The state of the parties
Thanks to Tom Watson (http://www.tom-watson.co.uk/) and Andrew Brown (http://andrewkbrown.wordpress.com) for linking to the fascinating (ok only fascinating to political hacks like me) New Politics Network/Rowntree Trust survey of the state of political parties at a local level in the UK.
Grassroots organisation is one of my pet subjects having been both both a lay and full-time Agent and a parliamentary candidate a couple of times, and "campaign managed" the last couple of borough elections in Hackney.
My observations on the report:
- All the parties are in a mess, but the figures show that Labour has retained a skeleton constituency organisation virtually nationwide whereas "20% of Conservative Associations and 40% of Lib Dem Local Parties have fewer than 100 members per constituency" - as on average only 10% of members are activists, that means there is no local Tory or LD presence to speak of in large chunks of urban Britain.
- This is not just a UK phenomenon - party membership is falling steeply in every major democracy (except France where the PS has just increased its membership through a new cheap rate - but was starting from a base of under 70,000 members as Gallic culture is not into joining things in the way northern Europeans are).
- Increased membership would be a good thing per se as it would help fund the parties, help root them in local communities and make them representative of their voters, but I don't think there is a clear link between more members and more activity - most of the 200,000 new members Labour got in 1994 didn't actually help campaign or attend party events - so a big increase in membership might not help the parties organise on the ground.
- I tend to see some merit in the case put to me by a former Labour General Secretary that it's actually organisationally more effective to have 10 activists who are self-organising and will put in 10 hours of campaigning a week than to have to manage 100 activists who will only do 1 hour a week - and each of whom has to be trained, checked up on to see they have delivered their leaflets, visited to dish out work etc.
- There probably will be a big surge in Labour membership again in the future BUT it's likely to be because we lose a General Election - not a price worth paying. And the extra 50-100,000 members will pay their £36 but are unlikely to do much - they are the same people who join Amnesty or Greenpeace or the RSPB or English Heritage - they join things as a statement in itself, but drop out when we are in government and taking tough decisions.
- To get members who will be activists too we need to target individuals who are already "activists" in other fields - single issue campaigns, community or faith groups, tenants associations, trade unions. "If you want something done, ask a busy person".
- I am not convinced that chucking money (state or otherwise) at a local party will always regenerate it - having a full time agent or organiser can just create a dependency culture where people who would or did volunteer their time do less and leave it to the full-timer. With the exception of funding staff, constituency politics in the UK is actually quite cheap because of strict election spending limits - the amount of cash needed for posters and leaflets can be met by donations and fund-raising social events - the real organisational difference is made by getting people to give up their time to do things - and that is trickier now because there are more competing work and leisure calls on people's time than there used to be.
- Having said that the round of staff redundancies at national and regional level that follows every General Election is particularly unhelpful in that there are no staff to go out and develop, train and build up constituency and branch organisation at the exact point in the electoral cycle when there would be time to do this.
- Most people will do stuff at election time if you ask them. The problem is not that people won't come when we "bang the gong" but that the person responsible for gong-banging in a ward or constituency may have become disillusioned or organisationally pessimistic and doesn't ask people to work.
- A very small nucleus of hard working people is usually enough to create a snowball effect and create quite an active local party - once you have say 10 people who enjoy campaigning and socialising together, others will see something that looks worth being part of.
- Leadership by example is the key. The impact of MPs and PPCs who prioritise campaigning and are always the first person knocking on a door and the last person to stop is critical. People won't go out and do the work unless the candidate leads from the front. There are loads of good examples of Labour MPs who have really worked at regenerating their CLPs - Jon Cruddas, Jim Murphy, Tom Watson, Ian Austin, Jim Knight, Siobhain McDonagh all spring to mind. And then there are senior ministers who don't campaign year round in their own constituency and have only themselves to blame if their local party is a hollow shell. To give you an idea of the personal campaigning impact (let alone the organisational and leadership/motivational role) the Candidate can have if they work hard enough, I calculated after the last General Election that I personally canvassed/voter ID'd about 15,000 electors in the 18 months before the election and a further 5,000 during the month of the campaign - about 1/3 of the entire electorate (cue snide comments about that explaining why my vote went down ...).
I guess my conclusion is that I don't believe that the report's policy proposals will provide a silver bullet that suddenly gets huge party memberships and loads of local activism going. Some of their ideas have merit per se, others like increasing constituency campaign spending limits (which would benefit richer parties) or increasing the use of freepost (creating even less need for activists to deliver leaflets) I fundamentally disagree with.
The real solutions lie within the political parties - there is plenty of best practice where constituency parties are thriving - it basically comes down to hard graft by a core of committed individuals - particularly MPs and PPCs - who create a campaigning framework to mobilise the less committed. There are no short cuts or organisational quick fixes - no political miracle that will suddenly cause an upsurge in activism. Go back to your constituencies and prepare to knock on doors and deliver leaflets ...