Opinon: Don’t confuse declining membership with a decline in interest in politics

A couple of months ago I was thinking about going to the Glasgow conference. I’d never been before. ‘You’ll enjoy it’ said some fellow local party members, “and you can be a voting rep too if you decide soon.”

My wife spotted the chance of a weekend away from the children.

‘Can I come?’

‘Well I was hoping you’d come but you’ll have to join the party’

So we both decided to go at the last minute, with her joining the party the week before. With a little complication on getting her security cleared we went for three days until we’d exhausted the goodwill of babysitting grandparents.

First impressions were not great.  We had no idea what to do, where to pick up our passes, what was on the agenda or where to go.  Important looking people milled past with clipboards and the place was like a rabbit warren, endless corridors looping round on themselves. However we made it into the main conference room eventually and sat down for our first debate.

What struck us first was the sheer quality of the debate.  I found myself being convinced of the benefits of policies I would have been staunchly against and then flipping back to my original position when the next speaker would talk.  Keeping the higher rate tax rate at 45p was one of those debates, where an amendment to increase the rate to 50p was defeated by 4 votes. ‘Should have joined earlier’ said my wife, who went as a non-voting member.

What brought me to write this post however is the change in wife’s political persuasion since the conference.  She is now a committed Liberal Democrat. Without any prompting from me when friends were round last week and the conversation got vaguely political, she passionately arguing Liberal Democrat policies, even defending Nick on tuition fees.

This got me thinking if the liberal baptism of my wife could be achieved nationally if we could get more people to attend events like this. Some ideas:

  1. More emphasis on regional conferences. I imagine the biggest impediment to attending conference is the travel and babysitting.
  2. Shorter, 1 day weekend themed ‘summits’ around specific policy areas, such as family issues,  youth unemployment.
  3. Encourage non-members who have an interest in the policy area to attend.  For example invite Mumsnet users to attend the family conference or youth groups for the youth unemployment summit.
  4. Combine this with an ‘e-affiliation’ where people can become associate members of the party for free.

It’s important we don’t confuse declining membership of all parties with a decline in interest in politics.  People are passionate about politics but not all of politics, just what matters to them. My wife was deeply interested in the ‘porn filter’ debate, but snored through a fringe meeting on UK growth policy.  We need to engage with people on the things that matter to them and maybe get some more liberal baptisms in the process.

* Gareth Wilson is a Videogame Director turned Liberal Democrat activist who blogs here

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12 Comments

  • “It’s important we don’t confuse declining membership of all parties with a decline in interest in politics.”

    Indeed. But the membership in all political parties, and by voters in general, is because it is now the accepted norm, that politicians, tend to say one thing to accrue votes, and then do exacly the opposite when in power.
    There is therefore, no trust in mainstream politicians, or politics in general, and it is unlikely to get any better until politicians indulge in ingtegrity, and pursuing what they say they will do.

  • Alex Meredith 30th Sep '13 - 9:36am

    Great post. Also more facilities to allow delegates to bring children eg. a crèche (even if just for the weekend) would be much appreciated.

  • Simon Banks 30th Sep '13 - 4:05pm

    John Dunn:

    Are you under the impression that politicians once upon a time always kept to their word? No, although every political dishonesty (of which making and then abandoning the student finance pledge was one) hurts politics, the rise of the orthodoxy that politicians “are all the same” and “are all just in it for themselves” – which is so evidently and ludicrously unfair, it still makes me spitting angry – has other causes. One is the campaign in the Murdoch press. After all, if democratic politics is abandoned as hopeless, people like Murdoch have it so much easier. Another is declining understanding of the reasons why compromises have to be made and genuine intentions can prove to be undeliverable. A third is the decline in party affiliation. In places like Merthyr or Doncaster around 1955, I’d guess many voters realised some of their leaders were dishonest in one way or another, but they were Labour and that was what counted. Remember that for some forty years, polls have shown people’s opinion of MPs in general to be low and declining, but ask them what they think of their own MP and the satisfaction is on average much higher. In other words, there’s an assumption against the political class that’s impervious to positive experiences of actual individual politicians.

    To go back to the original issue – good point, Gareth. Membership of political parties has declined drastically, but interest in political issues hasn’t. The problem is that, as the Arab Spring activists have discovered, to win the long battles you need lasting organisation. Yes, your suggestions make sense and I’d like to look at other ways of engendering more political discussion within the party at local level so someone who’s interested in the issues but not yet someone with a Pavlovian reaction to a by-election gets somethign for their membership fee.

  • John Dunn, “Indeed. But the membership in all political parties, and by voters in general, is because it is now the accepted norm, that politicians, tend to say one thing to accrue votes, and then do exacly the opposite when in power.
    There is therefore, no trust in mainstream politicians, or politics in general, and it is unlikely to get any better until politicians indulge in ingtegrity, and pursuing what they say they will do.”

    There is no such thing as a politician, only citizens elected into certain positions by other citizens, Political parties are not meant to be fan clubs of unchangeable politicians. If things are bad then logically more people should be joining political parties in order to change things. I know that people don’t think like that and only small numbers of people are doing that, but that is the root problem, not that there are fewer fan club members than before.

  • Ian Eiloart 1st Oct '13 - 12:55pm

    On rabbit warrens: unfortunately the Glasgow Conference centre is the worst I’ve been to. It took me four attempts to find the main hall from the entrance to the centre. That’s appalling, and none of the other conference centres I’ve been to are anything like as complicated. I’m glad you enjoyed the debate once you’d found it!

  • Nigel Jones 1st Oct '13 - 1:29pm

    I remember reading a book many years ago by someone called David Jenkins; he analysed the behaviour of political parties since the end of the 19th Century and gave many illustrations showing how all of them had done thinks in government which were very different and sometimes the complete opposite of what they had said in their election campaigns or when in opposition. So this is nothing new.
    I suspect that people’s expectations have risen, together with a focus on particular policies rather than the basic principles and perceived allegiances of each party. Thus, less people now vote Labour just because they are working class and less people vote Conservative just because they are well-off; in one sense this is a good thing, though the emergence of UKIP suggests that some of these people are voting less on principle and allegiances than before but rather on a very narrow self-centred, even xenophobic approach. As Vince has recently written, identity seems to be raising its head as a factor in a very different way from that of the past.
    However, there are some hopeful signs in that people are ready and willing to support campaigns on particular issues; look at the rise of 38 degrees, for example and internationally, Avaaz.

  • Nigel Jones 1st Oct '13 - 2:09pm

    I must add to my comment. If people join us as a result of just one particular policy, then there is the great risk, that when the party goes cold on that or changes its mind, they will leave. When encouraging people to join, they need to know and understand our basic principles also.
    I welcome the motion at September conference which quoted one small but important part of our party principles; we need to highlight these more, as well as state forward-looking policy.

  • daft ha'p'orth 1st Oct '13 - 5:12pm

    @Nigel Jones
    “When encouraging people to join, they need to know and understand our basic principles also.”
    Go ahead: what are your basic principles? And yes, I know about the Lib Dem Constitution, but I’m assuming you are thinking of something slightly more concrete?

    Honestly I don’t think it’s very realistic to suggest that recent Lib Dem activity in Coalition coherently reflects any ‘basic principles’, beyond those of self-preservation, but then again I’m a cynic.

  • @ Alex Meredith
    There is a creche at conference! We knew it wouldn’t work for us as our 2 year old is pretty clingy at his own nursery let alone being left with some new people so we didnt look into it too deeply.

    Having some sort of ‘Kids Club’ activities for children could be fantastic though. I always think of the Ikea model, where you can throw your kids in the jungle gym for a couple of hours and do your shopping in peace. My kids love going to Ikea and so do we! It would be a really visible example of how the party is trying to be inclusive and family friendly.

    @ Nigel – I think we need to be thinking more creatively than people being ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the party. We could have ‘associate’ members that support certain aspects of what we do but not others. We could operate more like change.org where we champion indidual issues that fit with Liberal values. Just having a communication channel open to them via email/twitter/facebook on that particular issue could make all the difference come the election.

  • daft ha'p'orth 4th Oct '13 - 8:24pm

    @Gareth Wilson
    ” We could have ‘associate’ members that support certain aspects of what we do but not others. We could operate more like change.org where we champion indidual issues that fit with Liberal values”

    I like that idea very much.

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