Robert Halfon: The political parties are stuck in the Dark Ages

2 Dec

Robert Halfon is MP for Harlow, a former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman, Chair of the Education Select Committee and President of Conservative Workers and Trade Unionists.

If I were a chief executive or chair of a major political party in Britain, I would have this book, Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century by Tim Bale, Monica Poletti and Paul Webb, pride of place on my desk – and I would also send a copy to every local constituency party association chair in the country.

This book tells you more about the demographics of party members, and the reasons why they join – and quit – than anything you will hear from the usual commentators. Each chapter not only goes through the qualitative information, but has reams of data and surveys to evidence the claims.

Footsoldiers confounds a few stereotypes, too. For example, the average age of a member of the Conservative Party is 57 (not in the late 60s as is often reported). Moreover, the Labour Party’s average membership age is 54 – just a few years away from that of the Tories – and yet, it is only the Conservatives that are always described as having an aged member base. Interestingly, we learn that 77 percent of Labour Party members are middle class – a fact that may surprise those who imagine the party as a mass, working class, political movement.

What Bale, Poletti and Webb also show, in a really thoughtful way, is why people join political parties. Motivations to join comprises purposive incentives, material incentives and solidarity incentives. As I understand it, a person may choose to join a political party for ideological reasons, for a sense of belonging and/or a belief that, either they will benefit from their membership, or from their chosen political party running the country.

The authors also go a long way to reason the recent revival of membership which had, until recently, gone through a significant decline. As Footsoldiers explains, this trend can be put down to members thinking that they would have greater democratic say over decision-making and over the leadership, by selecting a new leader, for instance.

I’ve always thought that the surviving political parties are stuck in the Dark Ages. They operate like enormous, 1970s’ main-frame computers, whilst most people have moved to the individuality of mobile phones and apps.

Although central to joining will be ideological reasons, too often parties let their members down by not providing value for money, in terms of their membership, and by a lack of opportunity to make real decisions, such as the selection of parliamentary candidates, in debates at party conferences or in voting for the party’s executive boards. Only two-fifths of members feel that their membership has lived up to their expectations and one-third would like more say over the democratic processes.

If parties are to be brought into the twenty-first century and retain their membership (and there is an important chapter on why members quit), not only should their supporters be involved at every level of decision-making, in every reach of the party, but so, too, should they receive beneficial services to ensure that their investment is worthwhile.

Political parties could be, in essence, like a modern trade union. So, if, for example, a person were to join the Conservative Party, first, they would have meaningful votes at Party Conference; second, they would have a say in the selection of senior representatives on the party board; but, third, like a trade union, they would receive significant returns and benefits.

Party membership could offer discounts on the cost of living. For example, members could be looked after with personal insurance schemes should they need them. Why not automatically give every new Conservative Party member a “fuel card” upon enrolment, to give them a helping hand with petrol prices? Or, how about granting every new young Conservative a free bus or train pass, entitling them to discounted travel for one year?

This is very different to offering someone a “Nandos”-type loyalty card which anyone can get for a variety of retail and food outlets. We need to take substantive action to ensure that people really feel they are making an ideological difference, that their opinions matter and help shape policy, whilst offering services that make a material difference to their lives.

Footsoldiers also touches on the issue as to why members leave. Often, the party’s administration is so poor that a significant amount of memberships (one in seven of leavers) simply lapse, as members forget to renew. An important point is made that this is entirely solvable, were political parties to spend as much money on the recruitment and retention of members, as they currently do on investment into the “air war” and research.

Herein lies the problem; in recent times, members are all too often seen as the icing on the cake, rather than the cake itself. If political parties are to survive and flourish, this outlook has to change; and a first step on that path would be to understand what is really going on with party membership, and to read this book.