Whisper it, it’s unfashionable, but political parties still need members

Chandila Fernando, to his credit, is at least campaigning for some radical ideas in his campaign for Lib Dem President. He wants the Lib Dems to “become the first mainstream political party to move away from the tired concept of card-carrying membership” replacing it with “a system of registered supporters.”

Fernando’s website has currently been replaced by a holding page (is it me or does that big beaming face scream “over-exposed”?) so we cannot penetrate the words of wisdom within. However Mark Littlewood, in his role as Head Fernando Cheerleader, expanded this idea on Lib Dem Voice as follows:

1. Anyone can become a member of the party (which I’d probably retitle “registered supporter”) if they are on the electoral register in the UK and sign some form of statement saying they are a supporter of the Liberal Democrats.

2. This data would be centrally collated – although obviously shared with local parties – on a database package that could be deployed for campaigning and fundraising purposes.

3. Once the system had been successfully implemented, which may take some months (at least!), the party’s constitution should be reviewed in order to attempt to enfranchise these supporters into the party’s decision-making process. This might start with consultation and then go on to “open primaries” for PPC selection and even lead ultimately to mass enfranchisement for a party leadership election.

4. A whole range of issues would need to addressed (length of tenure on supporter list before you get a vote, preventing mass last minute non-LD sign-ups to infiltrate the party, provision for those under the age of 18) etc. These are very serious issues – but are essentially technical and administrative points.

5. The explicit aim of such an exercise would be wider participation and involvement, not “demutualisation” or converting the party into a company controlled an oligarchy.

6. The President of the party wouldn’t, of course, have the authority to impose such a system, but he or she could set a direction of travel. He/she should accept that a traditional party membership model is becoming an anachronism. When Charles was elected, there were 82,000 members. When Ming was elected, there were 72,000 members. When Nick was elected, there were 67,000 members. I suspect the total may have slipped further since then (we’ll see when the Presidential vote is tallied). (These totals contrast with 101,00 Liberal members and 58,000 SDP members at the time of merger – or at least those were the totals for ballot papers issued in 1987 and 1988)

It’s easy to dismiss radical ideas out of hand, but it is certainly worth exploring this idea in at least some detail. It certainly is true that party membership (across all parties) is in serious decline and if the current trend continues at some point the Lib Dems will simply cease to be a viable operation. But is a registered supporter system the answer?

I have to declare an interest at this point. I work for Unlock Democracy, which was created last year when the New Politics Network and Charter 88 merged. Charter 88, up until a couple of years ago, did not have members but instead had a database of “signatories” who agreed with the organisation’s founding charter – of which I was/am one. New Politics Network meanwhile specialised for a while in the funding of political parties and published several publications on the topic, most notably these two. For a couple of years this was my main focus at work. Combined with my experience of the party at all levels, I feel I’m fairly well qualified to interrogate this idea.

The first thing to note is that the idea of political parties having registered supporters rather than members is not new. Indeed I think I’m right in saying the US Democrats had registered supporters before any UK party had members. Party membership as we understand it did not exist until the 20th century. At first Labour didn’t bother with members at all and was wholly owned by trade unions and socialist societies. The Conservatives only adopted a centralised membership system under Hague in the late 1990s. The 1950s is generally regarded as the height of party membership but those members had few rights – party membership was as much a social thing as anything else. It is only really the 1970s, with the advent of one-member-one-vote in the Liberal Party, that what we currently understand as party membership emerged.

The registered supporter system in the US emerged out of the system of caucuses and primaries they tend to use to select candidates. There are as many types of registered supporter system in the USA as there are US States. The one thing however that US States do have in common however is that the two-party system is dominant. Independent and third party politicians are a rare exception. Registered supporter systems tend to work better in two-party systems with good reason: two-party systems for all their flaws are relatively immune from entryism.

This is a crucial point when considering how a registered supporter system would work in the UK. With low participation rates, entryism is already rife in the UK. If anyone on the electoral system could ‘join’ at effectively no cost, anyone could run a mass recruitment campaign with a view to stitching up a candidate selection, regardless of whether they agreed with the party’s values or not. Now, that could arguably lead to us having candidates that better reflected the communities they stood in and superficially that is a good thing. But it would mean the party would effectively be a franchise open to anyone to take over. And however problematic this might be in a system where all parties operated in the same way, it would be much worse for a party that voluntarily chose to do this on its own.

It is interesting to note the Conservative experience with primary selections. The party has not rolled primaries out to all Associations as a matter of course, but has been quite scrupulous in picking and choosing which constituencies to hold them in. Participation rates tend to vary but I haven’t heard of any area which had significantly more participants than they would have had if voting had been restricted to members. No Parliamentary candidate has been elected with a four figure tally of votes as far as I’m aware and even the high profile Mayoral selection was a damp squib.

So the closest example of a registered supporter system we’ve so far seen in the UK has been far from a runaway success. But that will be of no surprise to people who closely observe US politics. Presidential primaries gain all the attention, but the level of participation for congressional candidates is approximate to the Tory experience.

Don’t believe me? Have a look at these results, bearing in mind that each House Representative has about ten times as many constituents as each MP. This is not an exercise in mass political participation by any stretch of the imagination. Yes, presidential primaries are a different story. Speaking personally, I think the idea of using primaries to elect party leaders – our closest equivalent to a presidential candidate – has a lot going for it (and before anyone claims Fernando has inspired me, I first mused about this in January). But that is a very different type of election and fundamentally much easier to control.

Is party membership in terminal decline? Certainly there has been a negative trend but it is statistical nonsense to infer that this is irreversible. There has been some talk about how the Conservatives’ membership has continued to decline despite Cameron’s popularity and how this contrasts with Labour’s fortunes ten years before. A sign of the times? Perhaps, or perhaps a more prosaic answer would be to point out that Labour’s increase in membership in the mid-90s went hand in hand with a massive recruitment drive during that period. For an eighteen month period, the Labour Party had a recruitment form in the Guardian (and often on the front page). It was a key strategic objective of theirs, very much comparable to Obama’s 50-state drive happening today, and judging by the busloads of supporters that would drive past me while I delivered my knocking up leaflets in Oldham East and Saddleworth in 1997, it was a strategy that paid off. But it was also a very costly and ultimately unsustainable strategy; no party could do it in the long term.

The Lib Dems can neither afford a recruitment campaign of that scale nor would it be as effective, but fundamentally if you want to reverse a decline in membership you need a recruitment strategy. We lack one at the moment because, frankly, we haven’t really needed one. If you can deliver growth in seats and votes without more members, why spend money recruiting? As time goes on however, that calculation will change as we run out of activists. Arguably, we have already reached the point where serious action needs to be taken.

We also have to consider momentum. Barack Obama has done a fantastic job at creating momentum, but will he have the same easy time of it in four years time? Is what he’s doing sustainable? What happens once the circus has moved on? Members are certainly harder to recruit than supporters, but they are also less likely to drift away during the tough times.

For an example of this, consider Charter 88’s experience. Charter 88 is one of the most successful pressure groups in history. Creating a database of 50,000 “signatories” in just two years, it embarked on a campaign strategy which delivered significant democratic reform in 1997. Having read the organisation’s 1990 business plan, it is remarkable how even back then it more or less sketched out the Cook-Maclennan agreement seven years later.

Charter’s success was borne of its ability to create a sense of momentum. For nine long years it stormed along like a snowball on steroids. In the 1992 general election it held around 100 public meetings; in 1997 it held around 200 (I helped organise the one in Manchester Gorton). Local groups sprang up all around the country. It was really an exciting organisation to be a part of.

And then it all came to a shuddering halt, almost overnight. By the 2001 general election it was a shadow of its former self and continued to decline after that, only really starting to recover a couple of years ago. There are a large number of factors behind this (if you want to know more, Charter 88 – 20 years of Unlocking Democracy will be in the bookshops in time for Christmas), but one of them, I personally have no doubt, was the fact that its supporter base was essentially shallow. Signatories did not own the organisation and it was all too easy to drift away. And once some people drifted away, it became even easier for others to follow suit. The positive feedback which fuelled the campaign for so many years went into reverse.

Fernando is keen on branding so he should consider the different messages sent out by the terms “registered supporter,” “signatory” and “member”. The latter implies that the individual has a personal stake in the organisation in question; the former terms are passive by comparison. Of course we would want our registered supporters to get involved, but would they? I’m highly sceptical.

The other thing to consider is fundraising. I think I am correct in saying that Charter never once sent a mailing to every single one of its signatories (which peaked at around 80,000). Rather, you would receive newsletters and information for a while but would only continue to do so if you gave regularly to the organisation. This is a sensible strategy; there is no point in endlessly mailing people who you hear absolutely nothing back from. No organisation could afford to throw money into a black hole in that way. Any political party serious about campaigning which was based on a registered supporter system would have to operate in the same way; the cost of keeping hundreds of thousands of people in touch otherwise would simply bankrupt it. Fernando talks about using the internet but significant numbers of people don’t have access to it and direct mail remains a more effective means of communication in any case. How would he hold an “all supporter” election for 300,000 people, most of whom contributed nothing financially? Via teh intenets (excuse me while I stifle a laugh)?

Indeed, I’m convinced that if Charter had looked to consolidate itself in 1997 and become a membership organisation (which it ended up doing nine years later), it would have gained some measure of stability. Having members gives you a core supporter base which you can see you through the tough times as well as the good ones. It gives you a sustainable base on which to conduct internal democracy. There is certainly a downside – members of political parties are by definition less representative of the wider population – but in terms of cost-benefit it is the neatest compromise.

None of this is to say that the party should not have a supporters database and should not seek to engage with them. I have no clear idea how the party centrally currently engages with supporters but judging by what it sends members it is almost certainly lacking. Supporters should be carefully nurtured – from them we can develop donors, activists and – yes – new members. We should take every opportunity to get further involved in the party. We should offer to take them there in baby steps. We should offer local parties incentives to send the central party leads in the form of a cut of every penny they end up giving. But while nurturing supporters should be at the heart of any recruitment strategy, this is very different from treating support as equivalent to membership.

To conclude then, what Fernando is proposing is not new – indeed takes us closer to a Victorian style of party politics. In its pure form it is simply not sustainable. It would be susceptable to entryism. We could not afford to service hundreds of thousands of new “members” without getting income from them. It would not significantly increase participation.

And crucially, supporters are not stakeholders. If we were to devalue membership in this way, it would be naive in the extreme to assume that our members would not devalue their own membership accordingly. Just as we would expect more “registered supporters” to get involved during the good times, we would expect a sharper decline in the bad times. Yes, we have seen membership drop alarmingly during the past decade, but things would have been so much worse if we had adopted the Fernando plan ten years previously. Thank goodness he has no chance of winning.

20 thoughts on “Whisper it, it’s unfashionable, but political parties still need members

  1. Just for comparision those districts in Virginia you link to had turnouts of around 230-240,000 at the general election.

  2. Thanks for that Hywel – that suggests that overall participation in those elections is much lower than in the UK.

  3. I should also have mentioned in the main article that those primary participation levels are achieved at much greater cost. Candidates spending a million dollars or more to win a nomination are not uncommon.

  4. … but is there anything contraversial in attempting to go as far as setting up a “supporters” database? Periodic emails to this list would be effectively free, and it would give a basis to convert the wary into actual members – particularly if one could eg. tie up with flocktogether to list nearby liberal meets.

  5. This is an interesting and well thought-out article by James, but I’m starting to worry that he will just deploy his considerable intellect and knowledge against virtually any idea that Chandila or Liberal Vision ever come up with. I hope I’m wrong. I know James can be bigger, better and massively brighter than that.

    The “registered supporter” concept does indeed have many of the problems that James lists. Who “owns” the party? What are the problems with infiltration – particularly PPC selections? Is it financially viable – mailing people costs cash? “Internet democracy” excludes a huge chunk of people who culturally or financially don’t engage.

    These are good points. But I think they can be addressed and overcome. And I think that believers in modern democracy should be trying to work out how.

    The audit of the present engagement in political parties is truly grim reading for those that really want participation.

    At a rough, vaguely educated, guess only about 1.5% of adults in Britain are members of political parties. And perhaps only 10% of these are really engaged or influential (e.g. attend party conference or run a local party). Worse still, these numbers are falling. Serious surgery is required.

    Obviously, I bow to James’s knowledge on Charter 88.

    Re: NO2ID, we have a less clear picture. Our supporter base runs in to tens of thousands (people who have clicked a button on a website to be a supporter or signed a petition saying much the same). Our membership base is less than 5,000 (people who actually pay up cash and/or want to be members). We do communicate with our supporters. If we have their email address, this is cheap, but we mail slices of supporters occasionally to seek to get cash or get them to join or assist a local group.

    A major political party should be able to do this better. For groups like NO2ID or Charter 88 or Liberty, it’s hard to frame the “ask” (other than “give us cash, we kick ass”). But for political parties, it should be much easier. There are a ton of things that can be done to help the LibDems. This starts with voting for us. Moves on to putting up a poster in a marginal seat. Or telling us two “floating voter” friends who are willing to receive a call from Nick Clegg.

    The party’s relationship with its “base” needs to become much more sophisticated. In power terms, there is no quid pro quo – the people we reach out to must be given influence without specific obligation.

    I genuinely believe that there are ways that this can be achieved. But it really requires Unlock Democracy’s staff – and loads of other folk – to help with the technical problems rather than giving a whole load of reasons as to why it can’t be done.

  6. Very important post, glad someone is addressing this. But there are two different strands twined up here. On parties I think it is essential that the ‘primary’ principle is built into them. In Greece, recently, when PASOK leader George Papandreou was challenged for the leadership, about a year ago, they opened the election for party leadership to the public – in effect to PASOK voters – irrespective of membership. They also tried using a deliberative assembly to select a Mayoral candidate (I think in an effort to break the grip of an apparently corrupt local machine).

    Parties are different from campaigns like Charter 88 which I was involved with. I’ll come to that in a minute. But on parties, why are people leaving them? Because you have to hang your brain up at the door when you go to a meeting. Parties need discipline and unity, they need a ‘line’. Otherwise the ‘media’ hammers them. Top down decision making follows. So of course they should have members, but how can members have influence? Without being paranoid about the media the environment of policy and influence has been transformed.

    Now, for Charter 88. My recollection of the history is slightly different. We decided against a membership structure when a constitution was built after the initial wave of 10,000 supporters. I didn’t want another organisation that internalised its energy and argued with itself and got penetrated etc. It was a campaign with explicitly short term goals betting on success in ten years, as that plan sets out. Instead we built a Council that had 12 or so local group members and twelve individuals, 6 men and 6 women, selected by lot from the membership, as well as a large number of appointed. It was not a democratic structure. It was Greenpeace plus. The emphasis was on campaigning and the justification, the ‘democracy’ if you will, was that it lived from the responses of its supporters.

    But there were local groups and they were democratic and they did have more than voice and I am not sure that the reason they did not continue to grow was because the organisation was not a membership one.

    What happened? Well, it longer than two years to get to 50,000 signatories. Nor am I sure that momentum was still as great in 1997 as in 1992. What went wrong was that it was so focused on delivery by a Labour government – not unreasonably given John Smith’s Charter 88 speech – that when Blair and Co decided to squeeze the life out of democratic reform the wager of Charter 88 was trumped. The Lib-Dems decided not to rise to the occasion (as I describe in my contribution to the book).

    If a 30 year plan had been the idea from the start, then yes, some kind of core membership would have been best. And it should have gone for a membership organisation in 1997-9 combating what Labour was doing. But positive campaigns that are not just seeking to defend rights or the environment but want to achieve something have to have a strategy to which members align themselves and take forward. Something more than tactical campaigns etc, hugely important those these are. What should Charter 88’s strategy have been after 1997?

  7. Anthony,

    That’s a really fascinating analysis and insight.

    What would be your advice to the LibDems on structure/systems?

  8. Sandybikiniaction,

    Absolutely, a supporters database is key. When it comes to email, we already have one. I’m not aware of us using direct mail to its fullest extent in this way however. A crucial point to note however is that the party has been signed up to having a more extensive supporter-engagement strategy for ten years now. Pretty much every one of the party’s strategic reviews down the years have recommended one, but it never happens.

    Why is this? The main problem as far as I can see is the perennial one of lacking the right software. I don’t have a magic solution to that and it is a problem that many other organisations face, but it certainly won’t be resolved in this presidential election.

    Mark,

    I’ve written precisely two articles responding to Chandila and Liberal Vision. It’s hardly a vendetta. If I disagree with something, I say so. I have however resisted the temptation to not dissect your Lib Dem MP purity list, mainly its inherent flaws are self-evident to anyone who has read its front page of caveats and disclaimers. If you were more confident of your arguments, perhaps you wouldn’t be so quick to cry foul?

    Neither do I accept it is my responsibility to make your proposed model work for you. If there are problems with the membership model, surely you should be seeking to find solutions to that rather than tearing it down? Unlike the model you propose, the flaws are far less fundamental.

    You are simply wrong to imagine that the ask for a political party should be easier than it is for a pressure group. Political parties are by their very nature about compromise – they have to look at the big picture. These days that is sneered upon. That’s why someone like David Cameron can get so far with nothing more than a handful of vacuous statements and platitudes.

    I don’t question NO2ID’s success, but like Charter 88 before it, it’s success is prevalent on building momentum. It isn’t playing the long game, at least not yet. That is the point when the real problems set in. I can guarantee you one thing: if there is still a need for NO2ID in 20 years time and the organisation still exists, it will operate in a completely different way to how it does now.

    In terms of political parties squaring the circle of being able to communicate with supporters regardless of whether they pay their way or not, the only solution that would take a massive chunk out of the campaigns budget would be state funding, but I’m sure Liberal Vision would be appalled at the notion. Even then, it doesn’t get away from the problem inherent to the supporter idea of downgrading the core base from being stakeholders to becoming supplicants.

    In terms of political participation, yes, it is a Good Thing but participation in political parties is not the only mechanism. As I said in relation to US politics, more people might be involved in candidate selection (at great expense) but fewer people are involved in politics overall (despite even greater expense). Initiatives such as Obama’s are a notable exception, but again I would question it will still be inspiring the same level of participation in the longer term (for the avoidance of doubt I am not suggesting that just because Obama’s strategy is unsustainable in the long term it is wrong).

    But in any case, as I wrote above I DO support a strategy focused on engaging with the supporter base. I just think it should be financially sustainable and complement, not replace, membership.

    Anthony,

    In terms of primaries, as I said above I think there is a real case for electing party leaders in this way. Because of the scale of such an election, I don’t think the problems inherent in other primary selections matter. However, it should be pointed out that George Papandreou that despite being very successful in building a popular movement, he hasn’t seen that convert into success electorally, at least not yet.

    On political parties, I don’t think your caricature exactly fits the reality. The missing ingredient is the fact that people’s attitudes have changed as well. If people always look at political parties in consumerist ways, they will always be disappointed because parties are by their very nature not able to offer anything other than compromise (unless they are only in the business of protest). The problem has become exacerbated because rather than confront that notion, political parties tend to indulge it and then stand around wondering why people don’t love them for it. It is for this reason that abandoning fusty old membership in favour of the ultra-consumerist model of “supporters” is so flawed. If you make political engagement more superficial then you make it easier for people to disengage at the same time.

    In terms of your analysis of Charter, I will bow to your superior knowledge (although I do think there was more happening in 1997 than you suggest – it was a very exciting time to be involved in the campaign). I hope you did not infer that I thought the strategy which Charter embarked on in 1990 was flawed – quite the opposite. But it was contingent on creating momentum via exponential growth and that is ultimately always going to be unsustainable. In my view what Charter should have done post-1997 is consolidate its supporter base via a membership system. I did feel, as a lowly activist in 1997 that the governance structures were incredibly opaque. My involvement with Charter more or less ended when I left Manchester for the simple reason that I felt I didn’t have a particular stake. If my relationship had been more concrete, I would have almost certainly have been more actively involved after that point.

    As you suggest, the strategy for an organisation waging a 5 year campaign is very different from the strategy for a thirty year campaign. The organisation’s structures should reflet those differing strategy. Political parties, even though they will from time to time manage to capture the zeitgeist, must always plan for the bad times as well as the good or they will simply melt away at the first sign of adversity.

  9. James,

    This is an interesting and thorough reply. I don’t belive you’re persuing a vendetta. I just worry that some folk will seek to deconstruct anything I propose on principle. This is probably more a reflection of my own personal frailty than any real malice on your part.

    Where I think you’re completely wrong is in asserting that “The main problem as far as I can see is the perennial one of lacking the right software”.

    I’m not a software expert, but this really, really, really and truly isn’t the main problem!

    It’s about the relationship we seek to build with voters. I am astonished that a chief campaigner for this country’s leading pro-democratic reform campaign group seems to believe that the problem is basically about Microsoft packages. The problem is much deeper and the solution much more radical.

    Unfortunately, you then run into a whole load of misfired rebuttals. The “How liberal are the LibDems” list is NOT a purity list. It is explicitly and honestly not that.

    You also said: “You are simply wrong to imagine that the ask for a political party should be easier than it is for a pressure group.” When did I say this? What tosh.

    You also said: “In terms of political parties squaring the circle of being able to communicate with supporters regardless of whether they pay their way or not, the only solution that would take a massive chunk out of the campaigns budget would be state funding.”

    This worries me a lot. You seem to have completely missed the point. It’s not about communicating with supporters, it’s about engaging them. Where on Earth you got your budgetary conclusions from is anyone’s guess.

    But – thnakfully – you’re probably wrong too. I think that a supporters’ database would subsidise campaigning work, not soak cash from it. And that would be a crucial test of its success.

    I have enormous respect for your intellect and your ability to cross-examine – and sometimes destroy – concepts and ideas.You are also blessed with the ability to write quite brilliantly. But God, it is hugely depressing to hear one of the nation’s leading democracy campaigners defend the status quo and rattle off a list of reasons as to why things can’t be done.

    By the way, I also support state funding of political parties and have always done so. This is only a personal view – and gets me into a lot of hot water with hard-core libertarians – but it remains my position nonetheless. Please don’t leap to old-fashioned assumptions about free-marketeers. The world is really much more complex and diverse than that.

  10. Where I think you’re completely wrong is in asserting that “The main problem as far as I can see is the perennial one of lacking the right software”.

    I’m not a software expert, but this really, really, really and truly isn’t the main problem!

    Three “reallys” – you must be right then. Is it too much to ask why?

    I’m not denying there may well be an attitudinal problem somewhere, but it is one of the main problems identified in Bones. It was also one of the main problems identified in the 1998 strategic review. Buying the right software is a major headache, organisations often buy the wrong package and then spend years trying to make it work to justify the expense. It certainly seems to be case here, based on talking to membership officers and Cowley Street staff.

    Sadly, until you have the right package in place a lot of staff time and energy is spent running just to stand still. Even if Fernando got his way and the party agreed to abandon the membership model, it would still be one of the biggest obstacles he would face. You aren’t telling me why I’m wrong, just implying I must be a fool for saying so. That’s framing, not rebuttal.

    Unfortunately, you then run into a whole load of misfired rebuttals. The “How liberal are the LibDems” list is NOT a purity list. It is explicitly and honestly not that.

    I thought you didn’t like me laying into Liberal Vision documents? Don’t tempt me.

    You also said: “You are simply wrong to imagine that the ask for a political party should be easier than it is for a pressure group.” When did I say this? What tosh.

    Erm, you wrote: “For groups like NO2ID or Charter 88 or Liberty, it’s hard to frame the “ask” (other than “give us cash, we kick ass”). But for political parties, it should be much easier.”

    Sorry Mark, but if you’re going to accuse me of misrepresenting you, you’re going to have to do a lot better than that. I was barely paraphrasing.

    You also said: “In terms of political parties squaring the circle of being able to communicate with supporters regardless of whether they pay their way or not, the only solution that would take a massive chunk out of the campaigns budget would be state funding.”

    This worries me a lot. You seem to have completely missed the point. It’s not about communicating with supporters, it’s about engaging them. Where on Earth you got your budgetary conclusions from is anyone’s guess.

    But – thnakfully – you’re probably wrong too. I think that a supporters’ database would subsidise campaigning work, not soak cash from it. And that would be a crucial test of its success.

    I don’t think you’re even bothering to write what I say now. I have not and never will argue against having a supporters network – indeed I have repeatedly argued for the exact opposite – merely that it should complement not replace membership. And yes indeed, a supporters network would pay for itself, but only if things like direct mail are based on targeting people likely to pay up rather than simply to everyone who gives us permission to contact them. The formula is different for email, but then so is the response rate (dramatically so). Sending out 100,000 emails is not the same thing as engaging with 100,000. If you want to do the latter in a meaningful way, it costs money.

    God, it is hugely depressing to hear one of the nation’s leading democracy campaigners defend the status quo and rattle off a list of reasons as to why things can’t be done.

    Ooh, who needs arguments when you have framing! Since you use that phrase to describe me twice in a single comment, maybe you should acknowledge I might know what I’m talking about. I haven’t heard from you or Fernando any details whatsoever about how this idea might genuinely increase engagement or participation. All I’ve heard is a rather simple argument that membership has been in long term decline, therefore it is a busted flush, therefore we must do something different, a registered supporters scheme is something different, therefore it must be done.

    It would be nice if long term trends were irreversible in the way you suggest as I wouldn’t now be enjoying the delights of negative equity, but we’ll leave that to one side. Fundamentally though, you are arguing for a system that would change the relationship of the average party member from a stakeholder to a supplicant. You are proposing a wholesale shift from passive support to active support. It may well lead to greater numbers “engaged” but only in a superficial way.

    I’ve made that point on several occasions now and it is at the very core of my argument, but you haven’t chosen to rebut it. I would therefore respectively suggest that getting pious about my apparently poor democratic instincts isn’t really a winning strategy.

    By the way, I also support state funding of political parties and have always done so. This is only a personal view – and gets me into a lot of hot water with hard-core libertarians – but it remains my position nonetheless.

    Good for you. Not exactly “radical” or opposing the “status quo” though is it?

  11. James: you have started at least two conversations here :- )

    I’ll keep out of the main one and not be drawn into giving the Lib Dems advice despite your generous invitation Mark.

    On Charter 88 I was a distant member of the Executive in 1997 keeping out of things. There was an honourable policy of making it a priority to influence the Labour government who were planning Scottish, Welsh and London legislation as well as the Human Rights Act. But the Blair team did not want to be influenced by Charter 88! A defeat took place.

    I can see now that a switch to a membership organisation, looking away from the a focus on the government towards a focus on supporters, would have been a way of consolidating what had been achieved. However, the question remains what would have been the strategy? The organisation’s method should have been different but means are also governed by ends – they relate to each other. It would have meant saying to local groups and individuals, “Become a member of Charter 88 in order to…. for X years until…. “. I am genuinely interested in the answer.

  12. Anthony – it is incredibly hard to answer your question as we have ten years of hindsight to blind us and I wasn’t an “insider” at the time. Even my argument that a membership system might have helped the organisation back then has the caveat that the idea may well have gone down like a bucket of cold sick at the time.

    All I can give you is impressions, not least based on your own version of events (on which note, it will be available in all good bookshops in time for Christmas!), but I certainly think that more work should have been done in developing support within the grassroots of both Labour and the Lib Dems. The Lib Dems in particular, where walking away from democratic renewal at the time. Chris Rennard had had his victory and was determined to get the party to drop its theme about “sorting out the mess in politics” (ironically this is the only slogan I can remember from the 1997 Lib Dem campaign). Ashdown was obsessed with his tea-and-crumpets with Blair approach. Kennedy after him was shy of the debate at all. Meanwhile, the only organisation within the Lib Dems arguing for any of Charter’s agenda was DAGGER, which increasingly became dominated by STV fundamentalists who were (and are) disinterested in generating enthusiasm for democratic reform within the party. If Charter had looked towards supporting a better resourced campaign within the Lib Dems (and Labour) you might have found the trend towards dropping the idea from the party’s core themes would have had greater resistence.

    From a democratic reformer’s perspective, the Lib Dem’s 2001 manifesto was weak and while the 2005 manifesto was stronger, it got essentially dumped in favour of the appalling “ten point plan” devised by the Campaigns Department a couple of months before the election. That plan contained nothing on democratic reform; worse it contained no analysis about how the Iraq invasion was allowed to happen and how such a travesty should never be allowed to happen again (the best we could do is point out we voted against the war – not good enough).

    I am one of those awkward buggers who believes that the Lib Dem’s 2005 election campaign was an enormous wasted opportunity that we have been paying for ever since. I know that puts in a minority amongst the Kennedy hagiographers. But, and again with the benefit of hindsight, it was the pro-democratic reform movement’s failure too as it failed to ensure that the one party in a position to talk about reform immediately after the Iraq war was instead putting all its faith in the idea that people will vote Lib Dem because Kennedy looks like a good bloke to share a pint with.

    It would also be nice for the pro-democracy movement within Labour to have something to say these days other than vague speculation about the likelihood of Gordon Brown sneaking AV onto the statute books in secret.

  13. James,

    On the software package stuff:

    I think the point is that the problem at present is really one of structure and prioritisation. You can register as a supporter on the party website, but you’re not really driven to it. The “let’s knock on a million doors” campaign is not geared to getting people to sign up as registered supporters, just to listening to the electorate. I think our PPBs still tend to sign off with a request to join the party rather than register as a supporter. There’s also no real quid pro quo. What you get more being a supporter is some email spam, basically. We should build in a consultative role as soon as possible (this wouldn’t need any constitutional change as far as I know). Obviously, the databse package is important – and coudl be where the whole scheme falls over – but a crucially important thing is the salience accorded the project, how the federal party works with local parties, what the “offer” is to those intending to become supporters.

    I don’t think this falls into the “something must be done” trap, it is an outline of how we should change our terms of engagement. I also don’t think we should be scared of experimenting in some areas (I’m not sure the Tory open primaries worked, but I was impressed that they tried). The fall of in membership is so sharp that searching for a solution – although not any solution – is understandable, indeed vital.

    You raise the costs issue, and that’s why such a system would need to be trialled. There are costs of mailing people who have yet to give us money – but potentially direct financial (as well as other) benefits too. NO2ID, for example, is rolling this out. And keeping a check on which postcodes yield most return etc (although entrirely for reasons of fund-raising not for reasons of enfranchisement).

  14. I agree that we don’t push the idea of being a supporter hard enough, but there is only a point in doing that if we have our ducks in a row in terms of keeping them in touch and developing our relationship with them.

    I think we – and indeed Bones – agree that we need to do more in terms of developing relationships with our supporters (even if I see that as a way of recruiting more members and you want a common category of “registered supporter”). The fundamental issue is why this hasn’t happened, since the party has periodically agreed this would be a Good Thing for a decade now. And yes, I accept that software isn’t the only issue (even if a lack of the right software is stopping us from getting started). From my perspective as a former FE member, the fundamental reason is that the party at the top is allergic to progress chasing and does everything it can to avoid being forced to implement agreed business plans. The truly disappointing aspect about Bones is that it doesn’t get this, instead blaming the whole problem on the FE trying to micro-manage (if only!). The COG isn’t going to solve this I’m afraid, quite the opposite I suspect.

  15. So what’s the solution then, James? Would there be scope for someone to JFDI, as we say at my work, and just build a working supporters database and start pushing it on facebook, blogs, etc? Once the software actually exists and starts accrueing members, then hopefully the leadership would have no option but to acknowledge it and start pushing it, as has happened a bit with LDV. I happen to know a web developer with not much to do in the evenings and weekends at the moment…

  16. Actually, in essence, yes. I think we are rapidly getting to the point where spending too much time focusing on the internal structures is going nowhere. I actually half-wrote a blog post last month that could be summed up as “JFDI” and if you look at the party’s organisational history, from the founding of the ALC, through to creating EARS, through to FlockTogether and Lib Dem Voice, this is always how we have made our great leaps in the past. There are grounds for bypassing the party entirely and getting on with it. That is more or less what happened in the US Democrats circa 2004.

    The problem is, anyone setting something like that up would be open to the charge of wanting to pull the party in one direction or another. A Mark Littlewood-run group would be very different from a James Graham-run group, certainly. I think the solution is not one group but several, and a bit of creative competition.

  17. I have some sympathy with the JFDI approach (what a great term it is too).

    But I can’t get away from the structures being imprisoning rather than facilitating. We actually tend to elect figureheads rather than empower people. The Leader of the party, for example, doesn’t appear to ahve much formal power at all (although clearly has oodles of soft and “moral” power).

    You might be right about bypassing the party entirely being a smart route to get things done. The problem is that in my case (and yours too, I guess), I wouldn’t just be “open” to the “charge of wanting to pull the party in on direction”, it would be a completely true charge. ….

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