Friday, September 21, 2012

Uninspiring party politics isn't the only reason party membership is in freefall

In his article for Friday's Telegraph, Fraser Nelson repeats a previously-made claim that Britain is interested in being members of political causes, just not the main parties, using the following examples:
Britain is an intensely political country, and there is no shortage of support (or donations) for the right causes. Over the past two decades, while the Tory party’s membership has fallen by four fifths, the National Trust has seen its membership double. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds has more paying members than all political parties put together.
While he's right that Britain is supporting these causes, it is not entirely clear that it is doing so for the altruistic reasons Nelson suggests. The membership packages he compares offer distinctly different things.

If I join the National Trust, I get "free access and parking at over 300 historic house, gardens and countryside and coastline spaces", a members' handbook, a thrice-yearly magazine and an unspecified free gift.

If I join the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, I get free entry to over 100 nature reserves, a quarterly magazine, a member's pack and a choice of free gifts.

If I join the Conservative Party, I get invitations to dull fundraisers that I have to pay to get into, regular requests for leaflet delivery, and every now and again a letter begging for donations. (And on the two occasions when I joined, I wasn't even issued a membership card - despite repeated, and acknowledged, requests for one to CCHQ.)

These are all at comparable annual prices (in fact the RSPB lets you join on a monthly basis), so if you're on a limited household budget, careful about what you spend your money on, would you go for one of the choices that saves you money on a pleasant family day out every now and again, or the membership that gives you a bit more to toil over when you get home from a hard day's work?

Nelson then goes on to list rising support for the Taxpayers' Alliance, Big Brother Watch and 38 Degrees. Well you know what, membership of all of those organisations is free. And I'll bet many of the people who signed up have already forgotten they'd done so, with their emails either unsubscribed or relegated to the spam folder long ago. (I've certainly registered my support for a few organisations like that.)

The political parties' model of membership is totally outdated for the modern age, and if they don't want to carry on in decline, they're going to have to choose between a model where members get something back for what they put in, or a more diffuse model where members can get involved without having to pay anything at all. That alone isn't going to inspire people, but it's an important step towards reviving participation in British party politics.