Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Membership: a dilemma that deserves some thought

Membership has been one of the primary battlegrounds in terms of ideas during the campaign, and it seems like a good time to add my tuppence ha'penny to the discussion. Before I continue though, I feel it necessary to emphasise that this article doesn't represent a critique of the proposals, or of those making them, more an airing of the issues that have triggered such thought.

Membership has steadily dropped, consistent with the wider withdrawal of the public from political parties. I've been Chair, Treasurer, Secretary and Membership Secretary of my Local Party and one thing that I've noticed is that successful Local Parties do one of two things. First, they win elections. It's amazing how much easier it is to attract people when you are able to wield power and/or influence. Second, they provide regular newsletters and activities (not just campaigning). If you do both, all the better.

The ability to win elections is not always within your control. However, putting out a members newsletter every two months, and organising a social event every month is not as difficult. Note that I didn't say easy. In a Party where the cult of the campaigner is uppermost, finding members willing to produce newsletters and organise quiz evenings, pizza and politics nights or annual dinners is not easy. If you find one, treat him or her kindly...

All three candidates want to increase participation, and all have offered differing routes to getting there. Lembit proposes the least radical option of all, going out there and signing up more members. He has suggested setting individual targets for each Local Party and the first challenge is to overcome their sovereignty. After all, the carrot for retaining members is somewhat poor:
  • 20% of locally collected renewals

  • 50% on locally originated direct debits for the first time

  • 20% on ongoing direct debits

And, if an individual Local Party fails to reach its target, what is the punishment for failure? The reward for success? Again, we have awards for increased membership, but I've never heard one of my Local Parties mention them as an incentive.
Ros, on the other hand, proposes a form of associate membership. Local Parties are incentivised to recruit by a 100% share of the income generated. As long as Local Parties don't trick the system by converting full members to associates, it should help to some extent. Just how much is the question? And here, perhaps, the thoughts of Irfan Ahmed might have a part to play. If full membership comes with certain advantages (a 1% discount on energy bills through a significant supplier, a 5% discount on rail fares?), this would discourage such moves.

The most radical proposal comes from Chandila, the notion of effectively abolishing membership and replacing it with a declared supporter scheme, similar to the system which applies in the United States.

I retain an interest in American politics, and acknowledge that such a system works well... there. However, there are only two political parties of any significance, and each raises vast sums of money with which to campaign. There are three key questions which require an answer;
  • Who picks the leader and the candidates? The Democrats don't have a political leader per se. The Chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is selected by members of that group. Candidates are selected by means of primaries, funded by the States.

  • Who decides the policy? For the Democrats, to be blunt, predominantly the candidates. The Platform Committee of the DNC meets irregularly and pretty infrequently, and agrees only the broad outline rather than the detail.

  • Who makes the decisions? Democrats organise on a state and county basis, and a lot of positions are filled by appointment.
The Party becomes a vehicle for campaigning individuals, with little control over the policy or the candidate. It's a model which is so far removed from the familiar that it would require a huge cultural change in the way we do things. It would also potentially require an vast increase in the resourcing required to reach our supporters, although this might be balanced by an increase in donations.

In turn, the costs of selecting candidates, and of selecting the local organisational leadership, are potentially ruinous. Alternatively, you could appointment the organisational leadership, which requires a top down approach whereby the leader selects federal leadership, who then select regional leaders, local leaders and so on. Can you do this and retain the essence of liberal democracy within it?

There are no easy solutions to the issues of member recruitment, retention and engagement. However, in a political environment where funds are in short supply, and where the public are deeply suspicious of the notion that state funding is the way forward, an ability to increase the pool of activists and participants will be vital to success for all of the British political parties.

Regardless of whoever wins, their success will be keenly wished for...


Anonymous said...

"As long as Local Parties don't trick the system by converting full members to associates"

If members decide to become associate members because the membership fee is too high, local parties will be accused of tricking the system?

You have just lost Ros my vote...

Mark Valladares said...

Hi Anonymous,

As you have wilfully twisted my comments, I'm going to have to assume that you weren't planning to support Ros anyway.

Two mistakes though...

First, your presumption that I speak for, or as, Ros, is insulting. Astonishingly, I have my own opinions and, as those who know me will testify, I've been writing on internal party matters since long before I met Ros.

Second, there is a vast difference between members opting to switch to associate membership for reason of cost, and local parties converting members to associate status for their own financial advantage. I'm not saying that it will happen, merely highlighting a risk that exists, and which needs to be evaluated. This post was intended to be a neutral look at the risks and opportunities, remember.

Sad, really, that someone hiding behind the shroud of anonymity should choose to misrepresent my comments so blatantly. I hope that you're proud of yourself...