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Fernando’s website has currently been replaced by a holding page (is it me or does that big beaming face scream “over-exposed”?)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 Iâ€™d probably retitle â€œregistered supporterâ€) 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 partyâ€™s constitution should be reviewed in order to attempt to enfranchise these supporters into the partyâ€™s decision-making process. This might start with consultation and then go on to â€œopen primariesâ€ 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 â€œdemutualisationâ€ or converting the party into a company controlled an oligarchy.
6. The President of the party wouldnâ€™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 (weâ€™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.