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 chaffe 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.