The benefits of membership
Scott Nicholson, PPC for Perth and North Perthshire, has some ideas on how to make membership of the Scottish Labour Party more attractive.
Having recently been selected as a Labour prospective candidate in the 2015 general election, I sat down this morning with a blank sheet of A4 and thought to myself, how can I increase Scottish Labour Party membership in Perth and North Perthshire?
But my first challenge was not about the Scottish Labour Party. The first question that came to mind was this: why would someone want to join a political party at all?
Membership of UK political parties is at a post-war low. Data from the House of Commons Library indicates that not even 1 per cent of voters are currently members of the Conservative, Labour or Liberal Democrat Party, compared to 3.8 per cent in 1983.
In 1953 the Conservative Party had 2.8 million members and the Labour Party 1 million. Today, total UK party membership is roughly half a million, which is quite pathetic for an advanced western democracy – especially when one considers that the National Trust attracts 4 million members.
Despite having fewer members than the Conservatives for most of the 20th century, the Labour Party has now been the biggest party in the UK for a number of years. And with Conservative members being on average 68 years old, their party may in the next 20 years be, quite literally, dying off.
Perhaps political parties are dying because – despite income inequality figures showing the opposite – the population perceive themselves as being less polarised and are as a result, less tribal?
Are political parties trying to recruit members based on a social structure that the general public no longer feels exists? Do people who are paid for their work no longer feel they need representation as a working class? Do the traditional Tory-voting owners of wealth no longer feel they need protection from the hordes?
The Labour Party had its Clause 4 moment on ownership and, even though he does not shout about it, George Osborne is currently borrowing more than Gordon Brown proposed. Perhaps the pubic perceive that there is no political divide obvious enough to pick membership of one side over the other.
With the decline in party membership across the UK, perhaps we need to ask: is party membership still an important part of our political system? Is it time for political parties to abandon any pretensions of being mass membership organisations and, in the face of damaged confidence and trust, consider different forms of political organisation?
Does each party funding scandal bring us a step closer to state funding? Parties like Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party in The Netherlands totally ignore membership and focus instead on influencing the public using professional modern marketing campaigns. Is that the way forward?
One of the many problems that non-single-issue political parties face, is that their manifestos have to straddle a range of views. Just because a voter disagrees with tax cuts for millionaires, does not necessarily mean that they are worried about the lives of people scraping by on out-of-work benefits. Typically the UK’s two largest political parties have to make voters choose from a fixed menu, when voters may prefer to pick and choose from a buffet of policies.
On a more personal level, when meeting friends-of-friends, people are often bemused by my enthusiasm for a political party. They will complain about inequality, government austerity and Oxford-educated ministers, but won’t see joining a mainstream political party as a way of doing something about it. Perhaps they see the political parties as part of the problem?
I have even noticed an embarrassment or awkwardness from members when I have mentioned the possibility of advertising Labour Party events to friends or community groups in which members are also involved. I would be embarrassed to stand up in a room and admit to it if I was a Tory, but from where does that social awkwardness related to membership of other parties originate?
I then started considering what was involved in Scottish Labour Party membership. First of all there is the payment of a subscription fee. This in itself may put people off signing up. Then there are branch and constituency party meetings, and the selection of local candidates and the Scottish and UK leadership. Once selected, there is also fundraising and campaigning to get the candidates elected. In addition to this there are Scottish and UK Labour Party conferences, and opportunities to stand as an executive in branches and constituencies and as representatives in policy forums and executive committees both in Scotland and the UK.
I am almost certain that potential members would have little to no knowledge of these, and could not imagine that they would be the cause of existing members to allow their membership to lapse.
So the question still remains, what benefit is there of being a member of the Scottish Labour Party?
The central reason that someone might choose to join the Scottish Labour Party as opposed to, for example, the Conservatives or the SNP, would be the potential member having a left of centre view of politics. Helping a party that would bring in left-wing policies to become the government is of course a reward to draw in potential members. That’s why it is important that the Scottish Labour Party aims to put clear red water between Scottish Labour and Scotland’s other political parties.
It is also vital that we get across to people that Scottish Labour Party membership does not require a lobotomy, to misplace your critical faculties and to mindlessly cheer Ed and Jim. I believe members join because they care about something and I think it is important to get across to potential members that membership allows them the opportunity to shape the policy of the party. We need potential members to know that as part of the Scottish Labour Party, they will have the opportunity to really make the future. I believe this is our main pitch and think that it appeals to Yes voters too as there is no reason that the Scottish Labour Party cannot be steered to fight for the powers for the Scottish Parliament that Yes voters want.
In addition to this I think we in the Scottish Labour Party should make more of Scottish Labour Party membership being a route to standing as a Labour candidate and representing the community politically at local, Scottish or UK level. Although we do not want a party of careerists, I think it would be a great draw to get new members. Lots of people tell me that they shout at the television, so why not offer people the opportunity to shout at Iain Duncan Smith in the House of Commons?
I cannot claim that I have ever particularly enjoyed an evening spent reading the minutes of the last branch meeting. However, I am on a road where I may find myself in a position where I will have the power to protect the most vulnerable people in society. It is the responsibility that I feel for the people around me that is the driving force behind my involvement in the Labour Party.
Personally, I enjoy that Scottish Labour Party membership has allowed me to be exposed to great thinkers. It is a great organisation to see, listen to and meet with people whose views I would otherwise just read. For me, the reward of purpose and personal development, far outweighs the time and effort.
What else might potential members need to inspire them to join the Scottish Labour Party? As a PPC I am very interested in member’s opinions on issues and campaigns and there are a number of members who put a lot of effort into their responses to my emails. I really think this kind of dialogue should be a standard benefit of being a Scottish Labour Party member. I think a lot of people would join a political party as a forum to talk with like-minded people about politics.
I do not think an email asking member’s opinions on a local living wage or community energy campaign is too great an ask of our elected representatives and candidates. It is even possible to make volunteering more enjoyable by having these kind of discussions whilst stuffing envelopes or walking between houses.
I was really impressed with the UK Labour Party for trying something innovative when they created the ‘registered supporter’. It gave people a reason to sign up but without the taking any benefit away from being a fee paying member. I think the Scottish Labour Party have been right to offer reduced membership fees to increase new membership. However, I believe the party should be free to join. I do not think the income of political parties comes from lots of members paying a little bit and if it did, this income will soon reduce as political party memberships continue to dwindle.
Modern consumer businesses are based on getting lots of people interested by giving away freebies while having fewer people paying large amounts of money. I do not see why this should not be the case in the Scottish Labour Party and I think we must primarily attract people and only afterwards think about the getting money from the people who are in a position to give larger donations.
I think currently a lot of people get their political news via social media, and the Internet is opening ways of connecting political parties with their membership that have not yet been fully utilised.
Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement relies on social media to aim to produce a form of horizontal organisation that allows democratic participation of citizens. I really like Labour’s Your Britain website, as by allowing members and supporters to engage in the policy making process it provides members the ability to link up and discuss similar policy interests, even though they may live on opposite sides of the UK.
The comments from elected representatives and members of the policy forums are also hugely important as it allows people to share their political opinions with someone relatively important, in the hope that they will be able to do something about the issue. I think more needs to be done to promote Your Britain as I think it could be an excellent draw to get people to join the party.
In addition to policy development I think that social media could be used to make campaigning and fundraising more fun by making it into a game. Perhaps there should be a Labour membership Facebook page that posts leader board details where competitive members or constituency parties could battle it out to make the most contacts, sign up the most members or raise the largest donations? I am aware that the party rewards constituencies with high contact rates but I think the visible recognition and friendly competition might inspire more people to get involved.
I thought Kezia Dugdale’s Scottish Labour Skills Match was a really good idea as our membership will doubtlessly possess many skills that could be useful to the party. But I think we need to collect even more data. Modern membership organisations seem to be able to know what their members want before members know themselves. We should know more about our membership, not just their professions but their values and what they think about various bits of policy. Perhaps with this data, Scottish Labour could create focuses on smaller single issues that may encourage more people to join?
Perhaps the benefits of Scottish Labour Party membership need to be more material? I once heard criticism of the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade union movement in which a right-wing commentator likened Labour Party membership for trade unionists to supermarket loyalty cards. I am sure it was an insult, but in reality that comparison might actually be very useful if trying to convince the general public of the benefits of membership of a political party.
I also thought about the benefits that some employers provide for staff. While not being a perfect exemplar on corporation tax, Google seem to be excellent with regard to the wellbeing of their staff and supply employees with a free concierge service to handle their errands. The service does things like oil changes; dry-cleaning and alterations; car washing; DVD rental; ATM use and credit union services; bike repairs and laundry. I see no reason that Scottish Labour Party membership could not produce some kind of member’s time banking scheme to help with these kinds of errands. In fact Google employees can give each other “massage credits” for a job well done on projects, so time banking is not a million miles away from their current practice. In addition to this, with our campaigns against payday loans, perhaps Scottish Labour Party membership could allow access to a credit union.
Perhaps free child day care, breakfasts, car rental and use of gyms would be too expensive but there is no reason that why there cannot be free park runs or football games for Scottish Labour Party members? Every Friday Google employees can unwind and socialise with free beer and wine. This would be very expensive but perhaps having organised weekly social gatherings to chat about politics would be a draw to potential members?
If not the benefits that employers offer, what about the benefits banks offer current account holders? Some banks offer discounted meals at restaurants, cinema tickets and annual magazine subscriptions. Others, free mobile phone and travel insurance, car breakdown cover and first access to tickets for sought-after music, theatre and sporting events. Perhaps businesses would be keen to help the party and provide discounted products and services?
Even more outside of the box, I know that the Guardian have a Guardian Soulmates matchmaking service. Is there any reason why Scottish Labour could not provide a similar service to attract new membership? Would Scottish Labour Party speed dating nights be too hard to organise?
We often hear elected representatives saying that Labour are the party of small business but could we back up this claim by providing business support as a benefit of Labour Party membership? Perhaps start up loans would be too expensive but what about supplying business advisers over the phone, putting on business training courses or local business networking events?
Trade unions, in addition to providing protection at work, offer their members a wide range of additional benefits centring on providing a legal and financial safety net for members outside of work. Could Scottish Labour share these services or offer something similar to encourage new membership? I also noticed that some trade unions offer a university/higher education bursary benefit. I wonder whether Scottish Labour could encourage new student membership by providing bursaries to campaigners of the year?
It is not impossible to increase the membership of a political party. The nationalists Nigel Farage and Nicola Sturgeon are doing it today. The public seem to have decided that the future of political membership lies in single issue groups and single issue parties.
Perhaps voters find it easier to understand what single issue parties stand for and as a result are more willing to give them their backing? It is a luxury that the Conservatives and Scottish Labour do not have. It’s a shame that voters no longer seem to perceive themselves as working class, as the clue about our single issue is in our name.
I understand that I have thrown out lots of ideas in this piece. But with Scottish Labour’s Clause 4 moment being voted on in our one day special conference, perhaps we could at the same time think about increasing the benefits that Scottish Labour Party members receive and provide further distinction between a Scottish Labour Party and Scottish branch office?