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Edward Wild: Does membership of political parties matter?

Wild EdwardEdward Wild is the Director of Wild Search, a Westminster based executive search and advisory business which works for charities, membership organisations and education providersFollow Edward on Twitter.

As we approach conference season, with the ever-increasing corporate delegate numbers, isn't it time to ask whether membership could become an engine for the revival of the Conservative Party’s financial and political fortunes - particularly given recent reports of donors scaling back their support, and a long-term decline in donor giving?  Does a clear distinction need to be made between those who are supporters - and perhaps don’t want to subscribe - and those who do?

In other words, perhaps the whole definition of membership should be revisited.  After all, membership of all the main political parties is in decline – at a greater rate in some than others, and it’s a trend shared by parties across Europe. Conhome suggested in 2010 that Conservative membership was down to 177,000 (against 10.7 million Conservative votes cast in the same year at the election). And it’s probably not a surprise. Other membership organisations have suffered during the economic downturn. Whereas professional bodies for accountancy, legal and property have a strong commercial position due to their validation and accreditation, organisations which are not seen to be of critical professional important have to demonstrate the value they offer and the return on the investment made.

Beyond politics, not all membership organisations are in decline. The National Trust has an ever growing membership of more than four million (a substantial increase over the last decade). What do its members receive and why do they not only renew but does the net number increase? Across the heritage and rural sectors English Heritage, the Historic Houses Association, the Country Land and Business Association and the Royal Horticultural Society should also be added. Further afield the Caravan Club has 1.7 million members who all enjoy the benefits of the sites they can visit. Clearly political parties cannot offer access to the remarkable buildings and landscapes of these organisations –but can they work harder to establish what will drive membership and/or revenue growth?

One answer has to be in the mechanics of membership – discounts for direct debit payments serve to ensure a greater retention rates and savings on administration and could also yield a higher rate – a monthly direct debit (a popular source of funding with many of the larger charities) could secure a higher annual amount. It is more than a decade since the compulsory minimum subscription was introduced under William Hague’s leadership of the Conservative Party. Yet times have changed and perhaps that minimum amount needs to be increased.

Another may be in the facilities, services or offers which members alone may benefit from. So many mass membership organisations offer membership benefits which can outweigh the cost within a few days of joining. Other businesses, keen to increase their revenue, are building rewards systems around partnership deals and rewards. A good example of this is the Jockey Club Racecourses, who offer a rewards programme which has more than 3,000 partners and serves not only to drive revenue for the Jockey Club but also for its key partners.

One existing benefit, taken up by the few and not the many, is a reduced price pass to the annual conference – but that is attended by an increasingly small proportion of members. Developing events which are exclusive to members will appeal to some – most events at constituency level will be open to all (albeit with a higher price to non members). Yet the sums of money needed by all political parties could be significantly increased by a lower overall total but with a higher subscription.

The National Lottery continues to flourish, and there could be lessons to be learnt there. Political parties have long promoted raffles of one form or another. Perhaps a monthly draw ticket with a major reward could be provided in return for an increased membership fee? Is the key objective of party membership around participation, engagement, revenue generation or all three? What is the correlation between members of each association and active participants? Does more participation make more money or is this at the margins?

Sceptics will question whether the same kind of programme could work for a political party. It is not without challenges. Yet the increasingly tough funding climate for political parties must demand some serious thinking on what is needed if compulsory party funding is to be resisted.


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