A new politics? The challenges of multi-speed party membership.

Author:Garland, Jessica
 
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Opening up leader selection to non-member supporters is a growing trend among political parties. Qualitative research on Labour's new grassroots suggests that efforts to convert a larger selectorate into an organised activist base need to appreciate the full range of motivations for partisan commitment.

The last year has witnessed significant change in the organisation of the Labour party. Though much of that change has been unique to the British Labour Party, the changing role for members and increased significance of non-member support raises important new questions for any party moving towards more open affiliation structures. The party's 2015 leadership contest attracted over 200,000 new members and supporters as well as nearly 150,000 affiliated trade union members: a tripling of the party's support base. These seemingly minor structural changes have had implications for the party, implications not limited to decisions about who should lead the party, but for the very nature of its grassroots. I have been exploring these implications from both the supply and demand side of partisan support--what does this change in the party mean for how the party organises and what does it mean for those who support it?

The move to a more open affiliation structure and the expansion of intra-party democracy are not unique to Labour in Britain. Parties across Europe have been changing the way they engage with supporters, opening up affiliation options to looser forms of support. 'Light' supporter and online options are becoming more available and in some cases, parties are opening up political rights to these wider constituencies of support; such as voting rights in leader selections and policy development. (1)

Models of engagement and involvement familiar in newer parties are being adopted by more traditional established parties. In some ways this is a logical response to the changes in society that have made formal party membership less attractive. Declines in class and social ties, and changes in leisure opportunities and communities, mean that party membership is an increasingly unusual choice, rather than the default it might once have been. Expanding affiliation options and making it easier to get involved in party activity outside of formal membership would seem to be the natural response to these shifts. But these organisational changes have consequences.

For established parties, the shift to wider engagement described by Susan Scarrow as 'multi-speed' membership, is not a complete transformation but rather a layering of new affiliation options on top of older structures. Scarrow argues that this is where the tension lies. Retaining formal membership whilst also appealing to a wider group of supporters with, in many cases, the same rights and privileges, raises questions about the distribution of influence within the party. The adoption of more open affiliation can challenge the party's very 'narrative of representation'. (2) Parties like Labour, that have grown out of a cleavage representation model, defending group interests and using membership to reinforce links to the groups they represent, have particular difficulties with the shift to a 'multi-speed' model of representation. In such parties, the widening of affiliation presents a significant shift in the party's notion of political legitimacy: who the party represents and who should define its values.

Though Labour has moved a long way from the cleavage representation model, that 'narrative of representation' appears to still be strong. It helps explain why the party struggled with the notion of allowing supporters to sign up to vote in the leadership contest over the summer of 2015, and why the party has sought to restrict options this time around. In 2015, the party initiated a vetting procedure during the contest that involved rigorous checking of supporter sign ups; their social media activity, past political behaviour and support. Whilst this may have been aimed at avoiding legal challenge (and was no doubt fuelled by those who publicly sought to undermine the process such as high-profile members of other parties) it also suggests the party was struggling with the full implications of a 'multi-speed' way of organising. A year later, the party re-instituted the six month cut-off...

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