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Membership of Britain’s political parties has been declining since its heyday in the 1950s.  Both the main parties have under 200,000 members, meaning they are able to attract less than one-third of one percent of the population to their ranks.  Membership of the National Trust is eight times the combined membership of all the parties together.  Yet, despite numerous initiatives, none have been able to reverse the trend, let alone attract a substantial new following.

Labour have gone furthest in trying something new, with Ed Miliband creating a ‘registered supporter’ whereby you can register your support for £3 and in return take part in party leadership elections.  I doubt this has made much difference as it is a compromise rather than a well thought through, radical change in direction - they're called supporters so members won’t get upset, but you can’t just call them supporters as anyone can support the party so they have to be registered supporters.  Who is inspired by being a registered supporter?   Worthy certainly, but hardly imagination grabbing.

The internet has opened up new ways of connecting, altered the way that organisations engage with their customers, changed the way people think and captured terabytes of information, yet political party membership has remained fundamentally unaltered.

If we were to take this new world and apply it to membership of political parties what would they look like?

Parties would be free to join.  Parties are stuck in the mindset of thinking their money comes from lots of people paying a reasonable amount - £45.50 for Labour and £25 for Conservatives.  They dare not reduce this amount for fear they’ll bring in less cash, yet this income dwindles anyway as membership keeps falling. As Nicholas Lovell has argued in a recent RSA lecture,  modern consumer businesses are based on the curve – getting a lot of people interested by giving away things for free while having fewer people giving large amounts of money.  Political parties are good at getting a lot of money out of a few people, it’s the middle and tail of the curve they fail at with their traditional model.  They need to attract people first and afterwards think about the money.

The internet has opened up new ways of connecting, altered the way that organisations engage with their customers, changed the way people think and captured terabytes of information, yet political party membership has remained fundamentally unaltered.  

Volunteering would be fun.  You volunteer for a political party and are constantly asked for money while your main role is to spend hours stuffing leaflets in envelopes and through letterboxes, or asking people how they’ll vote.  The internet means entertainment at your fingertips and competition for people's time is intense.  The best organisations today make volunteering engaging, stimulating and fun.  Political parties should make volunteers spend less time doing dull things are more time doing what they joined the party for – discussing ideas and debating with people.  There will be a few less leaflets delivered in the short term, but it'll be worth it in the long run.

Members would be able to talk to any other members about anything.  Members would be able to discuss topics with those who share their interests, no matter how specific.  Geographical communities, though still important, are weakening, while communities of interest are growing as the web enables people with similar interests to link up more easily. Political parties currently cater for this in either formal ways such as interest groups or in the free for all of open forums.  Light touch facilitation to connect individuals to those who want to debate similar topics, no matter how narrow, should be central to their membership offer.

Gamification would be the norm.  This is the process of turning as much as possible into the equivalent of games, something the internet has highlighted as a powerful motivator.  Those who make the most calls, sign up the most members, raise the largest donations would get rewards such as meetings with MPs, a tour of the House of Commons, award ceremonies and so on.  There would be leader boards at different levels to gauge performance.  There would also be lots of visible recognition to accompany this to promote friendly competition.  While not everyone likes the idea of competing, done in the right way it works well.

Even more data collection.  Last, but most important, you need brilliant data.  Web giants have demonstrated just how powerful data collection can be.  Modern membership organisations are great at knowing what their Members think before members do.  Political parties should know what the interests of each individual are, who lives in each house, what they think of various aspects of their policy and so on, tailoring their communications accordingly.  The old mosaic profiling will no longer suffice.  To give just one example, when volunteers call people, it should be to people who are (or have been) in the same profession, or who share an interest, or have some other link so there is an immediate connection that can be used.  On the doorstep I should know what interests the person I'm meeting and what their concerns are.  Campaign literature should be tailored to each individual.

Each party does some of the above to a greater or lesser extent but it is ad-hoc.  Parties as a whole are unable to break out of the shackles of old ways of thinking.  The first one that does should have an unstoppable advantage, but it will take courage to make the leap.


Oliver Reichardt is the Director of Fellowship at the RSA

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