It’s the timeless sales pitch for joining a political party: A megaphone and bad hair will only get you so far, the real way to effect political change is from ‘inside the tent’.
But when it comes to politics, we’re not happy campers. Membership of mainstream political parties is on the slide, with Labor’s shrinking and disaffected base a key area of debate during the weekend’s National Conference.
Essential polling this week shows meeting the Prime Minister’s target of 8,000 new members this year will be a serious challenge for the party. In fact, to achieve the target will mean improving the current performance by a factor of about 8,000.
This week we asked about membership of all sorts of social, community, recreational and political organisations and of all these categories, it is the political parties that are suffering the most.
|Ever been a member||Currently a member||Joined in last 12 months|
|Service organisation like Rotary, Lions, Apex, etc||9%||4%||1%|
|School organisation e.g. parents club, school council||22%||4%||2%|
|Local community group||21%||11%||3%|
|Special interest or hobby group e.g. gardening, bird watching, chess, etc||20%||10%||3%|
While much has been made of our lack of a tendency to join things – when you list out the options, 56 per cent of people say they are part of something today. Even more – 81 per cent – have been a member of something at some time.
It’s just that what they joining are not a political parties. In fact, new recruits to politics could not muster up a statistically relevant percentage point.
So in the spirit of a little Christmas bipartisan organisational development, perhaps we can share some learnings from groups that people do still join.
Sporting groups: the key to any sporting club is that members have something to do and a meaningful contest every weekend. Political parties are always being told to give their members something to do, but handing out how-to-votes once every three years is probably not sufficient action for most.
Churches, religious organisations: tied together by faith, beliefs that members can hold on to in an ever-changing world, with a sense of ritual that becomes a unifier based around an identifiable deity. While political parties have their Goughs and Mings and are built on a set of values, too often these are over-ridden for short-term gain.
Professional organisations: People join things to get ahead. Arguably the same applies to modern political parties. The difference is successful organisations focus on developing skills as well as building networks.
School P&Cs: Driven by a sense of obligation and the simple reality that if you don’t turn up your child’s education could materially suffer. Fundraising is a focus, but is pursued not as a pure financial goal but also a way of building ties amongst parents. Political parties arrange rubber chicken for corporate donors.
Unions: Seen by many as Labor’s biggest problem, the reality is that over the past decade unions have changed their focus and invested resources in reaching out to potential members through offering services and support relevant to them.
Book clubs: pure social capital driven by shared reading and mid-price Chardonnay. Party meetings could benefit from a bit of both.
Environment groups: Interesting to note that membership of groups focused on specific issues far out-number those linked to official party structures. The only obvious difference: focus.
Local community groups: People turn up when an issue affects their neighbourhood because the impacts of their action tend to be tangible. The discipline to localise party politics has always been the stuff of effective candidates.
Service organisations: Encourage the retired to give back to the community. Retired politicians get gold passes.
Special interest or hobby groups: Here’s a trick – get together to do something you actually enjoy.
We could go on, but the point is that the big political brands appear to be struggling where other forms of group activity are surviving.
Yes, the drop-out rates are high, the new recruits low, but people still join – and one can’t help thinking the secret to engagement is about more than electing candidates to a National Executive.
So let’s tally it up: meaningful action, training that builds life skills, a sense of community with tangible results and some half-decent wine.
Maybe that’s a reform agenda that no faceless man would stand in the way of.
*Total number of union members lower than official stats because of people surveyed not in workforce.
- Peter Lewis | Director, EMC
& Jackie Woods | Senior Account Manager, EMC
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