A common complaint about the current organisational state of the ALP is that the party is unable to effectively attract and retain members. While there are legitimate disagreements about the causes of this situation, most observers now agree that "something must be done" to address this situation.
For the most part, the "something" that Party Members currently believe must be done is the re-empowerment of members through organisational reforms designed to decentralise control over the development of party policy and the election of party office bearers. Knowing that many around them have been driven away by the experience of branch meetings and policy committees, they argue that if the Party makes the rewards of membership more 'meaningful' and the returns of investing time in the party more tangible, the members will return. This "Community Organising Model" of growing Labor's membership has been endorsed by both the Prime Minister and the 2011 National Conference and is the key strategy that the Party is implementing in pursuit of Prime Minister Gillard's target of growing Labor's membership by 8000 members in 2012.
Implicit in this argument (and a major theme of Chapter Five of the 2011 National Review) is an appeal to history; Labor was last an effective mass membership party in the 1960s and 70s, therefore changing the Party's organisational structures to look more like they did in the past will recapture this lost golden age.
Unfortunately, I don't think it will work.
The problem with this model is that by looking inwards, to the experience of current members for solutions, it ignores the primary cause of Labor's membership decline; the broader structural decline in mass member organisation participation rates in general in Western societies over the past 40 years.
As the 2011 National Review itself noted:
Deeper cultural changes have also been at work. This is reflected in declining membership of churches and community groups as well as political parties. These changes are extensively documented and proceed at a different pace in different societies. In other words the problems faced by Australian Labor are not unique. They are common to most traditional political parties in western societies in the postindustrial era.Modern examples of modern mass-membership organisations built on high levels of individual engagement and commitment from empowered members (ie those employing a Community Organising Model) are difficult to find. Whether it is because of changing work arrangements or greater competition from a wider range of leisure time pursuits or something else altogether, people simply do not want to invest large amounts of their time in the traditional functions of a mass membership political party.
The men and women of the dedication and zeal of those who founded and grew the ALP through relentless local organising in the first half of the 20th century would not be able to replicate the feat in the 21st century. The world has moved on from this model of organisation and onto new forms of collective action
The old model of a mass membership political party is dead.
In this context, an approach that focused only on making Labor membership 'richer' or more rewarding for those who make significant commitments to the Party is unlikely to substantially increase the number of Party Members. At the same time, such an approach would give more control over the direction of the party to a currently narrow membership base - potentially making attracting new members even more difficult. In short the Community Organising Model has the potential to be both ineffective and counter productive.
Instead, of looking to the past, we need to adapt to new realities. The question we need to be asking is not what current Labor Members want from the ALP, but instead what Labor supporters currently outside the party want of the ALP. We need to be asking what Labor Membership needs to look like to attract new members in the 21st century.
Given that the structural challenges to membership organisations are not unique to the ALP, when responding to these cultural changes the party would be best served by looking not inwards or to the past for solutions, but outwards to the contemporary practices of the modern membership organisations that are thriving in this new environment. Labor needs to look to the membership innovations developed by successful modern organisations and it needs to adapt these to Labor's mission.
An examination of the peer groups that are currently out-competing the ALP for citizens' time and money (eg single issue groups, campaigning groups and sporting clubs) shows that the most successful groups:
- Are structured to allow supporters the flexibility to determine their own level of engagement;
- Make joining extremely easy (and often costless) and then create numerous avenues for converting latent or 'shallow' engagement into more valuable campaign contributions on an ad hoc basis.
Below the fold: The Detail - The Numbers, The Response to Date and Benchmarking Against Best Practice and What Needs to be Done
The 2010 ALP National Review graphically illustrated the decline in both the total membership of the ALP and even more precipitously, in the number of ALP branches across the country:
Evaluating this data, the Review Committee noted that:
Structurally.. the Party is in decline. Membership has continued to fall, and while it has stabilised in some states, it has done so because it has reached ‘ground water’. In some of the larger states the Party continues to haemorrhage members. In NSW alone, more than 100 branches have closed in the last ten years. The Labor Party now faces a crisis in membership.The Response To Date
In response to this membership crisis, Prime Minister Gillard challenged the party to grow its membership by 8000 members in 2012, saying that the way to achieve this was to:
offer a richer experience for members of our Labor Party, including by giving them more opportunities to have a say, and a direct vote in important decisions.While many have been sceptical about whether this goal is achievable, it should be noted that it is a decidedly modest objective. By comparison, after the UK Labour Party's 2010 election loss, its new Leader, Ed Miliband committed to effectively doubling UK Labour's membership from its post election position of 180,000. While this may sound ambitious to to Australian ears, it should be remembered that in the first 30 months of Tony Blair's leadership, the New Labour reforms grew the membership of the UK Labour Party by more then 200,000 members, increasing total membership to over 400,000 in 1997. In this context, a membership growth target of 8000 is modest indeed.
Despite this, the 2011 National Conference duly accepted the PM's challenge of growing the Party's membership by 8000 (at 10a) and encouraged State and Territory branches to pursue the goal by:
implement(ing) a community organising model to empower members and supporters to recruit, organise and campaign locally.However, it's unclear that the majority of Australians actually want to be involved in local organising and political campaigning. In fact, it is striking reading Chapter 5 of the 2011 National Review how little emphasis is placed on those currently outside the party. While there is much discussion of the views of current ALP members, the report does not ask the fundamental question of what those who vote Labor but are not members want from a political party and what membership would need to look like in order to encourage them to join. In fact, if you look at the kinds of organisations that Australians are joining today, it is clear that rather than local organising and political campaigning, more Australians prefer platforms for online and ad hoc political engagement.
Benchmarking against Best Practice - The Membership Structures of Successful Modern Mass Membership Organisations
The 2010 National Review recognises that
Public estimates now put the number of members of third party campaign organisations (eg Get Up! etc) at ten times the size of the Labor Party.These organisations employ membership structures that are dramatically different to those of the ALP. In particular, these organisations make joining extremely easy (and often costless) and then create numerous avenues for converting latent or 'shallow' engagement into more valuable campaign contributions on an ad hoc, often issue centric basis.
For example, Get Up! is free to join (all it costs is an email address) and as a result has unsurprisingly signed up close to 600,000 members. This membership base is clearly different from that of traditional political parties. Members doesn't engage in ongoing policy development, organisational meetings, campaigning or recruitment. However, Get Up activates this latent membership on an ad hoc, issue centric basis; seeking donations and online campaigning support from its members at strategically significant times.
Similarly, Greenpeace doesn't appear to charge membership fees as such (please correct me if I'm missing something here), but claims to have "around 70,000 generous financial supporters in Australia, who give regularly or on one-off occasions." The traditional organisational and governance functions of the organisation are performed by a much smaller General Assembly comprised of members elected by existing Assembly members.
This easy to join/ad hoc engagement model is also increasingly common internationally. For instance, it is free to register become a Democrat in California (in fact only 1300 Registered Democrats in the state have signed up to make regular contributions of a kind that look like a membership fee), but there are multiple ways of scaling up member involvement around candidate or issue specific campaigns.
Similarly, the UK Labour Party, (which has recruited 50,000 new members since the election of the Cameron Government), has a number of extremely low cost membership entry points including a first year introductory membership rate of 1 pound for anyone under 27 and an ongoing 12 pound rate for under 27s after that. On top of this there have been calls for reform to move all membership rates to 1 pound.
UK Labour also has a number of other membership innovations that are not offered by the ALP. An introductory membership rate of half the standard rate for new members recruited by a local branch. A monthly payment option for membership.
And an optional progressive membership rate for those on higher incomes starting at about A$66 and rising to A$200 (significantly less than Australian equivalents).
(It's unclear to me whether this suggested monthly payment is actually mandatory but I'm happy to be corrected about this).
This is also the model employed by the rapidly growing Canadian New Democratic Party, which sets compulsory membership fees at just $25 a year, then suggests additional voluntary donations from members.
Similar membership innovations can be seen in other successful non-political membership groups. It's now the norm for football clubs to allow supporters to tailor their level of commitment to the club through different tiers of membership. The Collingwood Football Club has been able to grow its membership to 71,516 in 2011 by using many different membership structures designed to bring supporters of differing levels of commitment into the club. Collingwood has memberships based on member characteristics (eg adult, junior, family, concession), scope of member commitment (eg 3 game, 11 game, 17 game, interstate memberships), and degree of commitment (eg General Admin, Reserved Seating, MCG Legends). These different forms of membership range in cost from $85 for the lowest level, 3 match membership to between $330-$740 for all 17 games. On top of this, all members are given any other ways to contribute and participate in the club - through supporter clubs, social club, and individual player sponsorships etc.
What all of these organisations have in common is that they are responsive to differing levels of member commitment - especially at the lowest levels of commitment. They make getting your foot in the door of the organisation extremely easy (through free, low cost, de-featured or introductory membership classes). Their membership structure then provides avenues for those who want to make a greater commitment to the organisation with many opportunities to do so (through 'premium' membership options etc) and through mechanisms to leverage the engagement of a large, but latent membership on an ad hoc, issue-centric basis.
It doesn't quite have the romance of solidarity, but it works in the modern environment.
Benchmarking Against Best Practice - Labor's Current Membership Structure
In contrast to this membership innovation from peer organisations, Labor's membership structure has been basically static for the better part of a century.
As the 2011 National Review noted:
"Labor’s structures and practices are largely drawn from the time of the Party’s formation 120 years ago"While membership structures differ from state to state, there has been very little observable innovation in membership fees, structure or payment options. There are no monthly payment options, few multi-year payment options, no family discounts, no introductory membership offers, no discounts for members who refer friends, no junior memberships, no gradations of membership at all really.
Further, to take just three states as examples - membership fees are very expensive:
In fact, other than in the ACT, Labor's membership fees are both absolutely higher and increase more rapidly with income than those of The Greens:
Further, joining the ALP is not easy. While most states allow members to joins a "Central Branch" without voting rights in any party forums over the Internet, in order to be entitled to vote in any party election a prospective member needs to have their membership approved by both a local branch and State Head Office. Relative to its peer organisations, barriers to entry to membership of the Labor Party are very high.
Modernising Labor's Membership - What Needs to be Done
On this basis, there are three things that the ALP needs to do to grow its membership base:
- Reduce Membership Fees
- Reduce Barriers to Entry to the Party
- Cater to Differing Levels of Engagement - Particularly Shallow Engagement
The easiest reform that the Party can undertake to grow its membership is to reduce its membership fees.
The 2011 National Conference recognised this need to some extent, resolving to:
10 (b) Reduce excessive membership fees
In some State and Territory branches, membership fees are higher than for comparable organisations. This discourages the involvement of young people and low-wage workers.
National Conference therefore encourages state and territory branches to:
(i) review their membership feesHowever, it should be noted that in contrast to the emphasis of this motion, the area in which membership fees are currently the greatest obstacle to participation in the party is not with respect to low wage workers, but rather, for young professionals. It is difficult to see how a young professional on $70,000 a year would see value in spending over $200 a year on Labor membership (almost twice the fees of the Greens at this income level). While they may have a greater capacity to pay than low wage workers, they obtain no greater value from membership (arguably they receive less as professional work hours make it more difficult for them to participate in the Party's antiquated branch meetings). This disincentive to professional membership of the ALP may be a large part of the cause for the decline in the proportion of Labor Ministerial staffers who are members of the Labor Party.
(ii) consider offering discounts for Young Labor members and affiliated union members, where
they do not already do so.
It's also worth considering that reducing Membership fees as part of an effort to grow the party's membership base may in fact improve the Party's financial position. The marginal cost of additional members to the Party in terms of additional administrative costs is relatively low. Further, given the broader societal trends militating against time intensive involvement in political parties, it's likely that there is both a high elasticity of demand for Labor membership amongst time poor supporters and a pent up demand for low cost engagement with the ALP. A significant, across the board reduction in ALP membership rates accompanied by an active recruiting campaign (eg "We're Changing, be a Part of the Change") could easily net the party enough new members to recoup any reduction in individual fees.
Reduce Barriers to Entry To the Party
More broadly than simply reducing fees, the Labor Party needs to address the myriad of niggly things that make joining the party a painful experience. Since at least the Dreyfus Report in 1998, the party has responded to branch stacking by continually increasing the administrative hurdles to joining the Party. It is no overstatement to say that the administrative structures of the ALP are currently more focused on keeping people out of the ALP than letting them in.
The Labor Party needs to create categories of membership with low barriers to entry. Cheap, easy to join memberships that interested, but not committed Labor supporters can join. To this end, an Online Membership should be created with a flat membership fee of $20. These members should not be entitled to vote in branch, local party or preselection ballots, but they could be entitled to vote for directly elected party positions (eg National President). This would create an easy to join category of Labor membership with meaningful rights without disempowering existing full members or upsetting the delicate balance of power in the branches.
Cater for Different Levels of Commitment
As UK Labour's Refounding Labour project has noted:
“The Labour Party's basic structure is essentially that adopted in 1918. In today's much more diffuse, individualist political culture, how can we maximise the potential for participation by 'Labour Supporters' - those who would not join the Party, but who could be mobilised to back and work for us? How do we manage this in a way that does not undermine the rights of 'full' members?I've already discussed two ways that the ALP could go about harnessing and mobilising Labor Supporters on this blog (ie an Online Membership category and Online Policy Action Caucuses) but more important than specific ideas is the general philosophy. Labor needs start thinking about Membership with the primary objective of bringing people into the party, not keeping people out. This post has used the practices of other successful membership based organisations to deduce the things that people people look for in an membership organisation in a modern society. However, there's no substitute for direct research. This means undertaking market research of Labor supporters with the objective of understanding how the membership experience needs to change to encourage people to join the Party. The exit surveys of departing members agreed to by National Conference may be an important step in this regard.
A Final Note - on the Direct Election of Parliamentary Leaders
It's difficult to write about growing the membership of the ALP without addressing the increasingly popular proposal of giving Labor members a say over the election of the Parliamentary Leader of the Labor Party as a way to attract members. It's fairly clear from Canadian and UK evidence, that when combined with a low cost membership option, direct election of party leaders drives significant membership growth. During the last leadership ballot of the Canadian New Democratic Party, the party was able to increase its membership by 50% to almost 130,000 through leadership candidates actively recruiting members.
There are I think three issues associated with this proposal that have not yet been adequately addressed by its proponents:
- Direct Election of party leaders brings significant organisational costs as well as membership growth benefits. As the experience of the Australian Democrats shows, when there is a disconnect between the party membership and the MPs who have to work together on a daily basis, damaging instability can emerge between the directly elected leader and the party caucus.
- Direct Election of leaders is really more of an example of leveraging ad hoc participation around a topical issue rather than a Community Organising Model. In this respect, there may be other ways to harness this ad hoc enthusiasm that do not have the same organisational costs (eg through Online Policy Action Caucuses).
- It should also be noted that many who advocate direct election of the Parliamentary Leader by the membership also advocated the introduction of open primary systems - a proposal that effectively undermines the value of membership by giving non-Members an equal say on the selection of ALP candidates. I haven't seen this contradiction acknowledged or addressed by the proponents yet.