Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti

“The trouble with writing about politics is that things can change so fast.” So say these authors in a rueful tone at the end of their study of political party membership.

When they started work over five years ago, they thought they would be examining a story of decline. They instead find “the SNP and Labour have enjoyed truly unprecedented growth and the Liberal Democrats haven’t done too badly either”.

They add that “the Conservatives seem to be treading water, finding it difficult to recruit younger people, women and ethnic minorities in particular”.

Whether that is correct, it is perhaps too early to say with certainty. But the growth in the other parties illustrates an aspect of our political  tradition which is easily overlooked, or at least undervalued, namely its ability to correct itself.

Abuses cry out for redress. Often the problem is so intractable that decades pass before one can say it has been dealt with at all satisfactorily. But at length it is tackled, and replaced by some other difficulty.

The problem of over-mighty trade unions, addressed with humiliating lack of success by the governments of Harold Wilson, Edward Heath and Jim Callaghan, was at last settled under Margaret Thatcher, with Tony Blair prevailing on Labour to accept the settlement.

The hollowing out of the membership of political parties, apparent for a long time, is only now being addressed. On the Left, it sprang in part from the humbling of the trade unions, which provided, at least on paper, a membership of millions, and also a practical route by which members of the working class could gain political experience, enter Parliament and reach high office.

Momentum is in part a nostalgic attempt to recreate that working-class involvement, but without the political education, the hard practical experience of negotiation and bringing your members with you, provided by work as a trade union organiser.

On the Right, there is much less fear of socialism than prevailed from 1917 until the 1980s. Bolshevism was a great recruiting sergeant for the Conservatives, to which should be added a certain gift, apparent since the founding of the Primrose League in 1883 and carried on by the Young Conservatives after the Second World War, for making politics enjoyable.

The volume under review adopts a narrower focus. The authors want to know why, in the present day, people join political parties, what if anything they do for those parties, what they think of those parties, why quite often they leave those parties and how the requirements of the membership are balanced against those of the parliamentary leadership.

These questions are all worth asking. To help answer them, the authors surveyed members of Labour, the Conservatives, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party of England and Wales, and UKIP, in 2015 and again in 2017.

Forty-eight tables of figures are provided in this book, starting with “Occupational class profiles of party members and voters”, and proceeding to “Intensity of election campaign activities and purposive, material and solidary incentives”.

These terms are part of the General Incentives Model, which is explained in the text:

Purposive incentives are connected with the stated goals of an organisation: people are frequently motivated to join parties by these core organisational purposes. By contrast, material incentives reflect the desire to achieve tangible personal rewards – perhaps in the form of career benefits – for participation. Solidary incentives relate to the satisfaction derived from the process of participation, including sociability and camaraderie.”

What does all this effort show? In their conclusion, the authors write:

“First and foremost, people join a political party because they are attracted by its principles and very often by its leader and because they are keen to see its policy platform implemented and to stop rival parties bringing in or continuing with policies they dislike and think are damaging. They also join because they believe it’s important that people get involved in democratic politics. True, these expressive, collective policy and altruistic incentives are not the only ones that are important: social norms (friends and family) and selective process incentives (engaging in activities with like-minded people) also matter, but they matter less. Joining for the sake of advancing one’s career (either in or outside of politics) – a selective outcome incentive – is not unknown, of course, but appears to be nowhere near as common as people who aren’t members think it is. This misapprehension, it turns out, is one of several which, along with (equally misplaced) concerns about how much time membership might take up, may prevent people who strongly support parties from actually joining them. That said, it remains the case that some types of people are more likely to join parties than others: their members are not only more convinced than their supporters that they can make a difference, but they are noticeably more male, middle class and better educated, suggesting ‘resources’ are still a factor when it comes to the reasons why people join.”

None of this seems surprising enough to justify the effort needed to read it. Anyone with some slight involvement in politics would already know most of it, and some of the sentiments can be heard expressed in plainer language in the local pub: “They’re all in it for the money” and so forth.

The remarks by practising politicians which are quoted here are more vivid than the surrounding text. A “Liberal Democrat staffer” says:

“If you don’t have members, you’d just turn into a PR company for a bunch of people who want to run the country… There’s no soul to that. It becomes a purely transactional thing.”

And a Tory MP says:

“I found my membership…invaluable in being able to connect me to people because they were plugged into the community: they were in congregations; they were in voluntary organisations; they were school governors. So, I think they act as a bit of a bridge, a link, between you and the community. And, of course, I was single…[So] some of those that I’m closer to play the role for me that perhaps a wife or partner would in telling me ‘You should have worn a tie at that’, ‘You were a bit brusque with X’, or ‘So and so has died; make sure you drop a note’.”

Here one feels one is getting close to politics as it is actually practised – something from which the great apparatus of scrupulous, jargon-ridden social science cuts us off in the rest of the book, with its well-meaning attempts to quantify sentiments which are unquantifiable.

Barbara Pym wrote with wonderful insight and wit about the Church of England because she was a member of it, yet capable of seeing how absurd it often looked.

The story of why people join political parties probably has to be written from the inside too. The outsider can say that socialism, or indeed any form of political engagement, would take too many evenings, but is unlikely to understand why someone might actually want to join the socialists, the Conservatives, the Lib Dems, the Greens, the Scots Nats or the Brexit Party.

The impulse often comes from a feeling of deep disgust with the way some other party is run: an indignant sense that it does not value or listen to its members, or is going to inflict terrible damage on the nation, or on Europe, or on the planet. Every party is in a sense a protest party against the other parties.

So for the parties to gain members, things have to become more dangerous. Brexit too has become a recruiting sergeant.

This book contains scattered insights into the memberships of political parties, but no very remarkable conclusions spring from its statistical tables and it cannot be described as either readable or penetrating.