An essential guide to understanding political party membership

For several years now, Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti have been the stand-out stars of research into British political party membership thanks to their detailed surveys not only of political party members but also of other supporters of parties. That comparison between members and non-member supporters has thrown up some of their most original insights.

Their new book, Footsoldiers: political party membership in the 21st century presents this research in a highly accessible way, making it not only an important contribution to academic understanding but also a useful guide for those who are involved in the running of political parties.

In particular, they highlight something I’d reported on before about their research:

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.

As I wrote when first citing this finding of theirs:

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 chafe about and want to fix.

In other words, when it comes to figuring out the best way to involve more people in a political party saying ‘those people should just join the party’ is rather discriminatory in practice. If your idea of involving people is to insist they join, your idea of involving people is one that is well-tuned for attracting well-educated affluent white men but not for attracting others.

To make political parties properly representative, we need not only to continually make extra efforts to attract into membership people for whom the basic concept is less appealing. We need also to look for other ways to involve people which don’t come with that discriminatory drawback, such as for the Liberal Democrats building on the early successes of the party’s registered supporters scheme.


You can get Footsoldiers: political party membership in the 21st century by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti from Amazon or Hive.

7 responses to “An essential guide to understanding political party membership”

  1. I’d disagree that creating a new class of “members” is necessary to change the demographic.
    IME it’s not the structures of membership that put off women, young people and BAME- it’s the fact that few of the existing members are women, young or BAME. People don’t like to join groups that don’t already contain people like them.

    I’d be really interested to see some data on membership of LP’s based on demographics of existing execs.

  2. This is also about inequality.

    Those that can join political parties and feel that they can make a contribution, have the financial resources to do so and may not be constrained with work/family life commitments. It is interesting that the research indicates Males fit this bracket more than females. This also leads to the fact that the state leans towards the female looking after children rather than men. It is interesting to note that this is definitely changing though – https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jan/12/parents-workplace-families-survey-flexibility

    In essence people do not have the time now that they had in the days when political party memberships were in their peak.

    As Lib Dems we need to solve the work / life inequality equation for everyone and party membership numbers will follow and increase……

  3. Well, I. Half agree with Mark.
    I disagree with our system though.
    Having dome it, I agree with inviting local people to ‘register’ but locally
    This gives precise address and does not open them to requests for money.
    In our case we got extra delivery, if modest, and a feeling that they saw themselves as part of the team. the box where we did it is still one of our best boxes. And survived Coalition.
    Sadly the Party voted for a national scheme.

  4. The idea that the party is full of middle aged, white, middle class men is only partially true. Our local party chair is a woman in her thirties and in 2017 our GE candidate was in his early twenties. Perpetrating the false idea that new members will find themselves in a heterogeneous world of older white men is in itself part of the problem.

    • Chris – those examples you mention are very welcome and we certainly shouldn’t risk putting people off by exaggerating the scale of the problem. What’s also true, alas, is that the data on both Lin Dem party membership and also on party activists (e.g. local party officers or council candidates) shows some very big issues for us to overcome if we want to be as diverse as the electorate or as Lib Dem voters. For example, men dominate party membership, party posts and local government in a proportion well beyond their share of the population or Lib Dem voters.

  5. Interesting but as I woman activist I have always known this and it’s true of other groups I’ve joined, eg Advanced Motorists; Allotment Gardeners.

    I have just one question, what exactly do you, as President, intend to do about or should I ask a man to repeat the question?

    Yours ffly
    Miss Triggs

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