Why election results matter to parties’ grassroots

June 1, 2009

justin_fisherJustin Fisher is Professor of Political Science and Director of the Magna Carta Institute at Brunel University. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The elections this Thursday are widely expected to be bad for Labour. And depending upon which poll you believe, they may not be brilliant for the Conservatives. But a familiar call will emerge nevertheless – that a loss of seats, particularly at local council level, will lead to a further decline in that party’s grassroots. This reality is, however, a bit more complex.

To be sure, local councillors are typically very active local party members, and election defeat will naturally lead to a scaling down of their own activity. However, councillors only make up a tiny proportion of local party memberships, so why does defeat matter so much? The answer is to draw an analogy with a football team. When a team is losing, the crowds that it attracts tend to fall.

Equally, when a team is winning, attendances tend to rise. The same is broadly true for local parties. Although party membership overall is in decline, election victory tends to slow decline, while defeat tends to accelerate it – especially when a candidate is well beaten. So, election results do matter for local parties because defeat in one election will tend to lower the level of human resources available to a party in the next one.

But do members really matter that much when it comes to campaigning? Again, the answer is not necessarily obvious. First, campaigning has certainly moved on from it consisting largely of doorstep canvassing and loudhailers attached to car roof racks.

A variety of modern campaign techniques – such a telephone canvassing and direct mail – have been growing in importance for some years now, such that since 2001, the major parties have been engaging in more modern campaigning than traditional efforts built on volunteer activities by members.

Modern techniques, which require fewer volunteers, are now integral to campaigns. And, techniques such as direct mail are actually more responsive to individual voters’ concerns. Built on huge databases, which combine demographic data with the results of telephone canvassing, parties are now able to respond quickly to the interests and concerns of voters.

And from a vantage point of pure electoral calculation, all these resources can easily be harnessed where they are needed most – in target seats. The same cannot always be said for members. The Conservatives, for example, tend to have their largest local memberships in strongly Conservative areas and the evidence for all parties is that members are often unwilling to campaign outside their own patch on a large scale.

Faced with these developments, it is tempting to argue that the loss of parties’ grassroots is disappointing, but little more than that. Again, however, the picture is more complex. Whilst voters do not reject modern campaign techniques, the evidence nevertheless is that they respond much better to traditional ones – voters value the “human touch”, and parties that combine well organised modern campaigns with a good dose of traditional face to face contact tend to be rewarded electorally.

So what are parties to do, given that voters seem to what want what parties are increasingly unable to deliver? Given that membership decline is an international trend that shows little sign of reversal, one solution may be to re-examine the concept of membership itself.

However easy parties may try to make it, nailing your colours to the mast and joining a party is a big decision, especially given that voters are increasingly volatile in their electoral behaviour. Better then for parties to ease up on the assumption that campaign workers are members and recruit supporters instead, who are happy to help out without having to sign on the dotted line. A more flexible approach to the grassroots then may be the best way for parties to deal with the fallout from electoral defeat.

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