Politics is back in fashion after referendum vote

EU Referendum Tunbridge Wells 2

Membership of local political parties has surged in the wake of the referendum as people sign up to help shape the future of the country.

After years of decline or stagnation, both of the major parties have reported a rise in new applications from people eager to reengage with the political process.

The West Kent Conservative Association – which covers Tunbridge Wells and Tonbridge – has seen the number of members increase from around 2,000 to 2,500 in the last month alone.

Campaign Director Andrew Kennedy, who has described the 25 per cent surge as the ‘most intense’ he could remember, said he was ‘absolutely delighted’ at this new level of activism.

“It is very encouraging,” he said. “As an association we have not fared too badly over the last five years because unlike in many parts of the country our membership was steady as opposed to declining.

“We were generally able to sign up enough people to replace those who died or moved away.”

This sudden upswing in card-carrying Conservatives is unprecedented and was so unexpected that at first Mr Kennedy admitted he, and many of his colleagues, were suspicious of the result.

“Was this influx something organised by one of the left-wing pressure groups protesting about the EU vote?

“Or perhaps an exercise by jubilant UKIP supporters riding a post-referendum tidal wave and landing on our shore?”

But once he delved into the data as the applications began to be processed, he realised that neither of these fears had any basis.

What he discovered was 79 per cent of applicants had never even been members of a party and just over half had voted to remain in the EU at the referendum.

Around 20 per cent of members said they would be willing to stand for local office and around one in ten were under 23.

EU Referendum Tunbridge Wells 2

Mr Kennedy believes there were three main motivations behind this surge and enthusiasm in grass-roots politics.

“Firstly, I believe the referendum has reengaged people who now realise that by being involved in politics they can make a difference,” he said.

“Secondly, members who left our party for whatever reason appear to be drifting back.

“Lastly, although people were either delighted or disappointed by the referendum result, many now want to get stuck in and help shape the future of the country.”

Even the rise in membership across his rival parties was welcomed by Mr Kennedy, who said it was ‘good for democracy’.

The chairman of the Tunbridge Wells Constituency Labour Party, Andrew Sharp, agreed that the recent rise in reengagement with politics was ‘encouraging’.

The local party has seen its membership climb to 822 from 540 at the time of the borough elections in May, an increase of 52 per cent.

However, Mr Sharp believes the majority of interest in signing up stems from the latest leadership competition within the national Labour Party.

He said: “While the referendum increased engagement with politics overall, I think the significant increase we have seen since is due to the leadership election – although it is fair to say the Brexit vote probably triggered this.”

Mr Sharp said 180 new members signed up since the contest started, with the increased membership fee of £25 proving almost no deterrent.

Although the majority of the new members are unlikely to be activists, which he said was ‘fairly typical’ of political organisations, the younger people signing up are showing more willingness to get stuck into campaigning.

Almost 20 per cent of members are now aged 26 or under.

But Mr Sharp thinks the surge has now started to abate and expects things to tail off in the next few months.

“The window of opportunity for people wanting a say in the leadership contest has now closed and I expect it to be quieter for the rest of the summer.”

Membership of the Tunbridge Wells Liberal Democrats has risen from 149 to 225 members in the same period, an increase of 51 per cent.

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