During the Liberal Democrat conference in Brighton, one of the most frequent questions people asked me (coming a close second after “do you really still use a BlackBerry?”*) was about the proposals to introduce a registered supporters scheme. Regular readers will know I’ve long been a fan of the idea, and hence am pleased to see it migrate from being a fringe idea to being the subject of the conference’s largest fringe session.
But where should the line be drawn between members and supporters? There is lots of detailed work to go, along with some important arguments over principles (e.g. about who gets to vote for party leader) to come on this point. I have and will write more about that.
One thing that has been mostly missing, however, is a consideration of the broader emotional difference between being a member and a supporter. It’s this difference that drives the logic of having a registered supporters scheme rather than simply redoubling requests to people to join the party.
It’s the difference between “we” and “you”. For me, for example, if the Liberal Democrats do great at an election, it’s a matter of we did well. If the local Friends of Parkland Walk achieves a campaign success, I’d say to one of their leading light how well you had done. I don’t know the exact status of my standing with the Friends of Parkland Walk. Did my last donation give me any sort of voting rights? No idea. The key difference, though, is that emotional one. The Lib Dems are we, us, ourselves. The Friends are you, they, them.
That’s the distinction which explains why not everyone who supports a party, even actively supports it, wants to join. It’s the distinction that should power the working out of the exact difference between registered supporters and members.