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New book by Sussex professor reveals what political parties really think of their members – and vice versa

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  • Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century is the first simultaneous, in-depth study of six of the UK's biggest political parties. 

A new book by Professor Paul Webb and colleagues sheds new light on the challenges of party membership and how digital technology has transformed the everyday life of party politics. According to the research, whilst Britain’s biggest parties do recognise the downsides of membership, including the pressure members place on MPs, and the capacity of members to embarrass the party, particularly on social media, members are still overwhelmingly viewed as assets rather than liabilities. 

Professor Paul Webb from the School of Law Politics and Sociology at the University of Sussex said: “Through a combination of multiple surveys with party members and interviews with key activists, politicians and party officials, we have been able to get below the surface of who the members are, what they believe in, what motivates them, the roles they play in party life – and what the party elites feel about them. 

“At a time when our party leaders – and indeed, Prime Ministers – are chosen by their memberships, it is more vital than ever to understand these things.”

The examination also shows that party members are relatively old, relatively well-off and relatively well-educated. They also include fewer women and far fewer ethnic minorities than the population as a whole. Left-of-centre parties were found to attract younger members than those on the right and UKIP’s members were found to be the least well-educated of any parties’ members.

The research provides new insights into members' social characteristics, attitudes, activities and campaigning, reasons for joining and leaving, and views on how their parties should be run and who should represent them. But it also looks at how the parties themselves see their members and how they see membership developing in the future.

When it comes to funding, smaller parties in particular viewed members as crucial – but their value goes way beyond the monetary: they are the lifeblood of campaigns and a pipeline of candidates; they also anchor parties to their values. But, the book argues, all parties face challenges in terms of balancing the interests and ideology of members versus appealing to the wider electorate. Indeed, this remains an eternal dilemma: should parliamentary elites be primarily accountable to their party members who select them or to the constituents who elect them. 

Professor Tim Bale from Queen Mary University of London said: “Becoming a party member might not be for everyone but nearly a million people either are, or have been members in the past. And thank goodness. Members are absolutely vital to the continued functioning and wellbeing of our democracy. That’s why it’s crucial that we understand what motivates them – and that we bust some of the myths surrounding membership.

“We hope our fact-filled book does all that in an approachable, enjoyable – and, dare we say, at under twenty quid affordable – way.”

Dr Monica Poletti from Queen Mary University of London said: “Based on a series of in-depth interviews with politicians and survey data on the members themselves, we don’t only look at footsoldiers, but also provide an insight into how our leaders relate to, reconcile their differences with, and take the lead from party members.

“The first-hand account given to us by MPs and party staffers provides an invaluable insight into this relationship that, in the context of a long term decline in party membership and major discrepancies over Brexit between parties and their members, is becoming a defining feature of our democracy.”

The book is the culmination of a four-year study, some of whose findings – particularly on Conservative and Labour grassroots views on Brexit, and on the demographics and ideology of the members who have been so involved recently in choosing their parties’ leaders – have had a big impact on British politics.

Background: 

Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century by Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, Paul Webb (Professor of Politics at Sussex University) and Monica Poletti (Social Researcher in the UK Civil Service, following a Research Fellowship in Politics at Queen Mary University of London) has just been published by Routledge and is now available in paperback from Amazon.

The work is a key output of the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) – a four-year initiative run by Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti and funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) exploring party membership in the six largest British parties. 

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By: Anna Ford
Last updated: Saturday, 24 August 2019

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