Following on from my post about the SNP’s surge in membership, I thought it might be interesting to introduce some of the academic work on party membership. It’s an area that’s had some attention from academics, though hasn’t been studied to the same depth as other aspects of political behaviour. There are studies of what party members think, how much they do etc, but not much in the way of why people join political parties, or in terms of different models of party membership. There’s clearly different senses of what it means to be a member of a party across different countries, but also different expectations of what it might to be a party member even within the different parties of the UK. (One interesting effect of that SNP surge may be to see what happens if the expectations of new and existing members as to their roles clash)

People’s incentives for joining (as opposed to merely supporting) a political party are generally reckoned be for one of three reasons:

  • Purposive: Because they support the party’s aims and goals, and want to help them come about.
  • Social: Gaining friendships, other social opportunities and personal status from being a member of the party.
  • Material: Personal benefits that can come from being a member of the party, such as being a candidate/being elected. This can also involve opportunities for personal gain, business contacts and contracts etc.
  • This can help to explain why party membership has dropped so dramatically since it hit its modern peak in the 1950s. What we tend to forget is how much political party membership in that time was primarily driven by social considerations. If, for instance, one wanted to go and drink at the local Conservative, Liberal or Labour club, you had to be a member of the party. People would turn out to watch political speeches because there weren’t as many other options for entertainment of an evening. The members didn’t necessarily have any purposive reasons for being in the party – and they would likely not have been activists in our current understanding of party members – but they performed an important function in linking the party to wider society. This was the period of the politics of the mass party.

    The problem for modern parties, though, is that however much they try, those days aren’t coming back and in Katz and Mair’s term, the mass party has been replaced by the cartel party. This can be seen as a reaction to the end of the mass party era, or as a further cause of it with parties no longer seeing the need for a mass membership as they find other ways to connect with the electorate and wider society.

    The key question, though, is why anyone would join a political party in the modern age? The social benefits are not what they were, and unless someone wants to be an active member, most of the other benefits suffer from a free-rider problem – an individual membership will usually have very little effect on whether a party will achieve its goals, so why not do something else with your time and let others get on with achieving those goals?

    As we’ve seen, there have been some times when the downward trend in party membership has been reversed – and there is a general growth amongst some smaller parties – but those have ended with a reversion to the norm as new members drift away. The SNP’s membership surge might buck this trend, or the new members may find themselves with better things to do with their time when it comes to renew their membership, as has happened with other surges. Can a purely purposive appeal recreate something akin to a mass party, or does the social element of it need to be recreated to make it last?