New survey data reveals more about members
Back in June I ran the results of a YouGov poll of Liberal Democrat members on the leadership race but that was only one small part of a larger piece of research funded by the ESRC into the membership of political parties by Tim Bale and Paul Webb.
They’ve now kindly shared more details of the research ahead of the fringe meeting at party conference on the Tuesday night (6.15pm, 22nd September, Bryanston Suite, Marriott Highcliff: “Adapt or die? Parties and their members in 21st century Britain”).
As with all attempts at surveys of party membership, several caveats are in order even though the sample size – at 730 – is good. In particular, for this one the survey found 68% of party members to be male, which is much higher than other, more robust evidence on the gender balance of party members (see earlier story). There seems to be a particular issue with internet surveys of Liberal Democrat members leaning heavily male. Likewise the finding that 33% of members canvassed on the doorstep or phone for the party in the general election suggests a skew towards more active members.
That said, here are some highlights from how the Liberal Democrat membership stood in May 2015, post-election:
- Average (mean) age: 51 (separate party data puts the median age of post-election members at 39)
- Proportion aged under 30: 17%
- Where they put themselves on the left (1) – right (10) spectrum: 4.1
Nearly four in five party members (79%) say they joined the party by taking the initiative to get in touch, split roughly equally between approaching the local and the national party. That this number is so high suggests there is a big untapped pool of extra members to be recruited if they were but to be asked locally – a useful sign given Tim Farron’s target of getting the party to 100,000 members.
There is also widespread support for the idea of a ‘registered supporters’ scheme (such as the ‘Friends of the Liberal Democrats’ idea I’ve written about): 41% support the idea, 42% have no view either way and only 18% oppose the idea.
Alongside that potential for growing membership, the survey also suggests a lot of scope for getting more activism from existing party members. Despite the apparent skew noted towards more active members, even so the survey found that less than half of members delivered any leaflets during the election campaign (46%), even fewer put up a window poster (38%) and less than half have helped spread the party’s messages on Facebook or Twitter (47% and 31% respectively).
Those numbers go up when people were asked about whether they had done it in the last five years, but even then delivering leaflets only hits two-thirds (65%) and displaying a poster is still at under two-thirds (58%), not counting those who says the only did it “rarely” or never.
Down at one third (34%) is the proportion saying they’ve taken part in the party’s policy process in the last five years. Despite that low proportion, intriguingly nearly three quarters of members (74%) say they think taking part in the party’s policy process is an effective way to help the party win elections, putting it only just behind leaflets (81%), canvassing (83%) and donating (84%) in the perceived effectiveness stakes. That’s basically a statistical dead heat between all three, yet most local parties spend much more time asking people to come leafleting or canvassing than donating despite how effective donating is seen to be.
Wisely, probably, although signing petitions is the highest scoring activity of members over the last five years (77%), less than half (48%) rate it as an effective election winning tool. As part of a wider campaign, yes it can be effective – but the sign and forget type petitions have little impact.
A handy warning about assuming members know why the party does what it does comes with the mere 45% rating window posters as effective – yet when posters are given out to members at election time, the rationale behind them is rarely explained or promoted.
On a more positive note, only 17% of members surveyed in the depths of May said they thought the party leadership doesn’t pay much attention to ordinary members, only 11% said they thought it didn’t respect ordinary party members and a mere 4% who had attended a local party meeting in the last year found it unfriendly.
There is also widespread support for better diversity amongst MPs: 87% of Lib Dem members believe more MPs should be female, with 80% wanting more MPs with disabilities and 78% wanting more MPs to come from the area they represent. Support for more ethnic minority MPs is at 78%, rather more than the 66% who want to see more working class MPs.
If you are going to be at the Liberal Democrat conference in Bournemouth, do come to the fringe meeting on the Tuesday evening, where I’ll be talking about what these findings mean for the party’s future along with Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Tessa Munt.