2017 General Election Diary day 6: Record breaking

Two bits of ‘things not seen in many years’ news coming out today. First up, Liberal Democrat membership has passed 100,000 for the first time since 1994. The milestone was passed at some point today, and the 100,000th member has yet to be revealed, but it’s another example of the way the party’s membership hasn’t just bounced back after the coalition but rocketed on to levels no one was really expecting to see again. The record membership for the party was just a little over 100,000, so expect to see that record broken at some point in the next day or two as well.

It will be interesting to see how this new membership affects the party, given that now over half of the party has joined (or rejoined) since the 2015 General Election. Will these new members be active campaigning in their local parties? Will they all want to come along to the party conference and use their right to vote? Of course, this is only a modern record for the party, as the old Liberals had membership in the hundreds of thousands up until the 1960s, but as I explained in an earlier post on why people join political parties, a lot of that membership was strictly local and more based on wanting to use the facilities of the local Liberal Club than any political tendency.

(For fans of international comparisons, I believe this makes the Lib Dems the largest party within the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, but still behind the Canadian Liberals in the contest to be the largest in Liberal International)

Our second bit of record-breaking comes in Welsh polling news. (Yes, I know I ranted about obsessing over polls yesterday, but I’ve got space to fill and tenuous links to make) Just as Labour look set to head back to early 1906 in having no MPs at all in Scotland, so the Tories are looking to head back to the 1920s in Wales. Which is when they were the largest party. It’s starting to feel like as well as John Curtice for the psephology, the BBC’s election night coverage is going to need a team of historians to keep up with all the ‘first time since’ news that breaks during the night.

With most political commentary looking over the Channel and processing the French Presidential first round results (if you missed it, my take is here), there’s been a slightly muted quality to election campaigning today, which might explain why no one’s seen Theresa May out taking the arguments to the people at all in the last twenty four hours. However, this morning did give us the now traditional first election sighting of Michael Fallon saying that Labour will be bad for Britain’s security. The real challenge for interviewers now is seeing just how long they can keep him talking for before he lapses into that soundbite, though anything longer than a few seconds seems frankly impossible.

In ‘maybe this is the moment that finally collapses this reality back into the real timeline’ news, Ed Miliband has started following the Miliverse Twitter account, which tells us what would have happened in a world where he’d won the 2015 election. Spoiler alert: there’s a lot less Brexit and a lot more arguments over biscuits.

And finally, it’s time for the return of the regular feature that at least one person mentioned on Twitter in the last week so I can claim it’s by popular demand: Election Leaflet Of The Day! And when it comes to the General Election, that title is even more descriptive than usual because we have just one General Election leaflet on the Election Leaflets site – and it’s from Gerald Vernon-Jackson, Portsmouth South candidate for the Liberal Democrats. Unfortunately, Gerald made the classic error of being in such a rush to get the leaflet designed, printed and delivered that he forgot to include anything in it that makes for easy mockery from a blogger like me looking for cheap laughs. However, as the candidate of the first Election Leaflet Of The Day, he is now assured a place in a very, very, tiny footnote in the most meticulously detailed history of this election, should someone choose to write that.

And even though this isn’t a local elections blog, I do feel someone has to draw attention to this leaflet’s ‘we’ve paid for the stock footage of a magician, so yes, we’re using it, I don’t care how little it connects to the text’ aesthetic. I expect to see those principles applied to General Election publicity in the next few days, or I’ll start believing people aren’t really trying.

Some more on political party membership – how rare is a membership like the SNP’s?

snp_cards_and_coin_0A comment by Andrew Hickey got me thinking this morning about how the SNP’s surge in membership fits in a European context. In the post-referendum period, the party now reportedly has 80,000 or more members which makes it the third-largest UK party by membership, but also means its membership is about 2% of the total Scottish electorate. (As a comparison, to achieve that UK-wide, a party would need a membership of over 900,000)

Luckily, to place that into a European context, I don’t need to do a huge amount of work because someone else has already looked at party membership in general across Europe. Van Biezen, Mair and Poguntke looked at the decline of party membership across Europe and their original paper not only includes the overall membership figures for each country, but breaks it down by party. By looking through their figures, I’ve found the following parties that all have around 2% or more of the electorate as members:

Austria: Peoples Party – OVP (700k members/11% of population) and Social Democratic Party – SPO (300k/5%)
Bulgaria: Bulgarian Socialist Party (210k/3%)
Cyprus: Democratic Rally – DISY (40k/9%) and Democratic Party – DIKO (19k/4%)
Finland: Centre Party – KESK (192k/5%)
Greece: New Democracy (350k/4%) and PASOK (210k/2.5%)
Spain: People’s Party (725k/2%)

(Note that these figures are from around 2008, so don’t include new parties that might have reached the 2% milestone by now, or reflect any drop in members since they were obtained. I’d be very surprised if the Greek figures were still even vaguely accurate, for example. They also don’t include regional or national parties like the SNP like the Catalan nationalist parties or the Italian Lega Nord that might make an interesting comparison.)

What these figures do show is that the SNP’s relative size is definitely a rare feat in modern Europe. To have 2% of a population as members of a single political party is rare, even when there’s a general trend of higher party membership than there is in the UK. Most of the countries with a higher percentage achieve that by having membership scattered across several parties, with none reaching 2% or more of the electorate.

While the trend across Europe has been for a gradual decline in party membership, I do need to re-emphasise that these figures aren’t based on current data and so don’t reflect the appeal of new parties and movements. While I suspect the SNP’s tripling of membership post-referendum isn’t common, it would be interesting to see membership trends in other nationalist/regionalist/separatist groups since 2008, as well as the membership levels and trends of new political movements like Greece’s Syriza or Italy’s Five Star Movement. The interesting question is whether the downward trend in membership is set to continue inevitably or if it’s linked solely to the persistence of existing parties and can be reversed by introducing new ones to a political system.

What do Conservative members think? (And what do they think about the coalition?)

One of the benefits of being a student again is getting access to academic journals, which means I can see some of the latest research in political science before it gets chopped up, filtered and misrepresented by the press – if it’s ever covered at all. Instead, I get to read it, then chop it up, filter and misrepresent it to you here.

One new article published in Political Studies is ‘Not as Bad as We Feared or Even Worse Than We Imagined? Assessing and Explaining Conservative Party Members’ Views on Coalition‘ by Tim Bale and Paul Webb.

The main purpose of their research was to look at whether support for the coalition – and any potential future coalition – varied across the Conservative party, and whether those views changed depending on other factors such as their age or political views. Their conclusions on this subject were that the most important factors in support for the coalition, and for any potential future coalition, was dependent on ideological factors rather than demographic ones. As they put it:

In general, we found that demographics (apart perhaps from higher education) and activism do not appear to have much to do with members’ views on whether coalition was the right move in 2010. What matters more is ideology and leadership – more specifically whether members feel the leadership respects them, how close they feel ideologically to their leader, how well they feel David Cameron has performed as Prime Minister, and whether or not they like the policies his government has introduced

While this discovery – that there is a significant chunk of Conservative opinion that would prefer another coalition to returning to opposition – is interesting, what I want to concentrate on here is some of the data Bale and Webb have found out about the general views of Conservative members. These are the statistics they base the detailed work of their study on, but for the general audience they’re interesting in themselves. (The statistics were gathered by a YouGov survey of Conservative members)

The survey found that the average Tory member was 59 years old and more likely to be an ABC1 (83% of respondents) white (95.6%) male (68.9%) from London and the south east (56.8%). They also see themselves as right-wing (8.37 on a 1-10 left-right scale) and more right-wing than David Cameron (who they see as being at 7.02 on the same scale). Questions on left-right and liberal-authoritarian issues, found that they tended to be on the right economically and authoritarian socially, but “more culturally conservative than they are economically right-wing.”

On political issues, you probably won’t be surprised to find that they tend to support Conservative government policies and not support Liberal Democrat ones. In general, their support for or agreement with Conservative policies was 65.6% with 21% opposing or disagreeing. For Liberal Democrat government policies, those averages were 33.9% in favour and 39.3% against. The main outliers from those trends were limited support for university tuition fees (46% support), ring-fencing NHS spending (50%), cuts in defence spending (17%), not restricting workers from Romania and Bulgaria (23%), same-sex marriage (24%) and protecting the overseas aid budget (18%). The pupil premium – a Liberal Democrat policy – gets significantly more support (58%) than other Lib Dem ones.

To give an idea of the policies they do support, here are the percentages of support for other policies:

  • Reduced immigration from non-EU countries: 89.4%
  • The deficit-reduction programme: 96.2%
  • Cutting taxes for business: 85.1%
  • Free/academy schools: 76.4%
  • Cap on housing benefit: 93%
  • Public sector pay controls/freezes: 80.2%
  • Reorganisation of NHS: 78.5%
  • Keeping council tax rises below 2%: 89.3%
  • Reduction of top rate tax from 50% to 45%: 77.9%
  • You might notice that the question of EU membership isn’t in that list. That’s not because it wasn’t asked, but because the results are so interesting that I decided to deal with them separately. The respondents were asked their opinion on two subjects: whether they would support Britain remaining in the EU after membership was renegotiated (Cameron’s current policy) and whether they would support British withdrawal from the EU today.

    There’s a narrow majority in favour of continuing membership after renegotiation – 53.6& support it and 37.9% oppose it. On the question of whether Britain should withdraw from the EU today, though, their view is clear: 70.8% support it, and 20.4% oppose it. Just to make that clear: 71% of Conservative Party members think Britain should leave the EU. If you want to take away a single statistic to explain why David Cameron has a UKIP problem, this is it.

    The main thrust of this research is the coalition, and as saw at the start, it shows that the main dividing line in the Conservatives about whether they support the coalition or not is an ideological one, not one determined by demographics or how active in the party they are. The closer a member feels to the leadership position, the more likely they are to support the coalition. While that might sound somewhat obvious, the important finding is that it is a stronger factor in determining support for the coalition than any other.

    The members were also asked their opinion on their preferred option in 2010: 41% wanted a Conservative minority government, 33% thought the coalition was the best option and 24% would have gone for a second general election. (These are all hindsight figures, not necessarily what they were thinking at the time) That 33% tend to have more support for both Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy, position themselves slightly to the left of the party average (but still perceive themselves to be further right than David Cameron) and aren’t quite as Eurosceptic as the rest of the party, though a majority of them (54.1%) would still support EU withdrawal now.

    What this research gives us is a very interesting insight into the Conservative Party membership, and a sense that while there may be support for the coalition within the party, it’s only for a relationship of necessity, not a great meeting of minds and principles. However, it also shows that there is support within the party for the sort of red meat conservatism that’s being proposed at their conference this week. However, as much as the leadership might try and assuage the membership with policies, the membership’s view on the EU could still be a massive problem for them and a huge opportunity for UKIP to exploit.

    The research project was about the coalition and Conservative members’ views on that as it correlates to their background and beliefs, but what I’d love to see (if it’s possible from the data) is how those views on Europe and the EU break down across the membership. We can see that those who are more in favour of the coalition are less likely to support EU withdrawal, but how does that view break down in terms of age and party activity? It’d be interesting to see if activists are more likely to be in favour of withdrawal than armchair members or vice versa, given the implications that might have on the effect of UKIP defectors. Are they gaining those who do the work, or those who sit at home?

    Are party members more radical than their leaders?

    It’s party conference season, and one of the common stories of that period always used to be of the party leadership (and it didn’t matter which party) facing down the activists in their party. The ‘activists’, we would be informed, would want a policy way out of the mainstream while the leadership was being sensible and moderate. The reason I don’t specify a party there is because it’s a common story based on a common assumption: that the activists within a party are much more radical than the party leadership, and if the party wants to be successful (and appeal to the electorate, which is assumed to be moderate) the activists have to be faced down and/or defeated.

    Now, there are two parts to that assumption. First, the difference between party leaderships and activists/members and second, the idea that a party being more moderate will get it more votes. This post is going to look at the just the first one and assume the second as given, but we’ll look at in more depth in a post another time (look out for me talking about spatial models and Downsian theories).

    Curvilinear_DisparityThe issue we are talking about is known as curvilinear disparity, or to give it its full name, May’s Special Law Of Curvilinear Disparity. The diagram to the left gives a pictorial representation of it – leaderships and supporters are more moderate, and activists more radical, thus further from the centre. Why is this thought to be the case?

    The main explanation is that party leaderships and activists are thought to have different goals and reasons for being involved in politics. The primary goal of leaderships is thought to be office-seeking while activists are said to be policy-seeking. That is, leaderships are more concerned with getting into power (and thus moving towards the centre to get them the votes to do that) while activists are concerned with issues of policy, and more concerned with ideological purity than moving to the centre. Meanwhile, ‘below’ this fight, the less active members and supporters are held to be in roughly the same position as the leadership. So, you can draw a curve from the leaders down to the members that swings out from the centre to represent the position – hence, curvilinear disparity.

    So, political science, political journalism and party leaderships all agree on something, which means you won’t be surprised to find out that when researchers have actually looked in detail at party members and leaders and whether their attitudes differ they’ve found little or no evidence to support curvilinear disparity. Indeed in some cases, they’ve found that party leaderships and elites have had more radical ideas than members, who’ve tended to be more centrist.

    So why does the idea persist? I’d give two reasons: first, it’s useful for party leadership to be able to send out signals that they’re standing up to the activists to be sensible and moderate. Whether they are or not, they want to send that signal out to the electorate as a whole to show that they’re positioned near the centre, and picking on the activists is a good way to do that.

    Second, my personal theory is that there’s a perceptual bias at work. All political parties contain a range of opinions and it’s a rare party that can find a leadership that reflects all strands of opinion within a party. However, I would hold that a party leadership would be more likely to reflect the ‘moderate’ strand of opinion within the party because the ‘moderates’ are more likely to include a majority of the party membership. The ‘radicals’ are thus the members of the party least likely to be represented by the leadership and so are the most likely to complain and be visibly in opposition. However, they are not a majority of the membership, and neither is their position the average of the entire membership, rather it is the average of the non-represented membership – which almost by definition is unlikely to be a majority, as if it were, it could replace the leadership – but it is more visible, and this gives the impression of a ‘leadership vs activists’ battle.

    I still need to work out that explanation a bit more, but it feels like a workable explanation for me, but the main point to take is that while many do believe that curvilinear disparity is real, the evidence collected thus far doesn’t support the case for it (for instance, see Pippa Norris in the first issue of Party Politics, if you have access to academic journals – sadly, most of the arguments and evidence about this is in journals). The battle of leaderships and activists is not a fundamentally existing part of party politics, no matter how much people tell you it is.

    Why do people join political parties? (And why don’t they do it now?)

    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?

    On party membership

    Screen-Shot-2013-09-18-at-12.16.19As if as a rejoinder to my post yesterday about the declining importance of political parties, there’s been a surge in membership for the pro-independence parties in Scotland since the referendum. The SNP are on course to become the third largest party in the UK in terms of members and according to one comment I saw the Scottish Greens have doubled their membership since Thursday.

    As I said, the general trend in membership in UK parties is downward, and previous large surges (Labour when Blair became leader, the Tories when Cameron became leader) have been minor upward bubbles that disappeared soon after, leaving the trend as it was before. It’s way too early to say if this is the case with the current Scottish surge, but what’s most fascinating is the scale of it.

    The SNP’s membership before this surge was around 25,000 which is approximately 0.5% of the population of Scotland. The interesting thing is that this was anomalous in the UK as a whole, where the largest membership was 0.3% for the Labour Party. Now, the SNP is on course to have 1% or more of the population of Scotland as members. As comparison, the last time a UK-wide party had a membership on this level was the Tories in the late 80s (Labour haven’t reached that level since the late 70s). It’s a return to an era of mass party membership, which could herald an interesting time in Scottish politics.

    Of course, the question is whether this sudden surge in party membership will last. It’s obviously been driven by the after-effects of the referendum, but will this remain as a salient and motivating factor next year? The presence of the Westminster election next year and the Holyrood election the year in 2016 may help in cementing the loyalty of the new members by giving them something to focus on.

    What’s also interesting to wonder is what effect this will have on the Scottish political system and the SNP itself. Can they use these motivated new members to win seats in 2015, and how will people who’ve cut their activist teeth in a referendum campaign deal with an electoral one? Also (and as has been pointed out, it’s a good problem to have), how will the party’s structures cope with the new membership? It’s not intentional entryism, but having a large number of people who’ve joined for one reason is surely going to lead to some interesting issues. The SNP is already relatively large by the current standards of UK political parties, and making it bigger makes things very interesting.

    There aren’t any conclusions to this at the moment, as we’re right in the middle of the event, but it’s definitely something of interest and worthy of note. Growth on this scale, in this short a time, is possibly unique in UK politics (previous surges didn’t have the internet – particularly social media – to facilitate them as much) and the long-term effects of it are going to be worth keeping a close eye on, as though we weren’t all paying attention to Scottish politics anyway.