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Parties and Their MembersOrganizing for Victory in Britain and Germany$

Susan E. Scarrow

Print publication date: 1996

Print ISBN-13: 9780198279181

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2003

DOI: 10.1093/0198279183.001.0001

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The Costs and Benefits of Enrolling Members

The Costs and Benefits of Enrolling Members

(p.27) 2 The Costs and Benefits of Enrolling Members
Parties and Their Members

Susan E. Scarrow (Contributor Webpage)

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Change in political party organizations can be characterized as movement along the dimensions of mediation, inclusiveness, and centralization. Among the reasons for parties to recruit are that members can provide their parties with legitimacy, votes, outreach, financial resources, volunteer labor, links to other organizations, new ideas, and candidates.

Keywords:   fund‐raising, legitimacy, party members, party organization, political parties, volunteering

[W]e have recognised the need, not so much for a Constitution which seems tidy to the student of political history or logical in all respects, as for an organisation which is an educative political force and a machine for winning elections. A political organisation must be judged by its efficiency in securing victory for the fundamental principles for which the Party stands.

Conservative Party report1

Many parties' organizational experts would undoubtedly endorse this report's assertion that the success of a party organization should be judged not on grounds of logic or political theory but on whether it contributes to the attainment of party goals. Yet because such a yardstick may be quite elastic, it may produce a changing array of assessments about the adequacy of party structures and practices. Even if a party's long‐term goals are stable, views about how best to reach these goals may be altered if election results indicate that current methods are not working. In the wake of lost elections, party planners may reassess the value of specific organizational features as they develop new tactics for securing victory. Party organizers may also alter their tactics in response to social or technological changes which make old approaches obsolete, or if party leaders begin to seek support among new segments of the electorate. Whatever the underlying causes, when party leaders and professional party organizers adopt new strategies for attaining party goals, they may find it useful to attempt to restructure the party's extra‐parliamentary organization.

(p.28) The process of organizational change in membership parties is still only partially understood, despite recently renewed scholarly interest in the dynamics of that change. Many who have turned their attention to this area have sought to provide comprehensive models for describing the circumstances and constraints on organizational change, and for depicting complex relations between facets of parties inside and outside legislatures. In contrast, the aim of the present study is narrower, though no less ambitious in its own way. The intention is to illuminate a set of calculations found in most models of party development, namely, the costs and benefits party leaders identify when they assess the value of party members as organizational resources.

Although studies of party change have long been concerned with the rise and apparent demise of membership parties, most relevant theories nevertheless start with very rudimentary views about the ways that members may aid their parties. Because of this, they run a high risk of presenting vastly oversimplified explanations of parties' efforts to reshape their relations with the most committed partisans. The current chapter tries to remedy this deficit by making explicit the most common assumptions about the ways in which members can aid their parties, and then exploring some of the predictions that can be generated from a broader understanding of why parties might want to enrol members. Such a perspective will make it easier to understand the forces which produce the net balance of change. However, before considering possible explanations of organizational change in membership parties, the necessary first step is to introduce a set of tools for recognizing and interpreting such change as it occurs.

The Organizational Dimensions of Membership Parties

In biology, taxonomy is the science of identifying and classifying species in a way that highlights relevant differences or similarities. In the study of political parties, classification has also played an essential role in efforts to describe and understand differences between parties. Some of the most influential proposals for the comparative classification of party organizations have been mentioned already: Maurice Duverger's famous mass and cadre labels; (p.29) Sigmund Neumann's parties of representation and parties of integration; Kirchheimer's catch‐all parties. Other well‐known party taxonomies include Fred Riggs's classification of party structures according to their reliance on various inputs,2 Herbert Kitschelt's distinction between left‐libertarian and mass‐bureaucratic parties,3 and Angelo Panebianco's contrast between mass‐bureaucratic and electoral‐professional parties.4 Though each of these authors proposes slightly different categories, all their classifications take account of the formal structures and actual practices which link party leaders with extra‐parliamentary organizations.

These structures and practices are often described with the aid of answers to three fundamental questions: does the party attempt to assemble a large, formally enrolled, individual membership; how much control do the party's supporters have over the selection of the party's leader, its candidates for public office, and its policies; and how hierarchical and centralized are the structures in which the party organizes its supporters? Answers to these questions may be used to determine how closely a political party approximates to some taxonomical ideal. In addition, if these questions are asked at several points in time, they can also be used to chart the course of a single party's development.

In order to make such cross‐temporal comparisons, parties can be located on three intersecting organizational dimensions which correspond to the preceding questions. These dimensions describe the ease of access to membership, the degree to which decision‐making is centralized, and the directness of contacts between supporters and party élites. The three dimensions, which closely resemble those proposed by Austin Ranney to describe variations in the procedures by which parties select candidates, can also be useful for making cross‐party comparisons.5 Attempts to explain why parties move along these dimensions will probably need to concentrate at least as much on internal choices as on external circumstances, because all three dimensions direct attention towards changes which parties can implement on their own. Like Duverger's definition of the mass party, which highlighted parties' enrolment aspirations instead of their achieved membership size, these dimensions describe parties in terms of elements which are largely under their own control.

(p.30) Dimension 1: Inclusiveness

The dimension of inclusiveness indicates the height of barriers separating party members from other supporters. The level of these barriers is partly determined by the extent of duties and privileges attached to party membership; in addition, however, it also reflects the ease or difficulty of enrolment. The latter is a function of factors such as the degree of formality of membership procedures (is there an application form? is there a probationary period?), and the party's actual accessibility to would‐be members (does it recruit? can would‐be members easily locate and contact the party?). The level of inclusiveness is also determined by the reasons for which a party chooses to exclude supporters from membership privileges. These may be of a kind which all individuals can sooner or later overcome (for example, the parties may exclude those under a particular age), or they may more permanently bar certain individuals (for example, some parties may refuse to admit those not of a certain race or religion). The most inclusive parties are those which blur all distinctions between members and supporters. Highly inclusive parties lack set schedules of dues and procedures for national membership, and they may even grant non‐enrolled supporters full rights to participate in decision‐making processes and party‐sponsored events.

Dimension 2: Centralization

The second dimension for describing extra‐parliamentary party organizations shows the location of control over party decision‐making. This dimension indicates, for instance, whether national party leaders make all relevant decisions, or whether they share responsibility, either with regional party leaders, or with the entire party membership. In practice, the location of control over decision‐making probably varies most in three areas: the selection of party leaders; the selection of party candidates for public office; the designation of party programmes. In highly centralized parties, a small core of self‐appointed and self‐replacing national leaders takes most decisions, and retains power of veto even in those areas in which the centre does relinquish partial control. In less centralized parties, institutions such as party conferences may be used as devices to include a wider segment of the membership in decision‐making. (p.31) However, determining the degree of centralization is more than just a matter of assessing formal structures, because party conferences and other institutions that apparently provide member democracy may actually be used to strengthen the control of central leaders.

Dimension 3: Mediation

The third dimension shows the extent to which party structures mediate contacts between individual members and those who lead the national party.6 As with the other two dimensions, the degree of mediation in a party is a function both of its formal structures and of its practices. Organizational links within a party provide important channels of communication from party leaders to supporters, and from members to all levels of the organization. The degree of mediation is signalled by the nature of contacts in both directions: attempts by national party leaders to communicate with members may be more direct (for instance, through targeted mailings), or less direct (through officers of regional or local parties, or through pamphlets distributed by local parties); similarly, members' opportunities to communicate with national party élites may be more direct (internal advisory primaries, membership‐only surveys) or less direct (summaries of views conveyed by intermediary sources such as regional employees or delegates to party conferences).

Tracing movement along these three dimensions is a useful way to summarize a party's organizational changes. Fig. 2.1 gives an example of such a summary. It plots the organizational characteristics of two hypothetical parties at two separate times. Over the period shown, Party A has become more inclusive and slightly less mediated, but its level of centralization has remained unchanged. In contrast, Party B has become less inclusive, more centralized, and more mediated.

Using all three dimensions to describe the direction of ongoing changes in actual parties may reveal significant patterns in what otherwise might appear to be only isolated and insignificant alternations in the relations between parties and their supporters. Conceiving of change in terms of movement along three dimensions is preferable to looking for shifts along a single spectrum (cadre to mass, mass to catch‐all, etc.), because it does not impose (p.32)

                   The Costs and Benefits of Enrolling Members

Fig 2.1. Membership Party Characteristics: Organizational Change In a Three‐Dimensional Space

the assumption that change in these separate areas will necessarily be either unidirectional or simultaneous. Describing movement along multiple organizational dimensions, instead of working with more rigid taxonomies, may therefore make it easier to discover cross‐party trends in organizational development.

The dimensions presented here can serve as useful tools for uncovering and comparing patterns of development in membership parties. However, description alone does not provide an explanation of change. Any perspective which proposes to account for trends in the evolution of party forms, or to predict the likely nature of future organizational transformations, must specify the causal motor(s) of change. The next section draws on existing theories of organizational development to introduce one such set of motors.

(p.33) The Sources of Change

The causes of organizational evolution can be sought both inside and outside the parties themselves. Many studies of party development have focused on the latter aspect, and have considered ways that exogenous pressures and opportunities can shape and reshape parties' modes of organization. As the previous chapter noted, some external factors which have figured prominently in explanations of party change include, in the words of one observer of parties in the United States, ‘changes in the resources [a party] recruits, in the competitive pressures it feels from other political organizations, in the environmental limits on its organization and activities, and in the goals, demands, and perceptions of the electorate’.7

Yet, while alterations in parties' legal, social, and technical environments may all act as important catalysts for organizational change, it would be a mistake to assume that external factors alone propel development. Such a view would overlook the fact that party leaders often have more than one choice about how, or whether, to respond to outside pressures. It would also ignore the possibility that parties may act in anticipation of change, and that they may even be the cause of external changes (for instance when they alter their competitive environments by revising electoral laws). Focusing exclusively on external sources of change is thus likely to provide an inaccurate picture of the processes involved in the organizational development of parties. Because of this, many accounts of party development have looked not only at external changes, but also at parties' internal reactions to new circumstances. Some such studies have found internal pressures to adapt in the motivations of members and other supporters, others have emphasized the ways that party élites shape organizational choices, and still others have accounted for change by attributing aspirations to parties as organizational actors.

The first of these approaches explores how the presumed interests of members, and of would‐be members, shape parties' organizational strategies. When the interests of party members are viewed through a rational‐choice lens, levels of party membership and party activism appear to be the joint products of individuals' priorities and parties' menus of membership incentives. Authors (p.34) who write from this perspective treat individual participation in voluntary organizations as something which needs to be explained in terms of individual calculations about the benefits membership brings. They note that party membership may be financially costly, and that party activism demands the valuable resource of time; for these authors the puzzle consists in explaining why some individuals are willing to assume such costs. In one of the earliest efforts to solve this puzzle, James Q. Wilson argued that participation in parties is explicable in terms of a party's incidental or deliberate provision of some combination of the following: material incentives (for example, patronage positions); specific solidary incentives (non‐material benefits enjoyed selectively, that is, by only some members, such as party honours or offices); collective solidary incentives (non‐material ‘identity’ benefits which can be enjoyed by all members of the group, such as social opportunities); and purposive incentives (non‐material benefits which can be enjoyed by all members, such as satisfaction derived from helping to achieve goals which are perceived to be worthwhile).8

Wilson's terms have been widely adopted. To take a notable example, Kitschelt did not stray far from Wilson's earlier categories in his analysis of the development of the Belgian and German Green parties in the 1980s. He distinguished three types of party supporters according to their primary motivations: those who are most attracted by solidary incentives and collective goods (the ideologues); those who are most attracted by short‐term selective policy benefits (the lobbyists); and those who seek long‐term selective policy benefits (the pragmatists). Part of what was so valuable about Kitschelt's analysis was that he used these categories to emphasize how parties can adjust the combination of membership incentives they offer, and to explore how the motivations of activists can in turn shape parties' structures and policies.9 This is a particularly useful perspective, for while it acknowledges that state laws and party traditions may impose restrictions on what parties may offer their members, it calls attention to parties' efforts to flourish within these constraints.

Those who view decisions about enrolment as something that should be explicable in terms of membership rewards must expect party membership to shrink whenever there is a decline in the absolute or relative value of the incentives which parties provide. This is the logic that underlies the assertion that the rising (p.35) benefits of the welfare state, and the growing availability of leisure alternatives, have both threatened the persistence of membership parties by diminishing the relative value of the material incentives that parties can offer to their members.

One way to explain change in party organizations is thus to examine changes in the calculations made by party supporters. A second way is to examine changes in the calculations made by party leaders. Panebianco emphasized the latter when he asserted that it is the ‘dynamics of the struggle for power within an organization’ which ‘offer the key for understanding its functioning as well as the changes it undergoes’.10 He suggested that the nature of basic organizational changes should be interpreted by studying the ambitions and cohesiveness of those who belong to a party's ‘dominant coalition’. For example, in parties with divided leaderships, factions may block the expansion of membership because they fear that new members might upset existing internal power‐balances. Furthermore, Panebianco saw leaders' interests as crucial for explaining variations in the size of party membership:

Size can sometimes vary independently of the elites' decisions to change it, but their deliberate choices still play a greater role on most occasions. Our thesis is that party size mainly depends on each party's internal power structure, i.e. on the conformation of its dominant coalition.11

Panebianco thus argued that environmental crises could act as catalysts for change, and that a party's initial institutionalization could constrain its subsequent organizational choices, but he also stressed that the strengths and interests of competing party élites would nevertheless help shape the direction of party development.

A third perspective on organizational change in membership parties looks at parties as if they were unified actors which pursue electoral goals. From this perspective, organizational change can result from party leaders' changing interpretations of whether, or how, members can improve the party's electoral chances.

By examining the calculations of members, the first of these approaches offers a supply‐side account of why membership parties may find it easy or difficult to enrol members. The latter two approaches offer demand‐side explanations for change in membership parties. Such demand‐side approaches are surprisingly underdeveloped, despite the many predictions that parties will alter their organizational strategies in response to technological change. (p.36) Whereas supply‐side considerations of party development have often sought to explain why individuals affirm their partisan support through the act of enrolling as party members, far fewer studies have looked at the membership equation from the perspective of parties. Indeed, for many years there were very few attempts to uncover the calculations party leaders make when they decide to pay the costs necessary to attract and retain the support of enrolled members. As Robert Harmel and Kenneth Janda noted recently, ‘most statements about party change have given little attention to the parties' own decision‐making processes in effecting organizational change’.12 This deficiency is now rapidly being remedied, and recent studies in this area have begun to gather new data and shed new light on these processes.13 However, much remains to be done.

In the present study, the focus is on understanding how parties' internal decision‐making processes shape the direction of development when changes do occur. The argument is that demand‐side calculations about what makes membership useful provide clues about the specific nature of changes in particular structures and practices. While this perspective will surely not be adequate to account for all organizational change, a less simplistic view of parties' organizational calculations will certainly improve the more comprehensive models of organizational change. Unlike money, the value of members as an organizational resource is a subjective one, and it is precisely this subjective view that can shed light on parties' organizational manifestations.

In exploring the implications of changing assessments of member utility, the present chapter follows the Downsian tradition of examining predictions generated when parties are viewed as electorally‐motivated unitary actors. The Downsian approach admittedly overlooks complex and important relations among actors within organizations. However, it is used here precisely because it is the one most commonly employed by those who make the bleakest predictions about the future of parties as membership organizations. Furthermore, it constitutes the toughest challenge, because, as will be explained shortly, predictions of the decline of membership organizations are hardest to refute from this perspective.

The scenario that most commonly produces predictions about the inevitable decline of membership parties is that party leaders lose interest in enrolling large memberships once new technologies (p.37) and new social conditions diminish the comparative electoral utility of members. One way to refute this prediction is to change the assumptions that underlie it (that parties are unitary actors whose decisions are driven by electoral considerations). For instance, a convincing argument can be made in favour of viewing parties as collections of competing élites and their supporters. Panebianco adopted this approach when he showed how the utility of members can lie in their ability to help individual party leaders attain personal goals. If parties' organizational decisions are seen in terms of the priorities of competing party leaders, it should not be surprising to find parties investing in schemes to attract members even if there is no evidence that members help the party as a whole to win votes. An alternative approach for refuting predictions concerning the disappearance of membership parties is to argue that party decisions are not solely, or even primarily, motivated by electoral considerations. Kitschelt employed this perspective in his study of left‐libertarian parties when he focused on how members contribute to the realization of parties' non‐electoral goals. Of course, Kitschelt himself argued that parties motivated only secondarily by electoral considerations were only a small subset of parties in liberal democracies, and he implicitly accepted that an electoral perspective is valid for what he calls ‘mass‐bureaucratic’ parties. Still, as both these examples make clear, one way to explain why membership parties might persist is by shifting the assumptions of the debate.

However, neither of these perspectives says anything about the validity of the original prediction. They leave unanswered the more difficult question of whether unitary vote‐maximizing parties would have any reason to invest in memberships once they have gained access to financial and technological resources which equal or exceed the potential contributions of party members. This is the question which will be explored in the following pages, where parties are initially viewed as vote‐maximizing unified actors in order to investigate whether contemporary party strategists might see reasons for parties to pay the costs of recruiting and retaining members.

Studying the organizational strategies of parties as if they were developed by unified actors is thus a way of directly confronting one of the more explicit predictions about parties' organizational calculations. Use of this perspective can be further defended on the (p.38) grounds that it does not require a very big leap of abstraction. In fact, the studies in this book make clear that party organizational strategies are usually developed by a small, easily identified, group of ‘role incumbents’ who carry out their assigned tasks.14

The terms ‘party leaders’, ‘party organizers’, and ‘party strategists’ are used throughout this book to refer to individuals who gain formal or de facto control over the financial and personnel resources of a party's extra‐parliamentary organization. The leadership group often includes the party chair, the party manager (if independently elected), the head of the party's parliamentary delegation, and some or all members of the party's national executive. Party organizers are party employees who have the job of directing the year‐round work of the extra‐parliamentary party. Party leaders and party organizers have strong incentives to pay attention to organizational strategies and tactics because their professional reputations are usually enhanced if they introduce apparently successful (vote‐winning) organizational innovations. The intra‐party support that initially helped leaders and organizers to win their offices gives them a good chance, but no guarantee, of being able to implement their organizational ideas. Party leaders and party organizers may not share identical organizational strategies, but they are likely to hold many common perspectives, particularly if leaders control or influence the appointment of top party employees. Finally, the term ‘party strategist’ refers to all those who articulate organizational plans for the party, and who possess some influence with the current party leadership. Those who act as party strategists may do so from within the ranks of party leaders or party organizers, but more junior parliamentarians, journalists, or academics may also provide their parties with new ideas and new strategies. Thus, viewing a party as if it had a single set of preferences about party organization only aggregates the views of, at most, a dozen readily identifiable individuals, all of whom are members of a party's ‘dominant coalition’; these are the individuals who usually must give at least tacit assent to official organizational strategies.

For the reasons just described, the chapters that follow employ an electoral perspective in examining changes in the ways that British and German party leaders and party organizers have assessed the net value of membership organization. The focus adopted here is similar to the one advocated by Stefano Bartolini, (p.39) who argued that in order to understand the organizational decisions of parties

party membership has to be viewed as an organizational resource, and as the result of organizational incentives offered by the party leadership and officers. In this case, the problem is knowing how party leaders perceive and value the basic resource of membership . . . To maintain, increase, or even decrease the levels of membership and activism is, from the leadership perspective, an organizational effort, which might or might not be rewarded in terms of money, work, and time.15

Although the following discussions emphasize demand‐side calculations about the utility of members, they do not ignore the effects of the supply‐side forces which affect enrolment. Instead, external changes are viewed here as factors which shape party leaders' calculations about the costs and benefits of party membership.16 As will be explained in the following sections, if organizational change in membership parties is driven by changed perceptions of member utility, such changes are likely to coincide with reassessments about the kind of supporters parties should attempt to enrol. This means that understanding why parties want members may yield predictions about what parties will be prepared to do to enrol such supporters.

Of course, as Bartolini makes clear in the excerpt cited above, party leaders may be just as likely to consider membership a liability as to view it as an asset. Indeed, arguments about the costs imposed by members, like arguments about the costs of enrolment, are quite familiar in the wake of years of articles which take for granted that party organizers are interested in shedding party memberships. Nevertheless, this is only part of the story—even in a mass‐media age, members can be assets as well as liabilities. The interesting questions are whether party leaders consider the benefits of membership to outweigh the costs, and what they will do to maximize the former and minimize the latter. However, because the demand‐side calculus of membership utility is so understudied, these questions cannot be answered until after an explicit consideration of the reasons why party strategists might categorize enrolled supporters either as electoral assets or as liabilities. Only then will it be possible to complete the argument about how changing strategic assessments can propel organizational change in membership parties.

(p.40) Assessing the Utility of Membership Organization

To portray party members as generic organizational assets, uniformly valuable or worthless, would be to make the mistaken assertion that membership is a resource which is as fungible as money. Whereas money is an asset which can be stored and used as needed, members may be a meaningless resource unless party leaders can mobilize them at appropriate times and in useful ways. Of course, party strategists may hold very different ideas about which times are ‘appropriate’, and what tasks are ‘useful’. Yet despite the long history of studies of party organization, there are surprisingly few efforts to describe the broad range of uses which party strategists might envisage for enrolled members.17 To remedy this deficit, the following discussion brings together a wide variety of claims about the ways in which members may constitute organizational liabilities or organizational assets. Of these, it is the arguments about members as liabilities which are most familiar, because these are arguments that explain why party leaders may consider enrolled supporters to be more trouble than they are worth.

Members as Liabilities

There are two general types of argument about why party members may be harmful to party interests. The first focuses on ways in which members may directly undermine electoral support for their own party. The second points to the opportunity costs incurred by the recruitment and retention of members, and concludes that enrolment is an inefficient use of organizational resources.

1. Programmatic Costs

According to arguments about the programmatic costs imposed by party members, the latter are an electoral liability because they tend to support vote‐losing policies. Individuals who become party members, and especially those who become active members, are said to come from the most ideologically extreme segment of party supporters. Unlike the holders and seekers of party office, many committed members would rather see their party lose an election (p.41) than see it compromise on the purity of its principles.18 At its most extreme, this argument leads to the conclusion that wherever party members have a formal, or even an informal, role in the selection of party leaders and party policies, parties are likely to become inflexible and unresponsive to shifts of preference among the broader electorate. As a result, such parties will find it difficult to win elections. The conclusion of this argument is that party leaders who want to win or retain office may see members as a burden, because they can hamper the party's ability to act as an efficient vote‐seeking organization.

The premiss of this argument is by no means universally accepted in the scholarly community, and there are both theoretical and empirical reasons for rejecting the notion that active members always impose programmatic costs.19 However, even if it is not inevitable that members will make vote‐losing programmatic demands, if party leaders believe it to be likely, the argument may nevertheless shape party organizational development.

2. Opportunity Costs

Another argument that can be used to oppose membership enrolment is that the resources used to recruit and retain members are poorly invested. Incurring such opportunity costs is almost unavoidable for membership parties. Even parties which do not provide selective incentives for members usually pay expenses associated with formally enrolling individuals in the party. At the minimum, in most membership parties professionals or volunteers must spend time keeping membership records. Furthermore, party activists and employees at both local and national levels usually spend time and party money organizing membership meetings and sending information to members and possible recruits. These are resources which might instead be used to reach out to the broader community. Thus, it can be argued that the opportunity costs of organizing and maintaining the party membership exceed any potential benefits which could be provided by these members.

Members as Assets

On the other side of the ledger, members can be portrayed as organizational assets, and it may be thought that parties improve (p.42) their electoral fortunes by formally enrolling some, or even many, of their supporters. There are eight common arguments about how members may help their parties to win votes. The benefits they describe can be roughly ranked according to the increasing difficulty of the tasks that individual members must undertake in order to aid their parties.

1. Legitimacy Benefits.

One reason that party strategists may value members is because they believe that undecided voters will be swayed by their perceptions concerning the extent and the nature of parties' support. In this case, party organizers may value new members simply because they improve membership statistics. Such statistics may be considered to be particularly important wherever journalists use membership growth or decline to assess a party's standing, or to predict its future electoral prospects. Good membership statistics may also be especially useful for boosting the legitimacy of fledgling parties, a point noted by Michels when he argued that for a young socialist party ‘every decline in membership and every loss in voting strength diminishes its political prestige’.20

‘Political prestige’ may be won from membership statistics in other ways than by enhancing overall totals. For instance, party organizers may also attach special value to members who possess the characteristics of electoral segments to which the party is trying to appeal. Because of this, party organizers may seek to alter the demographic composition of party membership either more closely to reflect the party's existing votes or better to match the types of voter the party would like to attract. Thus in certain contexts statistics on ethnic‐minority or female enrolment may be seen as a useful tool for increasing the credibility of a party's claim to represent these groups.

At a slightly more abstract level, enrolled members may boost party legitimacy, and thereby help parties' electoral fortunes, by allowing parties to present themselves as popular organizations controlled by ordinary members, rather than by ‘professional politicians’. Members may provide these kinds of legitimacy benefits even if membership control is more apparent that real, as long as party leaders can plausibly claim to be deferring to the wishes of a broad membership. In either case, whether members (p.43) are wanted because they improve membership statistics or because they enhance the appearance of intra‐party democracy, arguments concerning legitimacy benefits provide reasons why party leaders might find electoral value even in members who are completely inactive within their parties.

2. Direct Electoral Benefits

In some parties, members may be particularly valued for the electoral support they provide. This may be particularly likely where members are known or assumed to vote more regularly, and more consistently, than other voters. Research in some countries has provided support for such a view of party members.21 Of course, in most countries party members represent only a small portion of the electorate, and electorally ambitious parties must usually seek votes beyond the boundaries of their own membership. Nevertheless, party strategists may believe that members are able to provide a crucial margin of victory, particularly in elections with low turn‐out levels or in very competitive contests.

3. Outreach Benefits

Party leaders may value members for the support they can mobilize by means of their everyday contacts. For instance, those under the influence of theories such as Paul Lazarsfeld's two‐step communication model may consider members who are local notables (‘opinion leaders’) to be particularly valuable, because such citizens are thought routinely to influence the political views of those in their communities.22 Others may view even non‐notable members as potentially valuable ambassadors to the community, as people who can multiply votes through their willingness openly to declare, and even to explain, their personal political allegiances. Party members' everyday contacts may be especially valued in parties which are struggling to gain, or regain, public recognition and acceptance.

4. Financial Benefits

Party organizers may view membership enrolment as a useful means of generating revenue. Duverger expressed this idea most picturesquely when he equated the invention of mass‐membership (p.44) organization with the invention of the national‐defence bond, both of which were devices to assemble large sums through the collection of many small donations.23 According to Duverger, parties without other resources were the pioneers in developing membership‐based funding. However, party leaders may also value members' financial contributions where members are not the sole, or even the primary, source of party funds.

5. Labour Benefits

Party members may be valued for the free labour they can contribute both during and between election campaigns. This is probably the benefit political scientists most frequently mention when they describe the ways in which members help their parties, even though studies of specific parties usually emphasize the small proportion of active members.

Labour benefits are qualitatively different from the preceding benefits. Whereas the first four describe ways in which all members, even those who never show up at a party event, can boost a party's electoral fortunes, labour benefits are provided only by members who actively work within the party.

6. Linkage Benefits

Party leaders may see members as an essential source of information about public concerns, and they may consider the membership organization to be a channel of communication which keeps the party in touch with ‘grass‐roots’ opinion. Leaders of parties which have intentionally narrow electoral appeals are particularly likely to consider messages from the party membership to be more revealing of supporters' attitudes than is information from general surveys of public opinion. Note, of course, that this argument about linkage benefits directly contradicts the argument that members impose progammatic costs because they tend to keep party leaders out of touch with relevant popular opinions.

7. Innovation Benefits

Members can also be viewed as a source of new ideas that can improve party policies, or that can make party practices more effective. In order to provide such benefits, members must be (p.45) more than mere receptors which gather and transmit widespread public concerns; they must also independently generate ideas that have the potential to capture the popular imagination. If party leaders look to members to provide new perspectives, they may be particularly amenable to procedures which facilitate intra‐party debates.

8. Personnel Benefits

Party leaders may view the party membership as a greenhouse for cultivating new generations of political talent. Though parties may well have additional channels of leadership recruitment, existing leaders may favour candidates who have already demonstrated commitment to current party goals (and to current party leaders) through their prior service within the party's membership organization. Furthermore, party strategists may argue in favour of recruiting members with particular demographic attributes (women, ethnic minorities) in order to build up a reservoir of potential candidates who can visibly embody the party's commitment to specific groups.

The eight benefits listed above are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, it is likely that party leaders will simultaneously advance several arguments about why it is useful for their parties to recruit. However, it is plausible to assume that leaders of specific parties have different primary reasons for valuing members, just as it is plausible to assume that individuals have different primary reasons for enrolling in parties. It is also likely that parties' reasons for enrolling members will change over time. As social and political circumstances change, party leaders are likely to alter their assessments about which are the most important mechanisms for converting the potential resource of membership into an actual electoral asset. Changing circumstances may even encourage leaders to conclude that the potential costs of membership out‐weigh any benefits that members might provide.

Recognizing this possibility for recalculation is important because, as the next section shows, party leaders' changing ideas about the utility of members can have an important organizational impact. The likely nature of the impact can be shown by employing the preceding lists of arguments about the costs and benefits of (p.46) membership enrolment as a foundation for more general statements about links between strategies and organizational changes within parties.

The Calculus of Membership Incentives

When party strategists determine how members can and should aid their parties, they are also making implicit calculations about the characteristics of the members the party should attempt to attract. Some benefits can be provided by completely passive members, but others will be provided only by members who are willing to be continually active on behalf of their party. The demands associated with providing various benefits can best be described by answering two questions: what intensity of engagement is demanded of those who provide this benefit, and to what extent does the envisaged activity take place within formal party structures? Fig. 2.2 uses answers to these two questions to display in graphic form the wide range of differences in the nature of tasks which individual members may be expected to perform. This figure shows, for instance, that if parties are to reap labour benefits from membership enrolment, members must be actively and visibly engaged within their local parties. It also shows that parties can reap other rewards, such as legitimacy benefits, whether or not members ever show up at party meetings.

Because of the wide variations in demands, and because individuals are assumed to enrol and remain in parties for a variety of reasons, it is unlikely that all members will be equally interested in performing every task. For instance, the members who are most likely to enjoy active and public proselytizing are those who are motivated by fervour for the party cause; in contrast, those who join a party because they want the more tangible benefits of membership may have little interest in volunteering for such time‐consuming and highly visible outreach activities. As a result of variations in members' motivations, when party strategists change their ideas about the best ways for members to aid their parties, they are also likely to change their ideas about which type of members the party most needs to attract. Organizational change within a party may thus occur because party leaders deliberately (p.47)

                   The Costs and Benefits of Enrolling Members

Fig 2.2. Reaping Benefits From Members: The Costs To Members

alter structures and practices in order to make membership more appealing to individuals with distinct interests or characteristics.

At this point it will be helpful to summarize the sequence of premisses introduced so far.

  1. 1. If party leaders value members, it is because members perform specific tasks which increase the party's electoral chances.

  2. 2. If party leaders value members, they are willing to spend party resources or to sacrifice leadership privileges in order to encourage supporters to enrol.

  3. 3. Members and potential members have a variety of reasons for enrolling, and therefore have different degrees of interest in performing particular tasks within their party.

  4. 4. If party leaders value members, they will try to ensure that their party offers incentives which will attract individuals most likely to perform the specific tasks which they, the party leaders, value most.

This sequence of arguments does not assume that party professionals or elected leaders are familiar with the discussions about (p.48) participation incentives which are conducted in the realms of political science. In fact, in today's parties those who plan organizational strategies may well have training in political science, or may at least draw on the advice of those who do. More importantly, however, political scientists have developed their ideas about why individuals join parties by observing behaviour in actual parties. The arguments presented here merely assume that experienced party organizers and the political scientists who observe parties develop similar intuitions about why individuals become, and remain party members—whether or not these organizers would express their intuitions in the terms of political science. Like good anglers, party organizers must be aware that different types of lures tend to attract different types of fish.

According to the view developed here, one useful way to interpret changes in top‐down relations between parties and their supporters (such as those described on the three dimensions in Fig. 2.1) is by viewing them as reflections of the reasons for which party leaders value members. Do party leaders primarily want to realize greater legitimacy‐benefits from their membership organizations? Then they will probably be content to add mostly passive members. Hence, we should expect them drastically to lower the barriers to membership (increased inclusiveness). What if party leaders want greater outreach‐benefits? Then they may consider it essential to enrol more individuals who are willing to speak out about politics in formal or informal settings. Such individuals are more likely than others to appreciate purposive rewards. Party leaders may therefore calculate that it is worth trying to attract politically‐motivated members by offering increased opportunities for members to shape party policy or select party candidates (decreased centralization).

Decisions about specific ways to change the package of membership incentives may also reflect party leaders' assessments about the value of continuously active local parties. If campaigning for national elections is conducted exclusively in the national media, and if local government is non‐partisan, parties may choose to offer only those benefits which the national political organization can provide directly to individual members. In these circumstances, party leaders may see no direct electoral benefits in having intermediaries from local parties acting either as benefit providers, membership mobilizers, or campaign organizers. However, even in (p.49) these circumstances national party organizers may still recognize an indirect value in maintaining local associations—for instance, if they want to attract the type of members who appreciate solidary benefits. Local parties are probably the best providers of such collective solidary rewards as holiday festivities, or services for older members; no amount of direct mail from national headquarters can replicate the experiences offered by involvement within a local party community.

Few, if any, parties will try to limit their recruitment to a single type of member, because in most parties there will be more than one answer to the question of how members can help the party. Accordingly, parties will offer a mixture of incentives designed to attract a variety of members. However, this mixture is likely to change as party leaders alter their assessments about the relative value of particular benefits. Looking for changes in parties' organizational strategies can thus help to integrate short‐term interpretations of current events with longer‐term predictions about organizational trends.

But what precisely is an ‘organizational strategy’? Sjöblom's definition is a useful starting‐point for defining this term:

‘Strategy’ . . . is meant to indicate an actor's extensive and comprehensive planning of the use of available means with the object of attaining certain goals attempted in competition with others. The actor is presumed to have the option of choice. The result of various alternatives cannot be precisely determined. . . .24

Parties' organizational strategies are distinct from their electoral strategies, though the latter may well influence the former. For a vote‐seeking party the electoral strategy is a plan for winning votes from specific segments of the electorate. In contrast, its organizational strategy is a plan for optimizing the use of available and potential organizational resources in order to promote the realization of the electoral strategy.

A party's organizational strategy at least implicitly ranks the value of different resources (money, members, etc.), and it assesses how each type of resource can most usefully be deployed. An organizational strategy also incorporates judgements about the prices which should be paid for each type of resource. Because organizational strategies bring together assessments about the best means for achieving electoral ends, they can influence party (p.50) decisions about how to shape formal structures of the extra‐parliamentary organization, about the proper uses of professional and volunteer campaigners, and about the appropriate ways to conduct relations with non‐party supporters (including wealthy patrons, trade unions, and businesses). In short, parties' organizational strategies may be at least as important as institutional constraints and opportunities in influencing the course of party development.

However, this importance does not make organizational strategies any easier to identify. It is relatively straightforward to ascribe policy preferences to parties, even to opposition parties, because party élites regularly endorse written programmes and election platforms, but they only rarely lend their support to documents which summarize organizational strategies. Indeed, quite the opposite may be the case, because many party discussions about organizational failures and planned improvements are conducted in secret, and in ways that may leave few traces even in party archives. Fortunately, on most organizational matters there is not only an ‘official story’ about what the party looks like;25 there is also an ‘official story’ about how the ideal party should function. Pieces of this story can be found in a variety of sources, including documents issued by central‐party bureaucracies, leadership‐supported conference resolutions, and statements made by parties' national chairs and professional organizers. Though this official story is likely to contain a good measure of wishful thinking, it can nevertheless be quite revealing. Most importantly, as long as the official story is not static, it provides good evidence of underlying changes in a party's organizational aspirations.

Applying the Framework

Organizational changes have been characteristic of parties throughout the past century, and there is no reason to expect party organizations to stop evolving in the future. The twentieth century may indeed have been the century of the mass party, but even so, there has never been a single recipe for describing how such parties were actually organized. Instead, the structures of membership parties have varied across time and between countries. (p.51) Because organizational change appears to be the norm for parties, it is the development of dynamic models, not the proliferation of static categories, which is likely to prove most helpful for interpreting organizational relations in today's political parties.

The present chapter has argued that existing models of change in membership parties can be improved by developing a more nuanced view of party leaders' calculations concerning the costs and benefits of enrolling members. It has also proposed that invoking such demand‐side assessments may help to make sense of seemingly unconnected or minor organizational changes. The case for adopting such a perspective would be strengthened if evidence were available to show that party leaders and party organizers actually do alter their views about how and why members constitute a useful organizational resource, and about how best to attract members. Put differently, if such calculations about the costs and benefits of members are shown to be fixed, these calculations cannot possibly account for changes in a party's organization. As a result, one basic test of the plausibility of the proposed perspective is to ask whether parties' organizational experts do take the time and effort to revise their assessments of what it is that members are good for. Furthermore, using such a perspective would seem more appropriate if in at least some cases there is indeed sufficient evidence to link changes in leaders' strategic calculations with specific top‐down efforts to change party structures or practices.

Looking for this kind of evidence of strategic thinking about membership utility is the task for the remainder of this book. The following chapters systematically consider the ‘official organizing stories’ of four German and British parties, and they search for evidence that organizers and leaders in these parties have deliberately cultivated party memberships as an organizational resource. These chapters examine published and unpublished party records for clues about how party leaders have thought about the utility of membership organization, and about how their assessments have led them to promote specific organizational initiatives. As will become clear, party records provide a rich and rewarding resource for uncovering changing ideas about the costs and benefits of enrolling and maintaining membership networks.


Parts of this chapter are taken from the author's article ‘The “Paradox of Enrolment”: Assessing the Costs and Benefits of Party Memberships’, European Journal of Political Research, 25 (1994); 41–60, © Kluwer Academic Publishers. The material is reprinted by permission of Kluwer Academic Publishers.

(1.) (London: CCO, 1949), 28.

(2.) Fred Riggs, ‘Comparative Politics and the Study of Parties: A Structural Approach’, in William Crotty (ed.), Approaches to the Study of Party Organization (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1968). His categories were used by Seiler in his reconsideration of Duverger's analysis. Daniel‐Louis Seiler, De la comparaison des partis politiques (Paris: Economica, 1986), 87 ff.

(3.) Herbert Kitschelt, The Logics of Party Formation (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1989).

(4.) Angelo Panebianco, Political Parties: Organization and Power, trans. Marc Silver (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

(5.) Austin Ranney, ‘Candidate Selection’, in David Butler, Howard Penniman, and Austin Ranney (eds.), Democracy at the Polls (Washington: American Enterprise Institute, 1981), 82–9.

(6.) This dimension overlaps with, but is broader than, the characteristic which Ranney labels ‘direct or indirect participation’.

(7.) Frank Sorauf, ‘Political Parties and Political Analysis’, in William Chambers and Walter Dean Burnham (eds.), The American Party Systems (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), 47.

(8.) James Q. Wilson, Political Organizations (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 33–4.

(9.) Kitschelt, Logics of Party Formation, 50 ff.

(10.) Panebianco, Political Parties, p. xii.

(11.) Ibid. 192.

(12.) Robert Harmel and Kenneth Janda, ‘An Integrated Theory of Party Goals and Party Change’, Journal of Theoretical Politics, 6 (1994), 261.

(13.) e.g. in addition to the project led by Harmel and Janda, see the projects described in Andrew Appleton and Daniel Ward, ‘Measuring Party Organization in the United States: An Assessment and a New Approach’, Party Politics, 1 (1995), 113–31; and in Thomas Koelble, ‘Economic Theories of Organization and the Politics of Institutional Design in Political Parties’, paper presented at APSA annual meeting, New York, Aug. 1994.


(14.) Gunnar Sjöblom, Party Strategies in a Multiparty System (Lund: Berlingska Boktryckeriet, 1968), 49–52.

(15.) Stefano Bartolini, ‘The Membership of Mass Parties: The Social Democratic Experience, 1889–1978’, in Hans Daalder and Peter Mair (eds.), Western European Party Systems: Continuity and Change (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage Publications, 1983), 207.

(16.) This is in keeping with Kris Deschouwer's argument about the importance of perception as an intervening variable. Kris Deschouwer, ‘The Survival of the Fittest: Measuring and Explaining Adaptation and Change of Political Parties’, paper presented at European Consortium for Political Research (ECPR) Annual Joint Sessions, Limerick, Mar. 1992, 13 ff.

(17.) Katz is one notable exception. Richard Katz, ‘Party as Linkage: A Vestigial Function’, European Journal of Political Research, 18 (1990), 145–6.

(18.) May's ‘Special Law of Curvilinear Disparity’ is the best‐known statement of why members may impose programmatic costs.

(19.) See e.g. Herbert Kitschelt, ‘Austrian and Swedish Social Democrats in Crisis’, Comparative Political Studies, 27 (1994), 9–10; Paul Whitely, Patrick Seyd, Jeremy Richardson, and Paul Bissell, ‘Explaining Party Activism: The Case of the British Conservative Party’, British Journal of Political Science, 24 (1993), 90.

(20.) Robert Michels, Political Parties, trans. Eden and Cedar Paul (New York: Appleton‐Century‐Crofts, 1971), 367.

(21.) Sidney Verba, Norman Nie, and Jae‐On Kim, Participation and Political Equality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1978), ch. 8.

(22.) Paul Lazarsfeld, Bernard Berelson, and Hazel Gaudet, The People's Choice (New York: Columbia University Press, 1944).

(23.) Maurice Duverger, Political Parties: Their Organization and Activity in the Modern State, trans. Barbara and Robert North (New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1955).

(24.) Sjöblom's actor is the party executive: Party Strategies, 30.

(25.) Richard Katz and Peter Mair, ‘The Official Story: A Framework for the Comparative Study of Party Organization and Organizational Change’, paper presented at the APSA annual meeting, San Francisco, 30 Aug.–1 Sept. 1990.