can provide the illusion that your utterances get some real world traction when they are retweeted thousands of times, but that pails against the millions that still read the mainstream press. Nevertheless, the tendency for social media to create unstructured, 'spontaneous' intentional communities can be a boon to political parties. The informal hierarchies and networks that make them up can and do encourage people in them to join the party they're broadly aligned with. Take, for instance, the typical (maligned) campaign selfie. Yes, they're a touch on the narcissistic side but they can and do convey a sense of community, of people from all kinds of backgrounds (apparently) getting on with the job to hand. For some that can be an incredibly powerful pull factor, especially in the context of inhabiting a self-constructed social media world revolving around party politics. As social media continues to expand, so this will be many - mainly young - people's first point of contact with parties. From there it's a short hop, skip, and a jump into active party membership.
Is the return of the political party that strange then? Not really.