Sometimes it’s amazing what pollies and apparatchiks will volunteer. And sometimes it’s illustrative to discover what they don’t want to talk about.

Those ubiquitous “senior party sources” are normally happy to offer background, but were uncharacteristically mute this morning when Crikey hit the phones asking about party membership.

At his Melbourne University lecture last night, Iron Mark asserted that “there would be no more than 50 active members” of the Labor Party in his old seat of Werriwa, “a traditional Labor seat, represented by two party leaders and a federal treasurer.” He defined “active members” as those “devoting more than two hours per week to party matters.” He went on to say “This is the state of modern Labor, the oldest political party in the country. I estimate that it has no more than 7,500 real members nationwide, enough to fill a small suburban soccer grounds. And the Liberal and National Parties are even worse off.”

Iron Mark might be a bit rusty on those last figures. Political mythology always credits the Nats with a good membership base. But no one seemed willing to confirm party memberships today, on or off the record.

Melbourne University academic Sally Young offered some numbers in a July item in The Age on this subject, Power Without People: “The parties are reluctant to reveal the state of their membership bases but we know that they have decayed. The ALP had an active membership of around 370,000 members in the 1940s but by 1990, had just 55,000 fee-paying members. Only five years after it was officially launched, in 1950, the Liberal Party had grown to a membership of 198,000 but by 1990, this had dropped to 69,000. Today, less than 3 per cent of the population is actively involved in any political party.”

What stands out the most here? Another number – the number of years old the figures Young had to rely on are. 1990? That’s political prehistory.