Kate Dommett and Luke Temple are to be congratulated on both researching and promoting the critical issues that face not just our political parties but our democratic well-being. How to recruit and engage members? How to get those members interested and involved in key activities? And, how membership can be retained once substantial recruitment has been achieved?
Way back in the 60s and 70s the debate was raging about whether those interested in ‘issues’ were more likely to join single issue campaigns and interest groups than they were political parties. Some of those interest groups, a number providing services, were highly successful. The RSPB has always been held up as a prime example.
Motivation to join, ease of signing up, and the events or the catalyst for engagement are rightly highlighted by the authors as central to being able to recruit in the first place.
Events from 2015 onwards, whilst being outside the norm of recent British politics, illustrate the points very well. The debate and referendum on Britain's future in the European Union was both a trigger for wider engagement and a motivator for people to join. However, this did not apply across the board. The Conservative Party – in part because they were both the lead party and then the majority government – continue to experience dwindling membership at the same time as the age profile of their members continues to increase. Being in government generally leads to the flaking of membership as does the passage of time from those key triggers that helped recruit in the first place.
While the Liberal Democrats had something of a recovery from the debacle of 2015, the expected boost in relation to their stance on the second referendum could not have been said to be successful.
The SNP, on the back of yet another referendum – one on Scottish independence in 2014 – certainly led to what has to be described as mass membership. The trigger was of course the campaign for independence, linked crucially to the dominance of the SNP in both Scottish and subsequently in Westminster elections.
Labour on the back of the election of Jeremy Corbyn, and to some extent in the build-up to his successful initial vote in 2015, saw a massive upsurge, taking the party's membership back to numbers not only unequalled since the heady days of the early period of New Labour, but also to the post-war era where general party membership had risen to around two and a half million. Of course, giving away your membership for £3, as was the case with the labour party rule changes prior to the 2015 election, has its consequences. If it’s easy to join, it’s easy to leave but it’s also easy to participate in a minimalist way which can have long term consequences for not only the lifeblood of the party but its disconnect from the wider electorate.
So, as well as examining the seminal moments which account for a rise in motivation to join, Dommett and Temple rightly raise the more difficult issue of retention.
55 years ago, I was struggling to come to terms with why I joined a political party that made it so difficult not just to enjoy meetings but to attend them at all – there was a genuine ‘we’re full’ attitude at the time. The Nissen hut where meetings were held had a coal fire but no other heating and if the caretaker forgot to open up before meeting times, many of us would be stood outside in the winter cold. Why would you want to inflict that on anybody?
What goes on in and beyond meetings is a really challenging question. That is why both the research and the publication deserve a wider dissemination and above all a dialogue about what can be gleaned from the challenges they lay down and the future answers in an era of social media, of many distractions and in all kinds of ways, a move away from collective experience.
Large scale industries declined, peoples’ social and viewing habits have become much more fragmented, mass viewing of news broadcasts and current affairs has dropped away. Yet people were and remain both interested and desirous of having a say in the world around them, hence the uplift in turnout for the referendum in June 2016 and the coalescing of minor party votes into the two-party system in England and Wales, returning with a vengeance in the 2017 snap election.
If political parties are not simply to rely on seminal moments to recruit, and then to lose the membership and their engagement, it is vital that the political parties are prepared to take seriously this research and to face the difficult issues of what that means for the future.
One thing political parties should look to do is to use social media effectively to both bring in and retain members. Targeted advertisements to key demographics upon triggers and then using social media to keep in regular touch in a two-way process. Internally they should share best practice, use training effectively, and learn from international experience.
Having recently attended a Parliamentary Selection process in a constituency with over 1,500 members to find that less 160 were present, demonstrates the contradictions, the dilemmas and yes, the need to find answers.
DISCLAIMER: This blog was produced by The Rt Hon. the Lord Blunkett as part of a blog series following the publication of “The Ideal Party: What People Want To See In Parties Today” report. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of Involve, University of Sheffield or the ESRC.