Is this the new direction of [party] membership?

GP Sarah Wollaston was yesterday elected as the Conservative candidate for the Totnes seat currently held by Anthony Steen.

But it was not so much her election as the manner in which it took place that is interesting: Wollaston was elected through a postal ballot open to everyone on the electoral register for the constituency.

A back of the envelope (groan) calculation suggests that around 16,500 people voted, in other words just under a quarter of those eligible to do so.  Whilst therefore not representing an overwhelming turnout, the candidate has a significantly larger mandate than if she had been elected by Conservative party members alone.  This confirmation of broader popularity increases the likelihood of a successful election as an MP.

As the BBC’s World at One noted, at “£40k a pop” it is likely to be an experiment that is only rarely repeated.  But it is groundbreaking. Labour MP Frank Field wrote a blog piece congratulating the Opposition on their bravery in trialling the new method, and noted the likely shakeup to the parliamentary system and, particularly appositely for the Future of Membership project, for membership structures of political parties. 

It’s not without its critics.  As this article in the Guardian noted, "Many party members like having a say in the selection of candidates and they resent the prospect of that power being shared with non-members." This describes an archetypal question for membership organisations in general as well as for the membership of political parties: how to ensure that all of one’s stakeholders (here, voters) are engaged with one’s work [for charities, an imperative] whilst still serving the needs of members.  After all, membership forms only a small subset of one’s stakeholders, but often provides the core of an organisation’s revenue.

The solution found seems to be that often offered by membership charities – provide a differentiated or graded model of ‘benefits’ or engagement.  In this, everyone benefits or takes part to a certain degree, but members have an advanced level of involvement that they feel is worth paying for. This can be across a scale of, or offering combinations from, intangible benefits (eg a warm thank you for supporting something), tangible benefits (such as free or reduced-cost services) and/or increased power or governance rights.  The final option was offered in Totnes, where the party membership “had all the choices up until the last three candidates” (quote from the Guardian). 

This is a move from the traditional either/or model of members (with rights) and non-members (without) to a more fluid structure, what Frank Field foresees as a future of “two tier type party membership” which would still have “core activists […but] thereafter the membership will become blurred”.

This is a risky bet – as an organisation or party, you can’t be sure that you won’t lose members, annoyed at what they perceive to be a moving of the goalposts eliciting the response “this isn’t what I signed up for”.  But it is arguably a sensible strategy. 

With ever-decreasing levels of political party membership (see this driver on formal political engagement) and an attitudinal and societal shift away from lifetime support of a single cause, another model needs to be explored.  Blurring the boundaries between who is in and who is out is something I anticipate we will see much more of in membership structures, necessitated by drivers of falling membership numbers and revenue and/or changing membership patterns. Totnes is likely to be an early indicator of a growing trend.

Last updated at 14:31 Fri 14/Aug/09.
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The Totnes experiment also raises other questions for civil society.

If the South Hams area is a safe Conservative constituency, could the selection of GP Sarah Wollaston as Tory candidate in this US-style 'primary' be said to have effectively replaced the likely 2010 general election? Yet Dr Wollaston was interviewed on Newsnight saying that she was given just £200 to spend on her ‘primary’ campaign, and had no time to canvas support, and little apparent inclination for it.

Will we see more of this in other constituencies?

If one party has a strong majority in a constituency, will such 'primaries' short-circuit the electoral process? Will they reduce the space for civil society to lobby candidates when they are at their most receptive (in the drawn-out run up to an election)?

Or will it enliven participation and build community cohesion by giving all those people who vote Labour in Tory heartlands (or vice versa) a feeling that their voice still counts?

Will we see a new sort of tactical voting? Lib Dem and Labour activists in Totnes were quick to spot that if their supporters voted for the weakest Tory candidate in this 'primary', even if that candidate romped home in the next General Election, the opposition parties would have an easier time of it for the next four years and be in a stronger position at the General Election after next!

Will that sort of tactical voting actually drive down the ability of elected MPs - with big implications for campaigning and lobbying?

Kathryn's picture


Third Sector Foresight

If you're interested in this topic, it's worth having a look at which

seeks to facilitate the process of civic participation via web and mobile technologies.

You can also hear what he's got to say in a podcast on Netsquared (Sun 27 July)

Karl's picture


Third Sector Foresight

This is an interesting experiment that would be akin to a chair of trustees being elected by a charity's supporter base. Clearly not for all - but these experiments are interesting and collectively it will be worth watching to see if they are more widely mimicked. Many seem to be imported from the US - so for example, reports in the last few days talked about proposals to give local authorities to hold Californian style ballots at the same time as local and national elections. I suppose the question might be whether they collectively constitute a trend, a genuine shift towards more a more participative democracy?

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