What do the academics say? How non-members help in election campaigns

25 February 2013 , , ,

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – the shock news that non-members help British parties in their election campaigns.

I say “shock” as it illustrates my love-hate relations with political science. The vision of conventional political science when it comes to parties and campaigning in Britain has been rather myopic. It has pretty much completely ignoring the role of non-member helpers on election campaigns. Of course, if you are used to election campaigns then you are most likely also used to non-members helping in them and the only limit on how many years you have been used to this is the number of years you’ve been around campaigns. So on the one hand, it does say something not wholly flattering about the state of political science that it has only just ‘discovered’ this.

On the other, to the credit of the authors of a new journal article that contains this discovery (“Members are not the only fruit: volunteer activity in British political parties at the 2010 general election”, British Journal of Politics and International Relations, 2013 by Justin Fisher, Edward Fieldhouse and David Cutts), they already strongly suspected this was the case and therefore set out to put matters right.

What’s more, in the absence of the sort of quantitative evidence that seems nearly mandatory in political science research these days*, they set out to create a new database of evidence rather than do what I’ve criticised the profession for previously – overly concentrating on areas where data exists rather than areas where the good questions are.

As their paper explains:

Using data collected through surveys of election agents at the 2010 general election, this article examines the extent of supporter activity in constituency (district-level) campaigns, the extent to which active local parties stimulate supporter activity, the correlates of supporter and member activity, and whether supporter activity makes a positive and independent contribution to parties’ constituency campaigns. The article provides an important opportunity to question whether the evolution of party organisations suggests that formal members may be less important than has been previously assumed in the conduct of election campaigns and the extent to which supporter activity complements that of members.

Their findings show that non-members help in significant ways. The difference between looking at members only and all helpers is a substantive one.

Even better, Fisher, Fieldhouse and Cutts have dug out some interesting findings which even a long time recruiter and organiser of non-member help in elections such as myself found interesting (and this is a good reminder of how well done political science research can find interesting things even in ‘obvious’ areas).

Take for example, the relative record of the parties at recruiting new non-member helps during the 2010 campaign:

% of local parties which recruited at least one non-member helper in 2o10

Conservative 75%
Labour 75%
Liberal Democrat 86%

For 14% of Lib Dem local parties to have not even recruited one non-member helper, despite all the boost of the first TV debate, is a rather worrying sign for the party (and matches my own mini-survey finding on membership recruitment).

As for the average number of helpers recruited:

Conservative 22
Labour 13
Liberal Democrat 19

As the authors conclude:

Evidence from various countries (including Britain) suggests that parties are increasingly open to (and indeed are encouraging) the involvement of party supporters who are not formal members. Our new evidence from the British general election of 2010 suggests that this may particularly be the case in election campaigns. These analyses have shown that the extent of supporter activity in elections may be much more extensive than might commonly have been thought. Over three quarters of constituency (district level) campaigns in Britain recruited supporters in 2010 and on average, supporters engaged in around two thirds of the activities of members…

It questions the idea of whether membership decline remains a key indicator of party decline. The analyses presented here suggest that parties may be adapting rather than necessarily failing; and that the apparently extensive role of supporters in party activities appears to point instead to party evolution rather than self-evident decline.

 

* Had political science been less in the grip of quantitative data and more open to, for example, historical skills the assumption about campaigns only being about members would have long since fallen, as instead political scientists would have looked back through the history of the published election guides from the parties and seen the picture it paints. There is a goldmine of information there about campaign organisation, campaign tactics and levels and means of political involvement which would greatly enhance the existing research.

 

You can read the other posts in the What do the academics say? series here.

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