“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.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.