The downside of member participation

This may seem like a parochial Victorian story, out of place on a world politics blog. But bear with me; there are implications for political parties everywhere.

Mary Wooldridge, minister for community services in the state government of Victoria, was defeated on Sunday in a ballot for Liberal Party preselection for the seat of Kew. She was trying to transfer to Kew after her own seat of Doncaster was abolished in a redistribution, but local party members voted instead for Tim Smith, former mayor of Stonnington.

Ten years ago, a ballot like this could have been written about as a simple factional contest, and that aspect was certainly still present. Smith was backed by what we used to call the Kroger-Costello group, who although somewhat fragmented are still dominant in the party organisation; Wooldridge represented the Baillieu group, backed by premier Denis Napthine and health minister David Davis.

But the Victorian Liberal Party is no longer what it was. Before 2007, the rivalry between John Howard and Peter Costello kept the Kroger-Costello group anchored in the political centre. When a Howard-style right-winger, Josh Frydenberg, challenged for the federal seat of Kooyong (which covers Kew) in 2006, the Kroger-Costello forces opposed him, even though that meant backing their factional enemy Petro Georgiou.

Once Howard and Costello were out of the way, however, they started to regret that decision. In 2009, when Georgiou announced his retirement, Frydenberg got the nod. As I said at the time, “Their opponents, the Baillieu group, seem to have the left of the party sewn up, so the Krogerites are naturally veering to the right. Frydenberg is a noteworthy symptom.”

There’s a more interesting difference as well. In 2008, after three successive state election losses, the Victorian Liberal Party took a desperate step and voted for radical reform of its internal workings, including preselection. Instead of a contest in front of elected branch delegates, preselections were to be voted on by all party members within the electorate.

The idea was that this sort of empowerment would make membership more attractive, broadening the party’s base and in turn improving the pool of available candidates.

But it was a risky move. Everyone knew that the party’s rank-and-file members were an ornery lot, much older, whiter and more right-wing than the population at large, and in particular much more so than their leaders and MPs. If the party didn’t succeed in attracting a different sort of member, then the reforms might just end up taking it further from the mainstream.

As I asked on the occasion of the reform vote, “Will giving more voice to ordinary members just hand power to conservative ideologues? Or will it lead to a membership influx of more mainstream Victorians who will swamp the extremists?”

Sunday’s vote is strong evidence that the first, not the second, is what has happened. In particular, Wooldridge’s pro-choice views – once uncontroversial among senior Liberals – seem to have counted strongly against her with the conservative membership. To the extent that it’s attracting them, the party’s new members seem to be more ideologically driven rather than less.

And this is where we reach the international implications, because the problems the Victorian Liberals were trying to solve are common to parties across the democratic world. What used to be mass parties have become hollowed out; branch structures have atrophied, and party officials have begun to search desperately for ways of increasing participation.

Many have gone further in giving power to members. Britain’s Labour Party, for example, voted at the weekend to put the election of its leader entirely in the hands of party members (in place of an electoral college in which members had one third of the votes). On the continent, centre-left parties in Italy and France have pioneered primary ballots in which all party supporters, not just members, can choose their candidates.

Time will tell how effective these strategies are. But all of them have to grapple with the paradox that the Victorian Liberal Party came face to face with on Sunday. Empowerment is a two-edged sword, and trying to make a party more representative risks empowering more of the same unrepresentative people that you started with.

4 thoughts on “The downside of member participation

  1. It’s actually very interesting – people (young people, especially) are more likely to support a particular campaign or policy movement – think GetUp or change.org – than to join a political party and endorsing all that party’s campaigns and policy movements, and so we end up with party membership consisting of the ‘old guard’ and a handful of newbies who sit around scratching their heads wondering why they can’t affect any change internally, and a huge number of people engaging on a single-issue basis, signing a petition here or there, going to a rally, picketing an abortion clinic, but not actually participating in the governance of the organisations which elect the parliamentarians. Those of us who do belong to parties (I declare my Greens membership, here, and my former ALP stint), would love to know how to get those single-issue petition-signers to join the parties that best represent their overall views and attempt to affect change where they see fit, but it just doesn’t seem to appeal, and we end up with that exact same problem in situations like preselections not just in the right, but also in the left. The ‘old guard’ are the ones choosing their representatives, which leads to the choosing of representatives who might or might not appeal to potential new members, meaning that membership recruitment might end up being more of those who are like-minded to the old guard, or to no new membership at all.

    Meanwhile, all parties are scrambling to be *seen* to be more democratic in their internal processes, especially since the ALP, of all people, actually let their rank and file members have a say on the leader of the party, an utterly uncharacteristic move from a party so locked down by its factional deals and pre-ordained outcomes. Heaven forfend that *Labor* should be the new yardstick in internal democracy!!

    So, what are membership trends across the globe, across the spectrum? Are they falling? Are they increasing? Are they increasing, but not at all in the way the party leaders wanted? I’m keen to know if ‘membership’ is an outdated idea in this new environment of ‘choose your own adventure’ issues-based participation.

    And, if so, how are parties going to deal with it?

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  2. Thanks cvs – I think you’ve described the problem very well. I don’t know if anyone has compiled large-scale figures, but the consensus is that party membership is trending down throughout the developed world, in a way that seems independent of ideology (or pretty much anything else). It may be part of a general decline in “social capital”, altho that’s not certain. But how parties deal with it is indeed the big question.

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  3. The parties talk a big game, however their follow through is very lacking. I joined the Labor party some months ago and apart from various email invites to one-off events, i’ve received nothing in the mail, no membership information and have no idea where or when branch meetings are held.

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  4. Gareth, in my experience, those one-off events will be opportunities for the various factions to assess whether they will start inviting you to branch meetings, depending on your potential usefulness to them as a vote in their favour on any given issue. If you want to be involved in the party’s machine (which is a valid desire – that’s where the decision-making happens, and if you’ve joined to make a difference, it would make sense that you would want to be in the thick of it), contact your preferred faction by calling one of their parliamentary offices. If you need to know which MPs are from which factions, I’ll give you a list of the more obvious ones? Their staffers will be happy to hear from you if you’re of their ilk. It’s not hard.

    Or just go to one of the events and tell everyone you meet that you’re a new member and nobody’s contacted you, yet. They’ll circle you within minutes. 😉

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