Political parties have had an issue with falling membership numbers in almost every country in the world over the past few decades. In fact, it presents political parties with a serious credibility issue when only about 4% of the electorate are willing to support them. Political parties understand this and are working on alternative models of supporter engagement that we will look at here as well as a framework for how to implement this if you are a political party operative.
Parties were originally devised with a mass membership model in the early decades of the 20th century, one that reflected industrial society at the time. Society in 2020 however is far more diverse and contingent, with much of society’s interactions taking place online. Parties are struggling to catch up to these changes and begin to reflect this back in their engagement models. They are not the only ones struggling with this as unions and religious bodies are experiencing similar challenges.
One of the key factors that has also contributed to this falling membership is the fact that 68% of countries worldwide now fund parties directly. This means that parties don’t need membership fees to survive. In effect memberships are falling because parties are not attractive enough to the electorate and memberships are not now essential to the parties in order for them to survive.
The bigger issue this raises is, how can political parties be legitimate when they have such a small percentage of the electorate as members? Critically low levels of membership delegitimizes parties as representative organizations and opens up the danger of a lack of accountability or institutionalized thinking by the parties.
Over the past number of decades a class of ‘professional’ party has become common. This type of party can be funded largely by the state and a small group of large donors. To this extent it is unhooked from reliance on memberships. Professional parties have conducted their election campaigns and communications through mass media and marketing techniques. To them the strategy of mobilizing large memberships to fight elections has been unattractive in its complexity. However, since the advent of social media their control of media narratives has been massively eroded. Professional parties are now seeing competing narratives on social media undermining their carefully crafted campaigns. This has returned them to the idea of building membership as a necessary element in political party operations.
So, we are at a critical juncture where parties need to find new types of community outreach in a digital world. Let’s take a look at some of those ways.
A recent paper by the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance looked at this issue in detail and presented three main ways in which party membership is innovating. A recent panel on political parties and participation hosted by Idea International is an interesting accompanying discussion.
In the original model of party membership a member of the electorate agrees to join the party, pays a yearly fee and is granted rights to vote on party policy and leadership contests. What is clear in 2020 is that that type of membership is not widely attractive, especially to younger people. Memberships are typically dominated by older cohorts of the public and so lack the representative spread of the general population.
Parties, along with unions and other civic organizations are moving away from this model and looking at how else to recruit and engage supporters. First and foremost of these is the multi-level engagement model. This is used by, for example, the Liberal Democrats in the UK, where they allow people to be members or supporters. This might come with lower or no membership fees for supporters. A supporter might be willing to lend support through sharing social media posts, signing up to a newsletter, or helping out with a campaign. Their support is valued but might not extend to full membership with voting rights and influence on policy decisions. It also acts as a bridge into the organization where someone might sympathize with the party but need to dip their toes in the water first before becoming a full member. Partido Popular in Spain and the Liberal Party in Canada operate similar tier membership models.
The great advantage of mulit-level membership is that it can sit alongside existing systems of party structure and does not ‘break’ anything. Multi-tier membership is more common in nonprofit organizations where it is called the 'ladder of engagement'. The idea of the ladder of engagement for supporters of community orgs suggests that someone can start out as a casual supporter and move up the ladder to greater commitments of time and money. The ladder of engagement incentivises supporters and develops them as leaders as the local level the more involved they become.
The challenge for political parties in bringing digital transformation and political party software to the way they operate is huge and membership is just one part of that. There are huge advantages though that accrue to those parties that are willing to adopt technology. In fact, technology adoption is an important question in whether parties become more or less democratic in the coming decade.
En Marche in France is a good example of a party that has prioritized digital infrastructure from its inception. They have an internal communication app, Telegram, that all members use to communicate at the local and regional levels of their distributed organization, spreading ideas and debating strategy. It is also a way to broadcast communication down from HQ to the full membership. Compared to traditional membership fora like party conferences, newsletters and local party meetings, this is whole new world of membership engagement and one that is being copied worldwide. In addition to this En Marche have created a digital forum to officially accept and debate ideas on policy and direction directly from members. The Atelier des Idees takes ideas and internalises them into action items at the full party level.
The 5 Star Movement in Italy too has online participatory platforms to hear from supporters. In effect this plugs parties directly back into their members and makes them accountable for what policies the party pursues. Direct democracy elements come into play with digitalization methods and can help to restore trust in political parties. Parties that enact exactly what their memberships direct them to are to be welcomed but come with dangers also and the need to be carefully managed so they are not hijacked for specific causes.
The other big way in which digitalization is affecting party memberships is in their usage of social media for political purposes. The Center Party in Sweden have templated structures and suggestion documents for supporter in how to share and engage on social media. They can reach extraordinary numbers of people by their supporters coordinating social media posts. The Democratic Alliance party in South Africa has this method as one of their main digital strategies, actively recruiting supporters and sympathizers as ‘online ambassadors’ and piggy backing on their social reach to get the party message out there.
Parties are also looking at implementing digital transformation that mirrors the traditional structure of a party with local member groups. Ecanvasser is working with parties across the world to map their local memberships and also give HQ a degree of control over communications and campaigns that are run. This structure allows internal communications like the Telegram app that En Marche use and the voter outreach tools to engage the electorate. Pushing social media posts like the Center Party in Sweden or the Democratic Alliance in South Africa are also easy to do with a full digital infrastructure of this kind.
Reengaging membership and the public at large to become involved in a political party involves mixing the old with the new. There is still a place for recruiting traditional members but there also needs to be an acknowledgement that looser models of support are welcomed and citizens want a different kind of relationship with issues. There need to low barriers to entry, including low or no membership fees but there also need to be attractive entry points for supporters such as issue based campaigns or engagement through an existing organization.
In New Zealand the National Party have used issue based networks to engage new supporters. Instead of the party itself being the thing that is looking for support, it is an issue like the environment, or agriculture that brings the supporter in. In Ireland, political parties pushed to ally themselves with issue groups that grew up to contest referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion in recent years. Being associated with popular movements like these helped to connect with younger voters, if only for a period of time.
Another way to engage memberships is by connecting in with collateral organizations like labour unions. In the UK the Labour Party has close association with some unions and are moving to a model of allowing individual union members to vote in, for example, Labour leadership contests. This way of engaging members of collateral organizations is far simpler and more effective than trying to find members in the community.
In Austria, NEOS, a liberal party allows the electorate and not just members to vote on leadership contests, in effect, peeling back the walls of the party altogether.
Steps to take to innovate on party membership
- Redefine your understanding of party membership to include casual supporters and people who might be only willing to support you for a small period of time or on a specific issue.
- Digitize your operations to ensure new supporters can be recruited and engaged more easily.
- Include online participation platforms to hear directly from members and allow them to communicate with each other. These platforms are an invaluable source of information and avoid the party pursuing unpopular or irrelevant policies.
- Attempt to engage members through collateral organizations or issue-based groups so the engagement is relevant and is likely to result in party support.
- From a cultural perspective, try to be bottom-up in your approach, using member suggestions and empowering local grassroots.
- Focus on giving value to supporters. This might be in terms of delivering impact on policy, governance and ‘getting things done’.
- Focus on giving value to supporters. This might be in terms of giving a sense of achievement, community or personal gain to the individual supporter. People want to get something back from their efforts.
- Embrace accountability and attempt to build trust with your supporters and the wider community.