Sunday, 21 August 2011

The slow death of political parties - perhaps they should try some marketing?

The BBC finally cottoned on to something that some of us have known for ages – political parties are dying out:

Political party membership appears to be in terminal decline in the UK - so can anything be done to reverse the trend? And does it matter?

It was once a source of cultural identity and pride for millions of British people.

But at just over 1% of the population - low by European standards - party membership is fast becoming a minority pursuit.

There are more members of the Caravan Club, or the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, than of all Britain's political parties put together.

The BBC reporter goes on to speculate as to the reasons for this calamitous situation – politics is boring, the rise in ‘individualism’ (pointing oddly at twitter and facebook as evidence of this trend) and the decline of political clubs. What the reporter doesn’t ask – choosing instead to report on the latest round of frantic efforts to get more folk involved from Labour and Conservative Parties - is why?

The problem is pretty simple – only anoraks and the politically ambitious join political parties because these are the only people who get something from membership. When I pay my subscription to the Royal Horticultural Society, I don’t do so in order to attend meetings but in order to get privileged entry to the Society’s gardens and events. This isn’t noble any more that joining the National Trust or RSPB is sold to us as a selfless act.

The problem with political parties is that there is no offer. In times past there was an offer – essentially a well-connected social life. People joined the Conservative Party because it provided a round of dances, parties and sherry mornings. The Young Conservatives (a much better name than the current ultra-naff “Conservative Future”) thrived – becoming Europe’s biggest youth organisation – on this basis.

At a family event a while back – sadly a funeral – I was taken by the extent to which all those attending has made friends, met wives or husbands and developed business contacts through the YCs. The vicar who led the eulogies spoke of being a YC, of borrowing the Mission to Seamen’s van for boozy nights out and of the lasting connections made in those few years. All – or nearly all – this has now gone.

And I’m sure the same goes for the Labour Party.

Despite not having an offer – a reason for someone to pay a chunk of cash to join – the political parties continue to dream that the volunteer-driven, inconsistent and fractious structures of meetings, committees and contradictory bureaucracy will serve to create what Ed Miliband calls (I so love this):

...a modern, outward-looking organisation

While at the same time Ed – seeing the payments to councillors – takes an easy route to raising cash. Introducing a tithe:

A leaked report shows that the Opposition leader plans to force more than 5,000 Labour councillors to hand over seven per cent of their town hall ‘wages’ to stop party coffers running dry.

And Labour’s frontbench team has called for increases in wages paid to councillors, which would benefit the party by resulting in an increase in the value of the new levy.

But before all the Tories out there get excited, we do this too. I pay a proportion of my basic councillor’s allowance to my local association. This is a requirement demanded of me for being permitted to stand as a Conservative and amounts to around £1,000 per year. In addition, I’m expected to pay my own election expenses if I am successful.

And this is the problem. Not that I have to pay but that the leadership of our political parties see public funding as the salvation to the financial woes of those parties and to escaping from the curse of the billionaire – the appearance that very rich men can, and did, effectively buy political parties.

The first front in the desire of political parties to become institutions of the state was the introduction of “Short Money” in the mid 1970s. This seemed a jolly idea – let’s help the opposition work better by giving it, as a political institution, some public money for that purpose. And it is not an insignificant sum of money – in 2009/10 in amounted to nearly £7m. But it acted to show the parties that they could turn to the state to solve their financial woes rather than rasie money the hard way.

And many – building on the creation of a protected legal status for political parties – now argue for direct state funding for political parties. Most notably Sir Hayden Phillips in his 2007 report that followed the “cash for honours” scandal:

In a complex formula to give state aid to parties, which would give a major boost to smaller parties from the Greens to the BNP, the report suggests that funding should be linked to general election votes in order to establish that fringe or new parties have a "base of support in the community". 

It recommends that eligible parties should receive 50p each year for every vote cast for them in the most recent general election and 25p for every vote in the most recent ballots for the Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and European parliament. 

In addition, Sir Hayden suggests an internet-based system for parties to attract subscribing "supporters", who would pay £5 which would be matched by the same amount from public funds - up to a cap of £5m. 

In return for such public funding - which would replace the small policy grants currently available to parties - political parties would have to produce an annual report showing how the money had been spent. 

Such a system – however much the ‘great and good’ may like it – would represent the death of politics and create parties as clients of state bureaucrats rather than as private, campaigning organisations. Yet that seems the only solution – there isn’t a look across to successful membership organisations asking how they achieve that success.

And it is pretty simple really:

  1.  A strong, consistent brand and public offer focused on consumer benefits as well as the wider mission of the organisation.
  2. A well-resourced, professional and dedicated marketing operation – not one using the gimmicks of PR but one founded in fundraising, direct marketing and sales
  3. Regular and high quality communication with the member, prospective member and supporter – containing offers, incentives and rewards as well as information about the mission and achievements of the organisation

This is why the RSPB, National Trust, Caravan Club and even Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth have succeeded while the political parties decline. It isn’t simply “social change” or other such mumbo-jumbo of an excuse but that political parties in the UK focus on servicing the needs of political elites rather than on developing a public offer giving reason for the ordinary person to join the party.

Nothing will change – the parties will carry on declining, continue to disengage with the public and eventually will take more of the state’s money. At no point will these parties turn to us marketers and ask: “how can we build a membership as big as the RSPBs?”

And that’s a question we can answer.



Curmudgeon said...

I think another reason for it is that parties no longer represent a clear set of principles or interests in the way they once did. It is more a case of a detached managerial group at the head of the party trying to sell the voters Brand X as opposed to Brand Y.

SadButMadLad said...

This joining a group to get benefits such as an immediate social grouping is why a lot of Americans are Christians - not really because they are but because that is the major way they get together as families. The church organises all the "dances, parties, and sherry mornings".