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Counting party members and why party members count

In mid-January 2015, British newspapers suddenly developed a keen interest in Green Party membership. A headline from The Independent proclaimed “Greens get new member every 10 seconds to surge past UKIP’s membership numbers ahead of general election”; other articles compared the membership sizes of the UK’s parties, calculating where Green Party membership stood in relation to that of UKIP (ahead of it, as of January 2015), or of the Liberal Democrats (slightly behind). What triggered this sudden flurry of media attention, and the related jump in Green Party enrollment?

The immediate cause was the broadcasters’ decision to exclude the Green Party from the pre-election leaders’ debate, even though UKIP would be included for the first time. This decision was buttressed by the official communications regulator, Ofcom, which cited electoral performance and opinion poll support in ruling that UKIP was a major party for purposes of allocating party political broadcast, but the Greens weren’t. In response, the Green Party’s leader, Natalie Bennett, pointed to the party’s rapidly increasing membership as a sign that her party enjoyed popular support equal to that of UKIP – at least in membership terms. While the rising membership numbers did not immediately persuade the broadcasters to change their stance, the Green Party gained strong favorable publicity from these well publicized figures – and it gained a large number of new members.

Ard! 50/365 by Blue Square Thing. CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 via Flickr

This raises the question: what are party members good for? This episode with the UK Green Party shows that one answer is legitimacy. Parties can point to their membership rolls as evidence that they enjoy strong support from real people. (Of course, membership numbers can work the other way as well, with declining numbers seen as a sign of popular disaffection. Indeed, the three largest British parties have enrollments today that are significantly smaller than they were at the beginning of the 1990s, and this fact is often cited as evidence of a more general loss of popular trust in political parties.)

But party members can help their parties as more than just numerical tokens of popular support. They often are enlisted as volunteers, and may do the unglamorous but effective campaign work that helps their party to mobilize its voters on election day. Some party members make donations in addition to their dues. Party members can help to put a more human face on party politics when they let friends and family members know about their partisan leanings; in this sense, they act as ambassadors for their parties. In many parties, members are important in other ways as well. Most strikingly, they sometimes play politically significant roles in picking the party candidates and party leaders. That is certainly true in Britain today. Indeed, whichever of Britain’s nationwide parties participate in the leadership debates this spring — whether two parties (Labour and Conservative) or five (Labour, Conservative, LibDems, UKIP, and Greens) – one thing all the party leaders will have in common is that they were selected for their jobs by a ballot of their respective party’s dues-paying members. For all of these reasons, even if parties don’t have a lot of members, those members count for a lot.

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