We versus you: the difference between members and supporters

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.

* Yes.

10 responses to “We versus you: the difference between members and supporters”

  1. On the BBC – 6 things – report by Jonathan Blake, he said “The Liberal Democrats don’t do anything in a hurry.”. It strikes me that we have a moment of opportunity here and we can’t blow it but waiting 2 more years.

    We need to start a very simple, very powerful, but also very non-intrusive scheme right now and we need to explain this to all members. This part should NOT be a consultation. It just makes sense to capture interest from a broad spectrum and then communicate messages to these people. We don’t need any more talk about electing leaders at this stage. That part IS under consultation, along with the ongoing role of supporters in the party.

    Local parties (and therefore the National party) could massively benefit from new supporters and this could be a major help for the 2019 elections (never mind any GE).

    So we should send a clear message now to members that we are ONLY trying to get the messages out and get helpers in and nothing else will happen until we have consulted.

  2. We have over 1000 GDPR-qualified email addresses in our ward, a 59% opening rate for monthly eFocus, only 1 or 2 a month drop-outs, a full Focus delivery team mainly non members. None show the slightest interest in joining any scheme, and there’s nothing in it for us locally to try to persuade them. It ain’t broke….how many members will downgrade to supporters in areas like us because they’re still “us” but can save a bit. Now there’s an idea…we persuade them to switch from member to supporter and give the money to the local party instead of HQ….

    • The vast majority of members already pay more, often much more, than they need to – because they pay a higher membership sub that the minimum of £12 a year. The average is in fact multiples of that, not just a few pence above it. So if members could already save lots of money by cutting their subs to the minimum and don’t, why would you expect them to suddenly want to start saving money on what they give the party in future?

  3. Associate members should not be able to vote for a leader but should be able to put down a preference which the members can discuss to make a final decision on, They then have a say (even if the individuals preference does not win) in the leader competition. There must be a time limit on the procedure so it does not drag on in uncertainty.

  4. I must admit I’m wholly confused by the exercise – not least by the recent party questionnaire on the matter. I am all for communicating greater awareness of who the LDs are and what policies we pursue, but I feel the party needs to equip itself with better leadership if it’s to sell its vision to a wider audience. We need a distinctive voice – both in person and policy that people want to associate themselves with.

    • Rachel: leadership and messaging are important; I’d add that organisation is important too, hence it being worth spending time on working out how to improve it. What is it about the consultation you’ve found confusing?

  5. I am a strong proponent of a supporters/ associate member scheme, there is nothing better to commit people to working for or donating to the movement than feeling they ‘belong’ to us. By ‘joining’ something you actually adopt it and take a share of responsibility in it. Supporters should be registered for no fee, and get no ‘service’ for it, other than be added to the email circulations, but nominal membership should start at £1.. As you say the vast majority of us pay far more than we have to into the party, so setting the membership fee annually is really arbitrary nonsense, far better to say what the ‘advisory’ fee is and leave it at that. Just look how much people pay, annually, for membership of National Trust or RSPB..!

  6. Hi Mark,

    I think that you are on the right lines with this idea. The problem, as I see it, is that many Liberal minded people are also liberal minded people. Groups just don’t appeal. If the party wants to secure my vote then they need a message that appeals to me – and what better way to do this than to seek my input? But as soon as you put up barriers like having to join the party to have any sort of influence then you are doing the exact thing that will put your voters off.

    Both Labour and the Tories are authoritarian parties. Whether left of right the idea of grouping up and putting party before anything else appeals to them. Whether it is the idea of being in a union or a gentlemans’ club the effect is the same – groups appeal to people who are minded in this way.

    This is why the LD party appeals to so few people. The values that you have is not matched by the direction that you set because those few people who are very interested in joining a group are the ones setting that direction. Take Brexit as a prime example: the LD party I thought was the one that championed the individual over the group, wanted decentralisation, and thought that political decisions were better when they were made closer to the people that they affected? And yet there is no party more obsessively pro-EU than the Lib Dems. Economic reasons included that is a square that just cannot circle – you cannot claim you want devolved decision making and support membership of the most centralised of bureaucracies.

    The result is that those interested in joining the party do a terrible job of representing the interests of classic liberals like myself. I loved your last manifesto. I despaired at your leaders. I was confused by your direction and your values being so at odds.

    Maybe, just maybe, if the party didn’t put up such barriers they might get a clear sense of who they are supposed to be representing.

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