Opinion: Beyond the membership card – how can we build a sustainable party model?

Liberal Democrat membership formsAs a candidate for next year’s local elections in Rotherhithe, I and my colleagues across Southwark have some excellent targets. They take the form of a campaign grid, which helpfully channels our collective and individual energy as we work towards the finishing line now set for 22 May 2014.

Pioneered in Hull, our grid targets include manageable voter contact numbers, aspirational targets for fundraising and, of course, a core aim of recruiting more members.

It is the latter target that got me thinking… Why join a political party?

For keen politicos such as me, the answer seems obvious: the chance to influence policy, vote to select candidates for office, campaign to elect colleagues and friends, and an opportunity to discuss politics with other liberals. For those for whom politics is at best a passing thought the answer is less obvious.

How, as Liberal Democrats, can we ‘sell’ the relevance of joining a political party to our voters, for whom joining seem so much less compelling?

In an era when membership of all mainstream political parties is in decline — total UK party membership was about 10% of the electorate in 1960, but only 1.2% by 2008 — why should someone sign on the dotted line and become a fully ‘pledged’ Lib Dem?

Apathy is overstated in my view: anecdotal evidence suggests that across all age groups people are interested in issues but less interested in parties.

I believe this is an area that senior figures in the party should actively look at and propose my suggestions here:

    1. Consider adopting a ‘supporter’ category for individuals who do not want to be members but perhaps see themselves as liberals or support the core causes we champion. Whilst this may lead to a loss of some members, it may lead to a rise in small-scale donations from such supporters.

    2. Pilot open primaries to get more people engaged in candidate selection. If this could be done in a cost-effective way it will inevitably lead to a wider range of people choosing Liberal Democrat candidates and see the party as relevant to them.

    3. Think about how we involve a broader range of local and national NGOs, think tanks and pressure groups in forming and debating policy through more inclusive policy forums.

I have no doubt there will be many more measures that colleagues may consider. Ultimately, we either need to accept that political party membership is in terminal decline, and try and arrest that decline through conventional means; or consider how we adapt as a party for the future through a more flexible, modern party format.

After all, as liberals we should never be afraid to think radically and embrace change where it is desirable – why should party structure be any different?

* James Fearnley is Vice Chair of Bermondsey and Old Southwark and a candidate for Rotherhithe in the 2014 elections.

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  • John Heyworth 30th Jun '13 - 3:13pm

    James asks: ” Why join a political party?” For many people who choose to join the Lib dems all they get for their membership subscription is a few hundred Focus leaflets to deliver, an endless number of requests for campaign funds , and if they’re in the right seat the odd function attended by their MP. In to many constituencies their is little engagement with the foot soldiers beyond leaflet delivering, no newsletters, very few social functions and no engagement with the local party hierarchy. There is little chance of getting involved with decision making as local executives are filled with people who have held their posts for years (Bed Blocking). Until these local parties change their approach and attitudes we’ll continue to recruit many members and lose them after a year. What are the real advantages of membership? Why pay to do something you can do for free?

  • Stephen Donnelly 30th Jun '13 - 4:50pm

    Membership is an area that the party must address. The ‘activist’ structure favours those who can commit large amounts of time to the party, and discourages those in full times work, parents & carers from playing an active role.

    This is a dilemma for the party because our current position was built upon the work of activists, but in many areas it is now in decline partly because we did not build on that success. This is similar to the problems faced by many start up companies who fail to grow because the owners keep tight control, and refuse to pass on power to the next generation. The party has a solid (but threatened) base of councillors, but has not developed other strong roots, in for instance the business community or the voluntary sector.

    In the early days of community politics success was only possible if the formal structures of the party were by-passed, but I suspect that in many parts of the country they were never replaced, and as the old (red) guard heads toward retirement, there is nothing to replace them.

    The whole process of decline is being quickened by the difficulty of defending local seats whilst taking difficult decisions in government.

  • Is there an AO or SAO that takes an interest in this sort of thing? Perhaps regional parties should take a lead?
    My guess is most local parties are focused on getting/retaining as many councillors as possible, and have been quite up against it recently.

  • David Evans 30th Jun '13 - 7:38pm

    Get a leader who actually believes that one objective of being in power is to deliver enough Liberal Democracy to encourage current members to stay in the party, rather than disillusion them to such an extent that they leave in droves?

  • The first comment is spot on. Why pay money to get given a load of leaflets and not even so much as a thank you?

  • David Evans is correct, I joined because I was enthused with overwhelming conference decisions to support the abolition of student fees, opposition to changes in the NHS, education, secret courts etc. .etc. only to find that the leadership took no notice. I was going to expand on this theme but I cant be bothered. My friends have already told me that I am wasting my time and do what they do – take no interest or action as they cant make any difference and just end up frustrated.

  • paul barker 1st Jul '13 - 2:19pm

    We should see talking to each other as being just as important as talking to the voters, a lot more effort should be put into socials & discussions.
    Party structure needs to be alot more flexible, able to reflect the reality on the ground. In a lot of urban areas it would make more sense to group Constituencies together as a complete Town or across a Local Authority.

  • @David Evans and chrisjs – spot on!

    I am particularly against open primaries. Why the hell should folk who do not wish to take the elementary step of joining the party have a say in who our candidates are? I suspect some in the leadership wants to push this, the more easily to bypass the politically-engaged membership who will put up a fight to defend the policies the party was built on? But our membership – what remains of it – is relatively sensible compared to other parties, especially the headbangers of the Tory right. The only real benefit membership confers is a VOTE. Dilute that, and there is even less reason to stay.

  • James Fearnley 2nd Jul '13 - 11:44am

    GPPurnell raises an important point about open primaries diluting one of the core reasons to join the party but my argument is that not enough people are feeling that is enough of a benefit anyway. I feel we are structured for the world we hope exists (with people wanting to join to have a say on membership) rather than the world as it is (with people probably interested on who makes it to the ballot paper but not in being a card-carrier).

  • I would favour the creation of a ‘supporter’ level along side full membership. I noticed a recent Labour leaflet that inferred this as an option. To be a ‘full’ card carrying member of a political party is not for every one, BUT a supporter level would appeal to some, engagement with the party with out the right to vote or hold office in the local party. To a fully committed activist this may not sound ‘pure’ ,but I feel we have to live with the reality that fewer people want to be a member of a party, but still show their support in a tangible way.

  • Matthew Huntbach 2nd Jul '13 - 10:26pm

    Open primaries are a horrendously illiberal idea. What they mean is that people are denied the right to get together and make a collective decision in their own name. Instead, the state (once the system is made a legal requirement) forces them to accept a whole load of others who may not be in agreement with the aims and purposes of the original group.

    The problem is that people seem to believe all parties operate on a sort of Leninist basis,whereby if you are a member you have to give up your own thoughts and become an uncritical supporter of the party line as dictated by The Leader. If we want to convince people to get active, we need to counter this view of political parties, by making it more clear that we DON’T operate in that way, that a liberal political party is a very different thing. Er, we don’t, do we?

  • James Fearnley 3rd Jul '13 - 8:57am

    I’m very much against open primaries being a legal requirement which is definitely illiberal. However, an open primary could be run exactly as Matthew Huntbach says it wouldn’t: people from the locality getting together at an allotted time, listening to candidates, talking about their own views, questioning candidates – pretty much as happens now but without cards being checked at the door. When party membership is so low, open primaries help counter the perception that it is only a small,narrow band of party loyalists who are choosing our future parliamentarians.

  • Alex Macfie 3rd Jul '13 - 9:28am

    In an open primary, how can the party be sure that the voters have its best interests at heart? How do you stop people antagonistic to the party registering and then voting for the weakest or most embarrassing candidate? Or, maybe, a candidate who is unpopular within the party from stuffing the ballot with extra-party supporters?
    I see absolutely no problem with saying that if people want to influence the party’s candidate selection, they should show some commitment to the party, which means becoming a member.

  • Matthew Huntbach 4th Jul '13 - 12:51pm

    James Fearnley

    However, an open primary could be run exactly as Matthew Huntbach says it wouldn’t: people from the locality getting together at an allotted time, listening to candidates, talking about their own views, questioning candidates – pretty much as happens now but without cards being checked at the door.

    Yes, but this means the decision on who is a Liberal Democrat isn’t made by the Liberal Democrats. So in effect you’ve taken away the ability of the Liberal Democrats, or any other group of people with a common set of aims and objectives to be able to come together and promote those aims and objectives, because you are saying any group must automatically accept anyone else coming along and taking it over even if they are opposed to its aims and objectives.

    Now, I appreciate you may be intending that this is a voluntary arrangement, and the party still does the shortlisting of potential candidates, so chooses who is put forward. However, I fear that once it is established, there will be pressures to make it compulsory, and to move to as it is in parts of the USA where anyone can put themselves forward as a primary candidate. So that really does mean a group of people coming together and saying “We are X”, and the state, by forcing open primaries saying “You have no right to do that, instead you must accept whoever we say is X to join you and change what is meant by X”.

    When party membership is so low, open primaries help counter the perception that it is only a small,narrow band of party loyalists who are choosing our future parliamentarians.

    Yes, but then you are accepting and promoting the very idea that it’s a bad thing for a group of people to get together and form an organisation with its own membership rules and requirements in order to protect its aims and objectives. Did the Tolpuddle Martyrs die in vain? (For the benefit of those who did not get the allusion, yes I know they did not actually die).

    I think we would do better to promote our party and what it is about in a way that didn’t make it seem small and narrow. I think it is a grave mistake that we have been constantly pressurised to do the opposite on the grounds that this is “modernisation”.

  • Matthew Huntbach 5th Jul '13 - 11:53pm

    John Heyworth

    There is little chance of getting involved with decision making as local executives are filled with people who have held their posts for years (Bed Blocking).

    I’ve never been in a local party yet where you couldn’t just step forward to a senior position on the executive. In my experience, most local parties are desperate for new people to come in and get active and take on the executive roles. If you turn up to any local party event and start talking, it’s hard NOT to be arm-twisted into taking on some executive role. If the same person has held the same role for years, it’s almost always because when it comes to the AGM, no-one puts themselves forward, and so they agree to carry on with a sigh.

  • Simon Banks 9th Jul '13 - 4:31pm

    James has raised some very important issues. Political party membership is indeed in long-term decline. As he says, at the same time plenty of people are interested in political issues. The decline should not be attributed to factors specific to individual parties or even political parties in general, as similar things are happening to other traditional organisations such as trade unions and churches (a decoupling of interest in spirituality from religious membership and commitment).

    The way political parties are traditionally set up is just not the way a lot of people want to operate now. A while back a voter asked me, with curiosity, why I got involved in politics. I started my reply by saying that when I was 20ish, if you wanted to change the world, joining a political party was a natural thing to do. Now many people regard it as weird.

    That doesn’t mean we should abolish all the old ways. As we’ve seen in the Arab Spring and on many other fields new forms of campaigning are often weak because their staying-power and ability to engage with the important, boring details do not match the big corporations, armies, traditional movements and suchlike. We need to find new ways of organising and link them to the old.

    In effect the category od supporter already exists informally. Especially in working-class areas, many people are prepared to help in some way (deliver, for example) but shy away from membership. The problem about this is that such people may give time and money, but have no voice in important decisions by the Party.

    That leads on to the question of primaries. In the U.S., some primaries are open and others restricted to registered supporters of the party (a category far wider than our membership). Because both major parties are holding primaries, crossover by voters who do not broadly support the party in whose primary they’re voting is on a small scale. That can’t be assumed here. U.S. style mass registration of voters as Labour, Conservative, Lib Dem or whatever seems very unlikely to work here. The problem about opening candidate selection to all people noted as supporters would be that malpractice (stuffing the lists of supporters) would become much easier. It’s a very clear-cut issue whether someone is a party member or not.

    However, I do think the kind of thing James suggests could be made advisory, with the results publicised. A candidate who was clearly ahead by this method would be hard to stop in the actual selection unless members knew something pretty terrible. Similarly, all supporters should be invited to meetings and on-line events, The internet makes this vastly easier.

    Finally, I don’t recognise John Heyworth’s description of a local party. Most are eager for new blood. They may not be very good at asking and at identifying which helpers might move forward, but anyone who actually expresses an interest in joining the Exec who has shown him/herself a willing helper will be pushing at an open door in the vast majority of cases. In addition many have Exec meetings open to all members and as votes are rare, a non-Exec member with something to say will have almost as much influence as an Exec member. In our local party we e-mail all members with details of socials, Exec meetings and political events unless they request otherwise. We had a protest from someone who said he was prepared to receive e-mails from the national party, but would we kindly stop bothering him with e-mails about local socials and canvassing, or he’d not renew!

    But ask people who are willing helpers and you’ll find most are rather horrified by the idea. Still it’s vital to ask.

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