Mass membership organisations in the UK

What do the membership rolls of Britain’s largest organisations say about Britain and the British? Wildlife lovers, passionate about history and the countryside, keen Scouts and Guides but less bothered about politics and trade union membership than ever before.

This year for Christmas my sister bought my mum and dad a year’s membership to the National Trust. They were absolutely delighted – a whole world of historic houses, beautiful countryside and stunning coastlines is open to them. And, perhaps most importantly for them, it gives a year of free car parking. There are millions of National Trust members in the UK. It got me wondering what over organisations can boast such large numbers?

So what are Britain’s largest mass membership organisations? I’ve excluded the AA and the RAC as their mass membership sides have long since moved from being a club for motorists to a commercial insurance and roadside recovery provider.

The following is a snapshot of some of the biggest organisations with the latest possible membership figures taken from annual reports or their own websites:

  • The Trades Union Congress – 6.5 million
  • The National Trust1 – 3.7 million
  • Royal Society for the Protection of Birds – 1 million
  • English Heritage2 – 1 million
  • The Wildlife Trusts3 – 800,000
  • Worldwide Wildlife Fund – 572,000
  • Girlguiding UK – 538,247
  • The Scout Association – 492,000
  • Royal British Legion – 360,000
  • The National Trust for Scotland4 – 310,000
  • United Grand Lodge of England – 250,000
  • Oddfellows  – 230,000
  • The Women’s Institute – 208,000
  • The Labour Party  – 193,961
  • Greenpeace – 130,000
  • The Conservative Party – 130,000
  • Historic Scotland – 125,000
  • Rambler’s Association – 113,000
  • The Liberal Democrats – 49,000
  • St John’s Ambulance – 45,500

This list of Britain’s mass membership organisations paints an interesting picture of a changing yet traditional nation. For politicians, the most disturbing development has been the stark deterioration in membership numbers for the country’s main political parties. This is especially the case for the Labour movement, where steep declines in Labour Party membership have been accompanied by significant falls in trade union membership.

The Labour Party has been transformed from a mass movement with over a million members in 1950 to a distinctly smaller organisation with under 200,000 members – making it smaller than the Women’s Institute. The Trades Union Congress, the umbrella organisation for Britain’s trade unions, represents unions with 6.5 million members. That is a decent number, but far from the 13 million peak reached in the immediate post-war years.

The decline is not confined to the left of the political spectrum. The Conservative Party has seen numbers plummet from the astonishing heights of 2.8 million in 1953 to just 130,000 today – giving the Tories a membership roughly comparable to that of Greenpeace. The Liberal Democrats have managed to shrink their Liberal inheritance of a quarter of a million members in 1960 to under 50,000 today – putting them on a par with the St. John Ambulance movement.

Conservation charities, on the other hand, have flourished to reflect growing interest in the countryside, wildlife and historic sites and the increasing leisure time and money people have to visit them. The National Trust is a huge organisation – its 4 million members are significantly more than any political party has ever achieved in the UK. Its growth contrasts with their decline – the charity had just 226,000 members in 1970.

The interest in the UK’s natural and human heritage is demonstrated by there are 5 million members combined for the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland with its Scottish counterpart, English Heritage, Heritage Scotland and CADW (the Welsh heritage agency). Membership of the largest wildlife and conservation charities in the UK is also impressive, with some 2.5 million members of the RSPB, the Wildlife Trusts, the WWF and Greenpeace. Many millions more will be members of animal charities and smaller wildlife and conservation groups.

The National Trust’s full name is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty

English Heritage’s official name is the Historic Building and Monuments Commission for England.

3 This is an umbrella organisation covering the 47 local wildlife trusts in the UK and Crown Dependencies.

The organisation’s formal name is the National Trust for Scotland for Places of Historic Interest or Natural Beauty

5 thoughts on “Mass membership organisations in the UK

  • Richard

    Very interesting indeed. Can I ask what was the source for your research? Did you simply go to the websites of the organisations, or is there a listing somewhere? This is an issue which is fascinating to me – without getting too philosophical, the extent to which people “belong” to something, must surely be part of the glue which binds society together.

    • Ian Curry Post author

      No single listing, unfortunately. The figures come from the annual reports of the respective organisations (where available). The historic figures for political parties and the trades unions come from Parliamentary research papers (the coloured links would take you to those sources).

      I might have missed some other big organisations, but these are the obvious ones. The question of belonging is interesting, because roughly the same numbers have joined heritage and conservation groups as have left the main political parties – I’m not saying they are the same people or there is a correlation, but an interesting observation.

      • Richard

        Thank you. Yes indeed, an eye-brow raising observation. Perhaps something about people wanting to be actively engaged with issues i a way that still has some integrity.

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