§. What is the ESRC Party Members Project about?

The ESRC Party Members Project (PMP) is a three-year project run by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). It aims to study party membership in the six largest British parties: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens, and the SNP.

By collecting original quantitative and qualitative data, the project explores party membership’s supply side (the members themselves and what they do and think) and its demand side (how and what parties think of their membership and their recruitment and retention strategies).


 §. Why this Project?

Few, if any, fully-fledged democracies prosper without political parties. But parties are in trouble almost everywhere – both in terms of public perceptions, which are becoming more and more negative, and in terms of membership numbers, which (with some recent and fascinating exceptions) have been dropping like a stone for some time.

Unless we are willing to see parties become essentially elitist, hollowed-out institutions, this should give us cause for concern. In a healthy democracy, parties should not simply be brands run by elites for their own and for our collective convenience. They need to be rooted in, rather than disconnected from, society. Their programmes need to reflect meaningful differences. Their leaders and their parliamentary candidates are best chosen by competitive election rather than appointment or inheritance. Party members can help ensure that all this occurs in practice as well as in theory. They can also, of course, make the difference between a party winning or losing an election since contests are decided not merely nationally, in the media, but locally, on the ground.

In spite of this, we do not know as much as we might do about party members in the twenty-first century. In the UK there has never been a study of the members of several parties carried out concurrently, nor has there been any systematic study of people who leave political parties after joining them.

The PMP fills this gap by collecting new data both on the offer side (party members), and on the demand side (party professionals and elected representatives).


§. What questions does the Project aim to answer?

The PMP aims to ask and answer the following questions:

  • How, in the twenty-first century, are parties responding – and how should they be responding – to the recruitment challenges they are facing?
  • What do they say they want and what do they really want from the decreasing proportion of citizens who feel some kind of connection with them?
  • And what do those people want from their parties? What motivates the even smaller proportion of them that become party members, and what do they actually do – especially at elections? Why, over the longer term, do some of them stay but so many of them leave?
  • Does the way they are treated, and the limited say and special privileges they are afforded, make a difference? Will blurring the definition of membership to encompass ‘supporters’, ‘friends’, and affiliates – the solution that many parties seem to be lighting upon – improve matters or will it only make things worse?


§. What kind of data does the Project collect and why?

The PMP empirical work involves both quantitative (surveys) and qualitative data collection (in-depth interviews), focusing both on the party members and on parties’ professional staffs and elected representatives.


Quantitative data collection

We conducted surveys in the immediate aftermath of the 2015 general election to produce original and accurate data on the composition, motivations, opinions, and activities of the members, party supporters (i.e. potential members) and, just as importantly, the ex-members, of the six largest British parties: the Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP, the Greens and the SNP.

  • By surveying memberships just after the general election of 2015, the project aims to show exactly what members contribute to their parties’ campaigns. By surveying them at the same time, we are able to properly compare and contrast members of different parties – something that previous surveys, carried out years apart, have not been able to do. Moreover, by comparing our survey to previous ones, we are able to suggest how memberships of the biggest parties have changed over time.
  • By surveying people who identify strongly with the parties but are not members, we are able to investigate the differences between them and those who are members, as well as the potential there may be for parties wanting to connect with their partisans by recruiting ‘friends’ and ‘supporters’ in addition to full members.
  • By surveying ex-members (in 2017) – something that has never been done before on this scale – we will also have a clearer idea of why so many people seem to have deserted political parties in recent years.

We also conducted a simultaneous survey of trade union members, that allows us to gauge the potential for Labour to recruit affiliated members, and to add some empirical data to discussions of the organisational and attitudinal links – attenuated or otherwise – between the two wings of the Labour movement, industrial and political.

Given the recent changes and evolutions in the Labour party and the so-called “Corbyn phenomenon”, we will also conduct a survey of the new members of the Labour Party and its £3 supporters in May 2016.


Qualitative data collection
(In-depth interviews & Focus Group)

In order to better-understand and complement survey data, we are also collecting qualitative work:

  • Labour and Liberal Democrats are the two parties that underwent a great increase in their membership after the defeat of the 2015 General Election. In order to better understand what lead thousands of people to join what somebody might think as a “sinking ship”, we are running in-depth interviews and focus groups with the new joiners of the Labour Party and of the Liberal Democrats.
  • In order to understand how party professionals and political elites see their grassroots members, we are also conducting a series of in-depth interviews with the parties’ professional staffs and elected representatives.


§. Who can benefit from the Project?

The PMP is obviously relevant for researchers from the academic community who are interested in actual, potential and ex-members of political parties in the UK, and in the views of the parties on those people. This includes political scientists working on political parties, elections and campaigning, government formation, political finance, and political participation, as well as sociologists and anthropologists who are interested in organisational cultures.

But we very much hope that the project will prove just as interesting and useful to people outside academia, including (but by no means limited to) the following:

  • party members (potential and actual)
  • parties’ elected representatives and the professionals who work at party HQ and in local organisation who help service and recruit the membership;
  • media and think-tanks who make a fundamental contribution to public understanding of politics;
  • and, of course, the public itself.

Existing members of political parties can, for the first time, compare, contrast, and evaluate their experiences, rights, responsibilities, and indeed costs with those of members of their own and other parties. This could help them get more of what they want out of participation. Potential party members can gauge the advantages and disadvantages of membership more accurately. Both actual and potential members can also be confronted with any systematic differences between the kinds of candidates and MPs they want and those that are favoured by the electorate as a whole. This could help them to think about how and who they select.

The parties themselves can benefit from the project because it could allow and encourage them to reflect on the success or otherwise of their own membership recruitment, servicing and retention practices, as well as to compare them to those of other parties. Although each party faces its own unique challenges, many of them are generic and parties could therefore benefit from some form of knowledge exchange.

Party professionals and elected representatives can have quality information on what differentiates those who join, those who have an affinity but are not currently members and – just as importantly – those who have left. This could help them better hold onto the first group, pull in more of the second group, and think about what they can do to minimise the size of the third group. They can also have more data than they currently possess on the potential of looser forms of ‘membership’ that many of them are experimenting with.

The media and the public can benefit from this research because it will allow them to rely on hard data rather than hearsay and possibly outworn or simply mistaken assumptions about parties and their members, what they want and what they actually do.