Can we take people at their word (when it comes to political party membership)?

Earlier this year I was asked to pen a piece responding to the excellent research project into political party membership, What People Want To See In Parties Today. Here is what I had to say…

One of the major 20th century contributions to economics – both to economic theory and to controversy over economic theory – was Paul Samuelson’s revealed preference theory. It rests on the idea that you can work out what people really prefer by looking at the choices they make – and to extend the idea, that the best way of knowing what people really prefer therefore is to look at their choices rather than go by what they say. Judge people by their deeds and not by the words (or responses to political scientists and opinion pollsters).

It is an approach that has value to understanding politics too. Most notably, it is a well-established pattern that what people tell researchers about their likelihood of voting in an imminent election is not a sure guide to what their likelihood of voting actually turns out to be. Two factors cause this disconnect – a desire to give answers that are considered appropriate and a weakness at being able to predict our own future behaviour. Judge people, therefore, by their deeds as recorded in the marked register (which shows if they voted) rather than by the words directed at researchers.

The risks of asking people a question and taking their results at face value came to mind reading the excellent and innovative research in What People Want To See In Parties Today. Comparing it with my own experience as a party activist (who started being active before an embarrassingly large proportion of the party’s membership was born) of how the public views parties as revealed by their behaviour. As someone often deep inside my own party’s bureaucracy and committee paperwork, that experience is not just a personal accumulation of anecdotes but also one based on access to internal research and data on party membership too.

In many areas, the words of the public (the research in What People Want To See In Parties Today) match their deeds (how the public actually interact with parties). But not everywhere.

Take the question of campaigning at election time. A basic part of successful modern campaigns is the involvement not only of party members in the campaign but also non-members as helpers too. Recently political scientists such as Justin Fisher have started to document what has long been a feature of campaign how-to manuals and the reality of campaigns on the ground.

If we judge people by their deeds, it looks as if getting involved in campaigning for a party at election time is more popular than being a member, as it brings in a wider network of people. This also makes intuitive sense – helping a campaign is specific both in locus (it can be about helping just the one candidate in the one place) and in time (it is just about the one election), whilst joining a party is a more general and longer-term commitment. You would expect the former to be more popular than the latter.

Yet if we judge people by their words, in this new research, more people say they have not and could never imagine campaigning at election time than have not and could never imagine joining a party (79% to 75%). The figures are the wrong way round, it would appear. Likewise, donating money to a party comes out worse than joining a party even though the typical experience is the other way round – parties raise donations not only from their members but also from non-member donors.

The eagle-eyed will notice some details that need to be drilled into in more detail before attempting to resolve these apparent contradictions. For example, do members view their membership subscriptions as donations or not, and how many give more money in addition to their minimum required membership payment?

This apparent contrast between people’s words and deeds, therefore, is not a criticism of this research but rather a hope that it is the first of more – there is a fruitful mine of new research to be had in comparing, contrasting and then understanding how these two different perspectives line up or differ.

What People Want To See In Parties Today is an excellent first step in that direction.

One response to “Can we take people at their word (when it comes to political party membership)?”

  1. It took me a while to get my mind round paragraphs 6 and 7, but I can say that having recently rejoined after a conscious and intended lapse, I am now paying the full amount for membership and from time to time will be contributing extra though extremely small amounts. I could not help campaign at all now due to age and health even though it was once a part of what I felt was my political identity, so I was prepared to bleed inwardly as I committed to the full amount. – I think for others, as for myself, donating small amounts of money to worthy causes online is a new kind of skill we have learned from being led by organisations such as Avaaz, 38 Degrees, and a myriad other world saving orgs and all creature charities etc that have at last given us a voice. We sign the petition, get feedback and sometimes success. It feels good. – This is ’empowerment’ and I believe that is regarded as one of the things that makes people happy. Maybe this means we are actually learning new social behaviours with online groups of similar-minded people but of course we are still working out ‘how it operates with regard to our response to ‘Power in the Wrong Hands’. – As regards the Lib Dems, the Brexit effect has you/them talking now for far more of the population than for many decades previously, and people like me are listening and probably many more almost willing to commit but perhaps being held back by previous loyalties. – I had the advantage of knowing that I came from a Liberal voting family, at least a far back as my grandfathers and why I mention this is that I feel people need to be reminded loud and clear that Libs was once the ‘other’ party in politics for which their not-so far-back-ancestors would have cast their votes. I’ve noticed that most of my compatriots are not big on history, so maybe they need to be asked if they really know how their ancestors voted to put the necessary question in their minds as to why they are voting for someone or some party. Knocking on doors when I was younger, it was great to hear someone talk positively about ‘any’ politician who had helped them with a particular problem. You could respect them for their choice of vote, but I used to get sick of people saying ‘what do the Liberals/Lib Dems stand for?’ At this point in time though, I think this may be becoming increasingly apparent. I hope so.

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