Myths about party membership

Given the current debate in the party over membership and over supporters schemes, it seems a good time to give another airing to this article which (minus a few minor updates) first appeared in Liberator last year.

People often draw a pessimistic picture of the state of politics based on the declining membership totals across all political parties and the contrasting much larger membership figures for some pressure groups. For example, the RSPB on its own has more members than all the UK political parties combined – and political party membership is on a long-term downward trend. So is it all doom and gloom?

By coincidence, shortly after reading such an article in Liberator last year, I came across membership and local group numbers for Friends of the Earth, and they suggest a rather different perspective.

First – those Friends of the Earth figures. Its membership currently is roughly the same as the Liberal Democrat membership. The RSPB may have more members than all parties put together, but one of the leading environmental campaign bodies does not even have a clear membership lead over the smallest of the three main parties.

And get beyond membership figures into active local group figures and political parties come out even better – for the Liberal Democrats have roughly double the number of active local parties compared with Friends of the Earth’s active local groups.

So yes, the biggest and most successful pressure and lobby groups do very well compared to political parties in terms of headline membership figures, but is that the right comparison to make? The RSPB is unusual, even amongst pressure groups, in being so very large – so people who use it as a yardstick for judging parties need to justify using it rather than a smaller more typical organisation.

Second – what has really happened with the overall level of political activity over the last few decades? Again, the normal picture painted is one of declining activity – how many campaigns these days aim for a 100% canvass for example? Throw in a few anecdotes about how hard it is to find tellers and how few window posters appear these days and the case appears conclusive.

But scratch under the surface, and there has been a major change in the sort of activity that campaigns – particularly in the Liberal Democrats – involve.

Essentially, delivering literature has become massively more important. Consider the 1970 election. A post-election survey of agents in marginal seats (note – marginal seats) by David Butler and Michael Pinto-Duschinsky found that three-quarters sent an individual election address to each elector (the others only sent one per household), a majority produced one extra leaflet and a minority produced a third general leaflet. In other words – less literature in a whole campaign than you would typically get in a marginal seat nowadays in the last week alone.

Therefore whilst I do not quibble with people who say there are fewer posters and less doorstep contacts than there used to be, has the overall level of engagement in political campaigns really fallen?

It depends to a large extent on the relative importance you give to one brief doorstep conversation (much more likely in 1970) to receiving an extra ten items of literature (much more likely in 2005). This is not an easy judgement to make – personal contact has much to commend it, but in terms of information and even policy content, I strongly suspect the ten items of literature beat the doorstep question about who you are going to vote for.

So whilst pressure groups have overall undoubtedly increased in size and importance in recent decades, the picture for political parties is more mixed. Even in the areas of public meetings and being a fulcrum of local social events – two other activities often considered part of the golden age past that has been and gone for parties – the long term trend is not simply a downward one. On public meetings, a trawl through campaign guides from the main parties show that over the last two decades the popularity of public meetings as a campaign tool – inside or outside election time – has waxed and waned. Whilst the packed public election meetings are largely a thing of the past, the last two decades has seen, if anything, a modest revival in the role of public meetings, at least judged by the information that can be gleaned from party campaign guides. This is only indirect and tentative evidence – but it makes for a stronger case than any simple assumption that public political meetings must be in long term decline, end of story.

Similarly, whilst political parties are no longer the centre of social events in the way that – most notably – the Young Conservatives used to be, there is again reasonable though tentative evidence that matters have been improving in recent years. Within the Liberal Democrats, for example, there has been the spread of “pizza and politics” evenings, most clearly signified by the way in which that phrase has become an increasingly normal part of the Liberal Democrat vocabulary in the last ten years. The growth and spread of such events is reflected in the way that more and more people know what the phrase signifies, even if they don’t all have such events in their own areas.

So the conclusion I draw from this is that whilst people are absolutely right to emphasise the importance of building up the party’s membership, we also need to recognise that the strength of modern political parties’ organisation increasingly lies outside the formal definition of membership. For a range of reasons, membership of political parties is much less appealing now than it used to be. But much activity – including attendance at policy discussion events, delivering literature, putting up posters and talking to neighbours – can also be done by supporters who are not (yet) members.

(And it’s another interesting unknown question to ask how good or bad current party membership is if you compare the total members and helpers mailing lists that get regular newsletters and invitations to social events then and now. For Liberal campaign guides from the 1950s and 1960s emphasise only membership where current practice is to emphasise the much larger pool of helpers – which suggests that whilst membership has fallen, the number of helpers may well have risen.)

That is why the answer to building up the party’s grassroots strength lies not just in recruiting more members but also building up the wider network of supporters – regardless of one’s views as to how formal or otherwise their status in the party should be. The internet in particular provides many new opportunities for this.

Through the internet you can communicate with people and build up teams of workers even if people are spread around the country. For example, the regular volunteers who help me in my day-to-day work in Cowley Street are all scattered all around the country. Many of them I have only briefly (if ever) met face-to-face but courtesy of the internet they can all make valuable contributions.

The same applies to people campaigning on the ground in constituencies – friends and relatives may not all be conveniently located within the ward or constituency you are fighting, but again email, blogs, social networking sites and many other tools make it much easier to marshal help from wherever people happened to be physically located.

Reaching out to the public too, using tools such as OurCampaign to run online campaigns on individual local issues means you can reach people who leaflets otherwise would not get to – because they are in a street where you don’t have a deliverer, or because they are in a multiple occupancy that has only one shared letterbox drowning in pizza leaflets, or because they are in an inaccessible block of flats or live on a far-flung farm.

There are now more people who use the internet in the UK than who vote in elections, so without a presence on the internet, parties pass up on a huge potential well of helpers and supporters. Tools like Flock Together now provide easy ways to advertise events and draw in a new and larger audience, and even the occasional new activist – a real bonus!

That the party fights more local elections now than it used to is also a cause for greater optimism than the usual picture of gloom, especially as we now sometimes even manage to field more candidates than Labour.  But the fact that we are still short of the number of Conservative candidates in local elections, and a long way short of putting up full slates across the country, shows there is much still to do.

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