How the SNP just gained 5,000 members – and how other parties could do the same

Only about two per cent of the population are members of a political party. 

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At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, the Scottish National Party staged a mass walk-out after their Westminster leader, Ian Blackford, was kicked out of the session. In the wake of this stunt, it has been reported that the party has gained 5,000 new members – 100 times higher than the daily average. Whilst an undoubted political scene, this event was also indicative of a broader political trend – something that political parties seeking to boost their membership can take advantage of.

Political party membership in the UK, is odd. Only about two per cent of the population are members of one, and even then only a handful of these people actually tend to get actively involved. It is, by any measure, a minority pursuit. We have been working with political parties and other organisations since January to try and understand exactly how and why people come to join. In a forthcoming report we argue that there must be three factors at play. First, there must be an underlying motivation. Second, it must be easy to join (process). And third, there must be a trigger.

Motivations have been much discussed by academics and journalists alike, and can range from an attachment to a party’s principles, to the influence of family and friends, to the furthering of one’s career. Process is relatively self-explanatory, but you’d be surprised how often parties get this wrong. Just last month it was reported in CapX that a mystery shopping exercise showed that “of those trying to join the Conservative Party over half got no reply, ten per cent were told the party was closed to new members, and some were told an interview must first be passed”.

The SNP walk-out, on the other hand, was a classic trigger. These are the catalysts that cause somebody who is already predisposed to join a political party to actually take that final step. They are also, more often than not, external events outside of the control of the party. The most common trigger occurs around elections and referendums. For example, all parties reported (varying degrees of) spikes in June 2016, last year many parties received a similar boost after Theresa May’s election-deciding walking holiday in Wales. Many parties we spoke to talked of a bump after the election of Donald Trump, the Greens even saw a (small) spike after the airing of Blue Planet.

However, national events are not the only trigger for joining a party. They can also be more personal (reaching retirement age), local (a decision to cut down trees in Sheffield) or international (during our work we were told that the election of Donald Trump had caused a spike in membership). There is also good evidence that parties gain members when it is perceived that a party has been treated unfairly.

The biggest boost that the Green Party received during the “green surge” of 2014/15 was when they were excluded from the 2015 general election debates. It has been widely reported (and mentioned anecdotally to us by party insiders) that membership of the Labour Party rises whenever the leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is attacked in the media. The SNP have credited their membership boom to “Tory attacks on devolution”. Perhaps, one thing that unites us politically, and is capable of traversing partisan borders, is a British sense of fair play?

All this suggests that, actually, a lot less thought goes into the choice to join a political party than we might think. So, what do parties do? Well, they could see it as an utterly depressing proposition. Membership peaks and troughs are largely out of their control – they just have to wait for the next wave. But, just because surfers can’t control the sea doesn’t mean that some aren’t better at riding waves than others. Those that run gyms probably aren’t all that surprised (and unprepared for) a membership surge in early January, and there’s no reason why political parties should be any different.

Parties can piggyback on these external events outside of their control. This can either be reactive or altogether more planned. The SNP may well have planned last week’s walk out in PMQs, but they also reacted to the incident in such a way that it boosted membership. Similarly, parties can and do use other events to as a means of increasing their visibility. The next major opportunity would be the upcoming visit of Donald Trump.

Parties can also orchestrate their own events, which is a little trickier. Labour Live may well have been derided by many and, I suspect, judgements about its relative success or failure will largely fall along partisan lines. But it’s the kind of thing parties should be experimenting with, both in terms of boosting membership and engaging the members that they do have. Even Reverend and the Makers have got to be better than a three-hour meeting discussing the precise wording of articles 2b and 2c of the local election strategy, or a rainy Tuesday evening spent canvassing?