Party funding is about the membership

Written by Total Politics has a free weekly Friday email bulletin. Follow this link to register. on 27 March 2012 in Diary
If the parties are to develop member-centric fundraising strategies, they will need to become member-centric parties, says Emma Burnell

Let’s imagine for a moment that the Party funding row is over. That a solution has been found, that donations have been capped and state funding introduced – the Kelly proposals have been adopted in their entirety. It’s by no means a certain scenario, but run with me.

What will parties need to do under these circumstances? How would they need to change?

Firstly and most obviously, their fundraising strategies would have to change significantly. While, admittedly, £10,000 is more than I can afford to give, it is small beer next to some of the large donations that have kept parties going over the last few years. But state funding to replace big donors will not stop fundraising. It will make fundraising more about small and regular gifts from members and supporters.

This in turn will change the membership offer. At present, the role of members in all three main parties is under-valued and often side-lined by party managers. If the parties are to develop member-centric fundraising strategies they will need to develop member-centric parties.

This is incredibly difficult to do. Government means making tough decisions that do not always please your base. The temptation just to take the state funding and use it to develop a slick centralised machine will be enormous. But our parties cannot become simply a set of management consultants with slightly different implementation strategies of similar theories of change. That will neither win support nor legitimacy for the process.

For Labour the big worry about the Kelly proposals is the forcing of an opt-in for union members and the threat to the union link. But the union link is, and must be, more than simply a financial tie. Labour was founded by the unions. As long as we give members something to opt-in to – a part and a say in our broader movement – then we should be confident they will do so. If we sideline union members we won’t. So again it is about empowering these individuals to be a bigger part in a wider movement.

We saw at the last election how essential a good ground war is. We also saw from all sides that a bad air war can be a disaster. Both must work in concert and in order to do so, must have wide buy-in and reflect the true values of the parties. The Tories failed to sell the concept of the big society because their members couldn’t explain it on the doorsteps. They will need to bring their members much closer to the decision making process so they can be armed and ready on the doorstep not just with plans and headline arguments, but with the passion and conviction.

Labour are already working on these issues internally. There is a real recognition within the leadership of the party that this needs to be done – not because of party funding, but because it is the right thing to do – but the nuts and bolts of doing it are proving tough, so moving from the desire to change through the will to enact change to implementation is a long and sometimes torturous process.

Finally the Liberal Democrats have the processes to empower members in place. It’s one of the things about which their members are most proud. But these have been tested to breaking point and beyond by the coalition. The fact that they could be so ignored should be a warning sign not just to the members but to party managers who would celebrate changes to party funding as a big win for the Liberal Democrats. That win will be short-lived if the party falls apart under the weight of its internal contradictions.

Often in politics, all parties look across the pond wistfully at the Obama campaign. But there are organisations much closer to home that have the kind of active and engaged levels of membership that parties here wish they had. The RSPB has over a million members. Some just pay their subs, but many others get involved in regular activities that speak to the things that they enjoy doing. The National Trust is another such organisation. Both have simpler missions than political parties it’s true, but there is a great deal to be learned from the truly engaged British membership organisations that might have more resonance than the Obama model.

In the end, party funding will change. My unlikely opening scenario becomes more likely with every 'cash for Cameron'-type scandal. The party machines should be preparing for it so that when it does finally happen, it is something they are ready to welcome. Because they won’t be able not to.

Tags: Conservative Party, Kelly proposals, Labour Party, Liberal Democrats, National Trust, Obama, Party funding, RSPB

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