Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Membership Should Have Privileges

Following my post on the state of political parties in Canada, I'd like to write about what I think is a problem with political parties: the open membership policy.

Yes, I know, It's just always the way its done - sign up lots and lots of members. The problem is, we tend to sign up casual members, sometimes at the expense of the stalwart members.

You might argue, that signing up lots of new members for a party is a good thing. And, you'd be right, if those new members were actually interested in the party. More often than not, they don't care. They get signed up with the promise of a barbecue, a party, or to support a friend who wants to be a candidate. They pay their $10, hold up a "YAY JANE DOE" sign, then disappear once their friend wins - all in the span of about a week.

Then, when Jane Doe is canvassing, these friends are nowhere to be found - leaving those who are actually interested in helping, to pick up the slack. Stalwarts weren't part of the initial rush, but stalwarts are supposed to carry the momentum. This is especially disheartening when the nominated candidate is weak or, in the worst case scenario, an embarrassment.

What causes this phenomenon? A few things, in my mind.
  • Most political parties have a relatively cheap membership fee, usually in the $10 range. Meaning joining a political party requires no effort other than depriving yourself of a few Tim Hortons coffees. So, convincing friends and associates to come out and support you is not such a big deal. $10 is less than 2 pints ...
  • Membership requires absolutely no effort. You don't have to volunteer, donate, or put in lawn signs on a foggy night where nobody puts on their porch light so you can read the address on some wild dark rural road. You're not even obligated to campaign or vote for the person you help get voted in. You're not even obligated to vote in the election, period.
  • Voting within the party rarely has a membership length requirement. Some votes usually come with a "you must be a member by" date in order to vote, but it's usually a week or two before. So, Jane is on fire getting the members of her golf club, union local, or bird-watching society signed up just in time to vote for her.
So, I've argued why party stalwarts shouldn't be a member of a political party, but what about the hoi polloi?

Simply put, there is generally apathy towards political parties because there is apathy within political parties. Short of the hardcore followers, who seem to be generally uber-positive about everything within their political party of choice, most of us like being involved on a less intense level, so we are easily discouraged when political parties become, well, political.

And, as mentioned in 604 Plonker's post referred to in my last post, those involved with political parties sometimes get discouraged when the political party takes a directional turn that we don't agree with, or are trying to be everything to everyone and in turn become nothing to everyone. Many people, who classify them as "political", want to pursue a particular agenda (environment, women's issues, lower taxes, etc.) but become political party roadkill because they have to either support or defend other agendas that they either don't care about or care differently about.

Now, if we're classed as the "stalwarts", and we lack excitement, how are we supposed to go out and advertise by word-of-mouth how great it is to join a political party, when we spend a lot of time complaining about them (this post not included). Even if I'm quiet about my misgivings, I'm not about to go out and share the pain by recruiting all my friends.

What do you think about this political party apathy? Is it less about the political parties themselves or about the apathy towards politics in general? A bit of both?

If we weeded out casual members by addressing my above three points, would we clear up apathy for political parties?

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4 comments:

Shane said...

People don't join political parties because parties don't reflect what they consider important. It is an education process that brings people into a party. It is an organization that keeps them in a party.

Low entry fees are necessary to get people in. Politics has a bad name and hasd had one for about 50 years. Somewhere along the way the adage, "You can't talk about politics and religion" became society's mantra. It is deemed offensive now to have a political opinion - hence it is offensive to people to join a party.

Instamembers are problems, but are resolved by lengthening the waiting period before being allowed to vote. If a party member had to be a member for 6 months prior to any vote, it would force candidates and riding associations (and parties) to more seriously recruit members for long-term involvement. It would spend more time educating new members, and finding ways to get them and keep them involved. It would also force a party to get away from a "top down" heirarchy and return to grassroots involvement. When more people are actively involved, it becomes easier to hear the public's opinions and get more feedback on key issues instead of letting a few in the top decide which way the party should go.

Making a party more elite won't help. Making a party more attractive and more of a long-term commitment will.

Jim said...

Instamembers are problems, but are resolved by lengthening the waiting period before being allowed to vote. If a party member had to be a member for 6 months prior to any vote, it would force candidates and riding associations (and parties) to more seriously recruit members for long-term involvement.

I agree with this, and I think it's the way to do it. Create, like a probationary period where you can participate, but not vote until the time goes by.

I agree, making it more expensive to join would make the party more elite.

I suppose another way would be to force an effort commitment, but I couldn't begin to figure that one out.

mostlyfree said...

I don't see how lengthening the waiting period would help with the problems that people seem to have about "insta-members." If I was trying to get my candidate elected I would sign up everyone I could convince to join by the date listed, whether this date was 3 weeks or 6 months ahead of time. I would just accompany the initial recruitment with a GOTV effort.

I agree that it's frustrating to try to deal with apathy in political parties, but I don't think insta-members are the problem. We have lots of multi-year members that were no-shows, in spite of repeated calls to their homes, during the '05/'06 campaign.

Additionally, getting someone to sign up once is better than never at all. It indicates something about the person - either they are politically motivated on one issue, or there is someone in your party who holds sway with them. This is important information on constituents that you couldn't gather if they couldn't be convinced to join in the first place.

One way we are trying to change things in our riding is to elect a hard-working board... board members should make an effort to either donate or volunteer in some way, not just be a name on a list. It's not as good as a fully involved membership, but I think it's a good first step.

Jim said...

If I was trying to get my candidate elected I would sign up everyone I could convince to join by the date listed, whether this date was 3 weeks or 6 months ahead of time.

I see your point, but I think in some ways, this would discourage the last minute sign-ups.

Most of these instamembers only sign up for one year, so if we said a minimum of one year plus a day, most of these instamembers would forget come election time to renew, plus the individual organizing it would have to be super organized to remind everybody.

Plus, it would eliminate the possibility of parachuted candidates.

At any rate, having a large time requirement (6 months+) would require extraordinary planning and foresight. That means they'd have to work in advance of that cutoff.

One way we are trying to change things in our riding is to elect a hard-working board... board members should make an effort to either donate or volunteer in some way, not just be a name on a list. It's not as good as a fully involved membership, but I think it's a good first step.

I think that's a great idea too. Boards that are active will make a difference too.