Members and committed supporters: two different tribes

“If they support us, why don’t they join us?” That question has regularly come up in various forms during the debates ahead of this weekend’s Lib Dem spring conference and the proposals to create a registered supporters scheme (background here). The implication is that if someone really supports the party, really wants us to do well and really does exist, they should join us.

What, alas, has been rather little mentioned, though, is the evidence. Because there’s good, solid evidence about not only why committed supporters of parties decided not to join them, and also why they make those decisions.

How to make the most of the Lib Dem registered supporter scheme: advice and toolkit

Now that the party has created a registered supporter scheme, a great pack of advice is available from Lib Dem HQ on how to make the most of it. more

So I thought it’d be useful to re-run the following piece from Liberal Democrat Newswire which took a look at some of the evidence. The key point for me from the evidence is simply this. Being a member of a political party appeals disproportionately to the minority of people who are like me. If we really want to be inclusive as a party, we need to do far better at reaching everyone else. Which is why our response shouldn’t be “well they should just join us then” but rather, “how can we make ourselves more appealing to those who choose not to join us?”.

Here’s that piece…

Members and committed supporters: two different tribes

Members of political parties vary in significant ways from committed supporters of parties who have decided not to join. That’s one of the conclusions from new research shortly to appear in Western European Politics, based on extensive survey research and titled, “Why do only some people who support parties actually join them? Evidence from Britain “.

Here is the summary of how members and committed supporters differ, before unpacking what it means for the Liberal Democrats:

The factors that clearly distinguish members from supporters, and may go furthest in explaining why they bother to join up, are being male, better educated and coming from higher up the social hierarchy (i.e. having more resources), being socially liberal and ideologically more radical (for parties on the left), having a strong sense of personal and collective political efficacy, strong expressive belief in a particular party and altruistic belief in the wider importance of political participation, a perception of the value of selective process and outcome benefits, involvement in other civil society organisations, and not being overly deterred by the time commitment of being a member.

There are three key implications from this for the Liberal Democrats.

First, there is something about party membership that ends up appealing more to those who already benefit the most from how our society and economy work. Members are more likely to be male, well educated and higher up the social hierarchy than the committed supporters of a party. Membership is exclusive in a way that liberals should chaffe about and want to fix.

Second, those who join parties have a stronger belief in the power of individual and collective action than those who don’t. That suggests that the way to win over committed supporters to activism on behalf of a party is to show them ways in which their individual and collective voice can be powerful – running effective campaigns which involve them and show the power of working together. That makes having a scheme of some sort which brings people together short of membership potentially very effective – provided that it is a scheme which leads to campaigning and not simply being a marketing list.

Third, there is the perception of how time-consuming being a member is. To expand on the finding quoted above, “it is supporters who perceive the cost of party activism (in terms of the time they presume it takes up) to be higher than members, who know how much time it involves “. This illustrates the potential benefit of having a scheme that allows people to feel they are signing up to something less time consuming than being a member of a party. (Fellow party members may think ‘but they’re wrong, plenty of members spend no time on being a member’. You’d be right, but knowing people have a mistaken view is not enough; we also need to find ways to change that.)

The research finds also that the committed supporters think members have different motives for joining parties than members themselves have – again pointing to a mismatch in perspectives which a registered supporters scheme can help with by providing an alternative to the view non-members have of party membership.

Find out more about what Tim Bale’s research tells us in my podcast with him.

Thank you to Tim Bale for providing a pre-publication (but post-peer review) copy of the research carried out with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb.

6 responses to “Members and committed supporters: two different tribes”

  1. Excellent post, Mark – I feel better informed now about the pro’s & con’s of the proposed registered supporter’s scheme.

  2. I have put my thoughts on LDV but ,at the moment, this is a side show for AFTER the local elections that we should be putting our efforts into, no matter what part,large or small,supporters or members should be concentrating on.Navel gazing at the moment should not be what we are doing.

  3. Interesting article. I am a member, but I have no interest in becoming a councilor, MP or an other elected official. There is a perception that membership means you must give 100% of your time and effort to the cause. Very few people can do this and not everyone is single-minded enough to have the determination to succeed in these roles, especially if, as in my case, you live in an area which has been a desert for the Lib Dems and the flag has been been flown by half a dozen battle-hardened individuals. I am prepared to put leaflets through doors, I like meeting up with fellow Lib Dems for social events and I feel my membership is a reflection of my political views and an act of solidarity with the party that best represents them. Whilst we should cherish those very special individuals who are prepared to give their all for the party, we should not expect everyone who is a member to be that committed.
    By the way, having been at the conference last September and having heard Paddy Ashdown give what maybe was his last address to the large gathering on the supporters scheme and opening up of the party, I am disappointed that nothing seems to have come of it. I fear that with the formation of TIG, we may have missed the boat to try and become a mass movement.

    • Rory: the measures Paddy was arguing for are now up for decision at the conference this weekend. So, fingers crossed, something may very well yet come of them. Like you, for me that was the last speech of his I heard too. What a great speech it was.

  4. A while ago a Canadian Ph.D student asked me to define the Liberals “Nice but naive” was the phrase I came up with. I am white working class, and I would urge the Liberals to play to their strengths – civil liberty and human rights and top being a one trick pony (Brexit). Do as Labour did and have a cut price membership for ex servicemen, plus other groups. Otherwise the Liberals will merely be in a ghetto of “nice” which does not see the seedier side of Britain.

  5. I agree with Ciaran Coggins. I joined the Liberal Party after the 1979 General Election. A white working class male with no formal qualifications and as that stood as a Liberal Parliamentary Candidate for Makerfield in 1987. Several years later at the age of forty I went to Lancaster University and got a BA(hons) after gaining credits from the OU. I joined the Liberal Party after experiencing 20 years of working for low pay, poverty and homelessness. It was apparent to me that the two party Labour/Conservative cosy arrangement had to be broken. Alas, in my small way I am still trying. What annoyed me about the 2017 General Election was the blatant populist approach of expecting to attract the vote of the 48% who opposed Brexit. With just that and the Penny on the £Pound Income Tax increase (the biggest vote loser ever known) our support slumped even further.

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