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Third Force PoliticsLiberal Democrats at the Grassroots$

Paul Whiteley, Patrick Seyd, and Antony Billinghurst

Print publication date: 2006

Print ISBN-13: 9780199242825

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: September 2006

DOI: 10.1093/0199242828.001.0001

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Why Join the Party?

Why Join the Party?

Chapter:
(p.68) 4 Why Join the Party?
Source:
Third Force Politics
Author(s):

Paul Whiteley (Contributor Webpage)

Patrick Seyd (Contributor Webpage)

Antony Billinghurst

Publisher:
Oxford University Press
DOI:10.1093/0199242828.003.0004

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter examines the pathways to Liberal Democrat Party membership. The recruitment process is discussed, followed by what it means for the average respondent to be a party member. The key issue of why people join the party is then considered. In examining motives for joining, two theoretical models of political participation are utilized: the civic voluntarism model and the general incentives model. Both resources and choices are important in explaining why people join the party. Members have more resources in the sense of higher incomes, better educational attainments, and higher status class characteristics than voters, but incentives are also important for influencing the decision to join the party. Thus, both models appear to be relevant in explaining why people join.

Keywords:   Liberal Democrat Party, membership, political participation, civic voluntarism model, general incentives model

Having examined the social background characteristics and attitudes of Liberal Democrat party members in previous chapters, we now turn to the question of why they join the party. Although the principle focus of this chapter is explaining the recruitment of party members, we will also examine the mechanics of joining and the experiences of individuals in the course of becoming members which throws light upon the effectiveness of the party organization at the local level. We begin with a discussion of the recruitment process, followed by an examination of what it means to the average respondent to be a party member. Following that, we focus on the key issue of why people join the party in the first place. In examining motives for joining, we utilize two theoretical models of political participation: the civic voluntarism and the general incentives.

4.1 Pathways to Party Membership

Since party membership in general has been declining in recent years, parties have redoubled their efforts to recruit new members. From 1994 until 1997, Labour was noticeably successful, having increased its membership by 40 per cent (Seyd and Whiteley 2002).1 Table 4.1 provides information about how Liberal Democrat party members came to join the party in the first place. We see from the table that the party has been particularly successful in recruiting members through social contacts, which include friends, family, and workmates. It appears that existing members are keen to spread the word, so that the party has recruited 21 per cent of its membership in this way. The recruitment of (p.69)

Table 4.1. How members joined the party

Mechanisms for joining

%

Through telephone or door to door canvassing

13

In response to a party political broadcast

4

In response to a national party advert

7

In response to a local party newsletter/leaflet

14

I phoned/wrote to the local party

13

A member of my family persuaded me to join

7

A friend persuaded me to join

13

A colleague at work persuaded me to join

1

I joined at a local meeting/stall/rally

9

Other

19

Question: How did you join?

members through social networks highlights the importance of grassroots activists at the local level to act as a core around which the local party can be constructed and developed. At the same time, the party organization itself has been aggressively recruiting new members. Thus, the majority of members have been recruited via some form of party campaign activity, whether it is canvassing, national advertisements, or party political broadcasts. The latter frequently sign off by giving details of how the public can contact the party and join it. Table 4.1 demonstrates the different types of recruitment networks that have been deployed by the party in order to boost membership

Reaching out to the mass population and enticing more people to join the party is a constant concern. It is interesting to probe the motives that people have for joining the party. Table 4.2 lists the responses to a question about this issue. As can be seen, responses ranged across a broad spectrum, from liking the party leader and liking what the party was doing locally, to being influenced by family and friends. The most popular response, given by nearly four out of ten members, was that they joined because they believed in the principles of the party. A further 16 per cent joined because they liked the party's policies. So, one in two members joined because they were attracted by Liberal Democrat principles and policies. A generalized desire to support the party gained 9 per cent of the responses, while opposition to the Conservatives gained 10 per cent. It is noteworthy that opposition to the Conservatives was the prime reason for joining for five times as many members as opposition to Labour. The remaining members joined for a variety of other reasons, from a desire to see constitutional reform to a wish to make social contacts. Interestingly, only 3 per cent joined because they wanted to be active within the party. Once (p.70)

Table 4.2. Members' reasons for joining the party

Reason for joining the party

%

Paddy Ashdown's leadership

3

Liberal Democrat policies

16

Liberal Democrat principles

38

To oppose the Conservatives

10

To oppose Labour

2

To support PR/constitutional reform

8

For social reasons

1

To support the Liberal Democrat party

9

To be politically active in the party

3

Influence of family and friends

4

Liked the work of the party locally

10

To be better informed about politics

1

To have an influence on the party

1

Other

5

Question: People join the Liberal Democrat party for a variety of different reasons. How about you; what was your most important reason for joining the Liberal Democrat Party?

members have signed up to the party it appears to be common for a majority of them not to participate further in party activities.

Another interesting aspect of the members' experience is the ease or difficulty with which they were able to join the party in the first place. Clearly, if most found it easy to join, this implies that barriers to recruitment are relatively weak. On the other hand, if joining turned out to be a difficult experience for a significant number of members, it suggests that many people could have been turned off in the face of significant barriers to recruitment. Table 4.3 shows that, for the most part, the members found it to be a relatively easy matter to join the party. We cannot infer from this, however, that barriers to recruitment do not exist in some areas of the country. This would most commonly be the absence of a local branch of the party. Clearly, if they do exist they will deter people from joining, and

Table 4.3. Ease of joining the party

Responses

%

Very easy

49

Easy

45

Difficult

5

Very difficult

1

Question: If you approached the local party when you first joined, did you find it easy or difficult to make contact with them?

(p.71)

Table 4.4. Expectations and experience of membership

Responses

%

Fully lived up to expectations

43

Partly lived up to expectations

49

Not really lived up to expectations

7

Not at all lived up to expectations

1

Question: How do your experiences as a member so far relate to your initial expectations?

as a consequence these potential members will not appear in the survey. However, in so far as the experience of existing members is a guide, it suggests that there are no significant barriers to recruitment.

Given that members joined for a diverse set of reasons, it is interesting to know whether they have found the experience of being a party member satisfying. Table 4.4 contains the responses to a question designed to find out if membership has lived up to expectations. For the most part, respondents were satisfied with the experience of being a party member. About half were very satisfied with the experience, and only a handful were discontented.

There is in fact a relationship between activism and satisfaction with party membership. Altogether 60 per cent of the members who described themselves as very active thought that membership had fully lived up to their expectations. In contrast, only 38 per cent of the members who were not at all active thought this to be true. While only a minority of the members are very active, those who are seem to be more satisfied with the experience of being a party member than those who are not.

In light of this discussion, it is interesting to investigate further the activities that party membership involves. This is examined in Section 4.2.

4.2 The Meaning of Liberal Democrat Party Membership

We saw in Table 2.19 that the majority of members are not involved in the day‐to‐day activities of the party and can be regarded as pretty inactive. Therefore, for many there is a real question about the meaning of party membership in practice. A set of questions were included in the survey to elicit information about the political activities of members. These throw considerable light on how the members see their own role in the party organization. The activities in the table were selected to give a representative picture of the full range of political activities undertaken by (p.72) members. They are arranged in order of increasing cost, expressed in terms of the time and effort involved in undertaking them. They vary from a comparatively low‐cost activity, such as putting up an election poster, to a very high‐cost activity, like running for office at the local or national levels. Of course, perceptions of costs of the activities vary amongst respondents, but generally the early items in Table 4.5 are less costly in terms of time and effort than the later items.

Previous studies of party members (see Seyd and Whiteley 1992; Whiteley, Seyd, and Richardson 1994) found that displaying an election poster was the most popular form of low‐cost activity undertaken by members. Here, we find that displaying an election poster is the second most popular activity, beaten only by the task of delivering party leaflets during an election campaign. This suggests that the Liberal Democrats are more able to recruit their members to do election campaigning than is true of other parties. The proximity of the 1997 election to the survey certainly influenced the responses to these questions. Low‐cost activities dominate membership participation, but 34 per cent of members are still willing to deliver party leaflets between elections, a period when it is more difficult to sustain their motivation. We also find that 22 per cent of the members are willing to attend party meetings either occasionally or frequently. At the high‐cost end of the spectrum, we find that comparatively few members are willing to canvass on behalf of the party, although more are willing to canvass door‐to‐door than by telephone. We will return to this question of local campaigning in a later chapter. As expected, few members are willing to stand for office, either within the party organization or

Table 4.5. Members' political activities (percentages)

Not at all

Rarely

Occasionally/ frequently

Displayed an election poster

30

25

44

Signed a petition supported by the party

56

29

15

Donated money to Liberal Democrat funds

35

39

26

Helped with party fund‐raising

63

20

17

Helped organize a party street stall

93

5

2

Delivered party leaflets during an election

38

16

46

Delivered party leaflets between elections

49

17

34

Helped at a party function

67

17

16

Attended a party meeting

59

19

22

Canvassed voters on behalf of the party door to door

72

13

15

Canvassed voters on behalf of the party by telephone

93

4

3

Stood for office within the party organization

84

8

8

Stood for elected office in a local or national election

83

8

9

Question: We would like to ask you about the political activities you may have taken part in during the last five years. How often have you done this?

(p.73) in local and national elections. On the other hand, at the high‐cost end of the spectrum, those members who do want to stand for office are likely to reap the largest reward in terms of achieving personal political ambitions.

One of the most important forms of political participation in Britain today is donating money to political causes of various types. Research shows that there has been a significant increase in donations of this type over time (Pattie, Seyd, and Whiteley 2004). One explanation of this growth is that individuals are increasingly willing to ‘subcontract’ their participation to others—in effect paying someone else to participate on their behalf (Jordan and Maloney 1997). We see in Table 4.4 that about a quarter of the party members give money occasionally or frequently to the party, so it is interesting to probe a little deeper into this form of participation. Table 4.5 contains information about the level of individual contributions to the party. Subscriptions and donations from the members are a major source of funding for the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the Labour and Conservative parties, the Liberal Democrats are not closely associated with either the trade unions or big business, and as such cannot rely upon these sources of funding. Although at the 2002 party conference an appeal was made to trade unions disaffected by the Labour government to switch their donations to the Liberal Democrat Party, this has not really happened.

From Table 4.6, we find that the level of annual subscription is not particularly high. About three‐quarters of the members contribute £25 or less towards the party in subscriptions. However, the members also donate extra money to the party each year. These donations ranged from £5 to £5,000 in the year of the survey. While the higher figures are rare, the mean donation is £79.50 and the modal donation is £40. The latter is more of an indicator of the donations given by the typical party member, since it is not distorted by large payments from a few wealthy individuals.

Table 4.6. Donations by members

Donating money to the party

%

Range of contributions

Annual subscription

Total donation

Under £5

7

5

£5–15

39

8

£15–25

28

14

£25 +

26

73

Mean = £ 79.50; Mode = £40

Question: What is your estimate of the total financial contribution that you made to the party in the last twelve months (including annual membership fee, contributions to local or national fund‐raising initiatives, standing orders, etc.)?

(p.74) Returning to the question of why people join the party, the reasons given in Table 4.2 are interesting but quite diverse. It is important to probe this further by examining recruitment through the lens of two alternative theoretical explanatory models of participation that are prominent in the literature. While we have evidence covering the reasons members give for joining the party, the question remains as to what prompts some party supporters to join when many others do not. In the following sections we explore this question in detail.

4.3 Rival theoretical models considered: civic voluntarism and general incentives

Joining a political party is very much a minority activity in Britain. Survey evidence from a comprehensive study of political participation conducted in the early 1980s concluded that around 7 per cent of the electorate were party members and only 2 per cent were party activists at that time (Parry, Moyser, and Day 1992). The 2001 British Election Study showed that only 5 per cent of the electorate were party members, indicating that there has been a decline in party membership over the intervening years. Of this group of party members in 2001, only 10 per cent claimed to be Liberal Democrat members (see Clarke et al. 2004). Therefore, party membership in general, and Liberal Democrat party membership in particular, is very much a minority activity.

These figures suggest something of a paradox. In the 2001 general election close to five million people voted Liberal Democrat, so why are so few of them willing to join the party? As is well known, this ‘paradox of party membership’ is not just confined to the Liberal Democrats. Both Labour and the Conservative parties attract many more voters than they do party members. Given this, it is reasonable to ask the question: ‘Why should anyone want to join a political party?’ A plausible reply might be: ‘Because they want to help to promote the goals of the party—to help it to get elected so that it can implement the policies which they favour.’ However, in an influential book The Logic of Collective Action, Olson (1965) persuasively argued that this common‐sense answer is quite wrong. Olson suggested that if voters were rational individuals, in the sense of calculating the costs and benefits of their actions, it is unlikely that they would join a party, even when they strongly favoured its policies. Olson's analysis suggests that the problem of understanding party membership is not in explaining why so few join, but rather why anyone joins (p.75) at all. It is possible to explain away this paradox in the general incentives theory, which is designed to provide an accurate account of why so few people join political parties.

Before examining this explanation, however, it is important to take into account a rival theoretical explanation of political participation, namely the civic voluntarism model. This is a well‐known theoretical model for explaining political participation, and it focuses on the resources that individuals bring to the task of participating. We shall consider the merits of both of these models before going on to test them in Chapter 5.

4.3.1 Civic voluntarism

The civic voluntarism model (see Verba and Nie 1972; Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995) starts from the premise that political participation is best explained by the resources that the individual possesses. As Verba and Nie (1972: 13) put it:

According to this model, the social status of an individual—his job, education and income—determines to a large extent how much he participates. It does this through the intervening effects of a variety of ‘civic attitudes’ conducive to participation: attitudes such as a sense of efficacy, of psychological involvement in politics and a feeling of obligation to participate.

In this interpretation, resources give rise to civic attitudes and feelings of obligations to participate, and all of these together promote involvement. To join a political party, and in some cases to become active, individuals must possess resources in time and civic skills, and they must also have a sense of political efficacy and feelings of obligation to the party. In the most recent version of the theory, the central ideas are captured in the following quote:

We focus on three factors to account for political activity. We suggested earlier that one helpful way to understand the three factors is to invert the usual question and ask instead why people do not become political activists. Three answers come to mind: because they can't; because they don't want to; or because nobody asked. In other words people may be inactive because they lack resources, because they lack psychological engagement with politics, or because they are outside of the recruitment networks that bring people into politics (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995: 269).

This implies that party members are likely to have greater resources than party supporters in general, are likely to be more interested in politics, more committed to the party, and many of them will have been mobilized (p.76) by others to join the party. We have already observed in Chapter 2 that members are more likely to be middle class and university‐educated than Liberal Democrat voters. We saw also in Table 4.1 that many Liberal Democrat members were mobilized to join the party either by their own networks of friends and family or by the campaigning activities of other Liberal Democrats at the local level. For some, membership of local voluntary groups and engagement in local campaigns may have stimulated them to join the party. So voluntary activity, even if it is relatively non‐political in character, may be a mechanism for recruiting some people into the party. In this respect the civic voluntarism model appears to provide a plausible account of why some people become party members.

However, the civic voluntarism model has its critics. One problem with the model is that, despite the fact that high socio‐economic status may correlate with party membership, most high‐status individuals are not party members. This is because these people find other things to do with their time rather than participating in a political party. This means that while there is a correlation between socio‐economic status and party membership, the correlation is nonetheless rather weak. An additional problem for the theory is that if high socio‐economic status is the only thing that matters in predicting participation, party membership should be increasing in Britain over time, not declining. This is because Britain has changed over the last generation in that the workforce has become more white collar and less working class (Dalton 2002). There has also been a massive increase in the educational qualifications of the workforce, with many more people graduating from universities than was true a generation ago. If resources are such a good predictor of party membership, these trends should have stimulated a rise in party membership, not the decline we actually observe. A third problem with the model is that it does not address the ‘paradox of party membership’ referred to earlier. If Olson's analysis is correct, it is important for any theory of participation to address questions of incentives. People may have considerable personal resources and also be quite interested in politics, but if they do not have an incentive to participate, they are unlikely to get involved. Despite these critical points, the civic voluntarism model may still be useful in providing at least a partial account of why some people join a political party and become active.

4.3.2 General incentives

The general incentives model has roots in rational choice theory, which arises out of research in economics. The advantage of the general (p.77) incentives model is that it addresses some of the theoretical weaknesses of the civic voluntarism model. The core idea of the model is that individuals need incentives if they are to join a political party, and to become active in that party (see Seyd and Whiteley 1992; Whiteley, Seyd, and Richardson 1994). These incentives help them to overcome the costs of participation, which are not large for inactive members, but which can become quite large for the activists. The theory hypothesizes that participation is motivated by a series of incentives. It will be recalled that Olson's thesis argues that individuals make decisions to participate solely on the basis of the costs and benefits associated with the different courses of actions open to them. Supporters of a party have an incentive to free‐ride on the efforts of others, and not to contribute to the activities of the party. This free‐riding comes about because parties are organizations that mainly produce public goods.

A public or collective good has two properties: jointness of supply and the impossibility of exclusion (see Samuelson 1954). Jointness of supply means that one person's consumption of the good does not reduce the amount available to anyone else. An example of this would be national defence. Everybody in a society benefits from national defence and any one individual's consumption of the good does not reduce the amount of it available to others. Impossibility of exclusion means that if one person does not contribute to the provision of the collective good, they cannot be prevented from benefiting from it. Again, if an individual avoids paying the taxes that support defence spending, they nonetheless benefit from national defence, and it is impossible to prevent them from doing so. Thus, rational individuals have an incentive to free‐ride on the efforts of others and there is little reason for them to contribute.

Olson pointed out that political parties provide collective goods, in the form of policy proposals and manifesto promises, which potentially affect everyone, regardless of whether or not they are members or supporters. Consequently, rational actors who strongly support party policy proposals have nonetheless an incentive to free‐ride on the efforts of others, and thereby avoid the costs of participation. In effect, they have an incentive to ‘let someone else do the work’. This is how Olson explains the fact that very few of the people who support a party are willing to become members. Having said that, it is clear that some people actually do become party members, so why does this happen? Olson argues that they receive ‘selective incentives’ or inducements to participate, which are unrelated to the collective goals of the party. These selective incentives are private goods, in the sense that anyone who does not join will not receive them. (p.78) In his book, Olson cites the example of trade unions, which provide inducements to join such as legal advice and insurance, which are only available to members (Olson 1965: 73). In the absence of such selective incentives there would be a real problem recruiting trade union members, since the collective goods produced by the union such as pay increases and improved conditions of work are available to the entire workforce, which gives rise to the free‐rider problem.

Any incentive‐based theory of why people join a political party has to deal with the paradox of participation. Being an active member of a political party involves a great deal of high‐intensity participation such as campaigning, organizing meetings, and running for office. Selective incentives must be important enough to overcome the problem in situations where the temptations to free‐ride are great. The theory suggests that there are three types of selective incentive: process, outcome, and ideological (see Whiteley and Seyd 2002).

Process incentives refer to motives for participating that derive from the process of participation itself. Different writers have referred to a number of motives that might be counted under this heading. Tullock (1971) has written of the ‘entertainment’ value of being involved in revolution; Opp (1990) writes about the ‘catharsis’ value of involvement in political protest. For some people, the political process is interesting and stimulating in itself, regardless of outcome or goals. Party membership is a way of meeting like‐minded and interesting people, and for some, this is motive enough for getting involved. Outcome incentives refer to motives concerned with achieving certain goals in the political process, but goals that are private rather than collective. Thus, a party member might harbour ambitions to become a local councillor or the local mayor, or even to be elected to the House of Commons. Others may want nomination from the Liberal Democrat Party to be a school governor or a local magistrate. There are many motives that come under this heading, but they all share the common characteristic of providing private, rather than collective, benefits from participation.

A third type of motivation is ideology, and this explains the so‐called ‘law’ of curvilinear disparity (see May 1973; Kitschelt 1989). This is the proposition that the rank‐and‐file members of a political party are likely to be more radical than the voters or the party leadership. This produces a curvilinear relationship between ideological radicalism and the position of the individual within the organizational hierarchy of the party. In the case of the Liberal Democrats, it is likely to mean that the rank‐and‐file members are more radical than the leadership on the one hand, and the (p.79) party supporters in the electorate on the other. The selective incentives to party membership deriving from ideology are related to the fact that individuals like associating with other like‐minded people. The process of sharing values and beliefs with other people produces an incentive to participate in the party organization. Involvement is prompted by motives similar to those of the active churchgoer. Membership of a church allows religious people to give expression to their beliefs as well as to become part of a congregation.

It can be seen that a number of incentives exist to promote party membership that are independent of the collective incentives, which create the paradox of participation. On the other hand, these selective incentives only really apply to the active party members. People who regard their party membership as a private matter, not to be discussed or shared with other people, are unlikely to be motivated by process, outcome, or ideological incentives.

If these people do not receive selective incentives, why should they join the party? It is possible to explain why somebody would join while at the same time remaining inactive. The key to understanding this is the relationship between the costs and benefits of party membership. What matters is the individual's perceptions of both the costs and benefits. Individuals may perceive that their own contribution to the collective good is negligible, but it may still be rational for them to participate if they see the costs as being negligible as well. It is the perceived difference between costs and benefits that matters, not some ‘objectively’ defined measure of these benefits and costs. This has a further implication; when perceptions of both benefits and costs are small, it is not rational to calculate them precisely. The exercise of assessing costs and benefits is itself costly, and does not warrant the return when those costs are trivial. Thus, it is rational to define a threshold below which individuals do not assess the precise costs and benefits of collective action (see Barry 1970; Niemi 1976). In this situation, joining a party without having selective incentives makes sense, provided one believes that this involves making a non‐zero contribution to the collective good. In addition, there are other incentives, over and above selective incentives, which might induce people to join the party.

One additional incentive is provided by ‘solidaristic’ motives for participation, or motives based on a group‐based reasoning. Any adequate theoretical account of collective action needs to consider situations in which the individual ‘thinks’ collectively at the level of the group. If individuals think of the group's welfare in addition to their own personal benefits when making a decision to participate, this can make a difference. In (p.80) doing this, they are asking the question ‘what is best for all of us?’ rather than ‘what is best for me?’ If this idea is applied to the task of explaining party membership, it implies that one reason why individuals join is because they believe that Liberal Democrat party members collectively make a difference to policy outcomes. Individuals will still undertake a calculus of costs and benefits, but it is focused at the level of the party as a whole, not just at their own level. If they reach the conclusion that the party as a whole can make an important difference to the lives of the people with whom they identify, they will join.

All these are ways in which individuals avoid the temptation to free‐ride when collective goods are provided. The collective goods are the policy goals of the Liberal Democrat Party. Thus, individuals who think that the party will increase prosperity, promote the interests of people like themselves, and generally improve the local community or Britain as a whole will be induced to participate if they think collectively. In this case, collective action becomes an incentive to participate, rather than an incentive to free‐ride. Whether or not they join the party depends on seeing it as a vehicle for achieving those goals. In a purely individualistic world of the type assumed by classical rational choice theory, in which people do not think in terms of group needs at all, most would free‐ride. But in a world where people seek group benefits, it is no longer rational to do this. In that case, individuals will be motivated to participate because they feel that they are part of an effective group.

Collective incentives for joining the party can be of two kinds: positive and negative. Individuals will participate not only because they want to promote particular policy goals but also because they oppose other people's collective goals. On the one hand, they may be motivated to get involved because they support some aspect of Liberal Democrat party policy; on the other, they may participate because they oppose some aspect of Conservative or Labour policies. Positive incentives involve promoting what are seen as collective goods, whereas negative incentives involve opposing what are seen as collective bads.

The ‘unity principle’ introduced by Muller and his associates suggests that there is a moral dimension to all of this. A norm may exist which suggests that individuals should contribute if the collective good is to be provided (Muller and Opp 1986, 1987; Finkel et al. 1989). They describe this norm as ‘calculating Kantianism’. When faced with the possibility of free‐riding on the efforts of others, group members ask themselves the question: ‘What if everyone did that?’; and since the answer is that the collective good would not be provided, they choose to participate.

(p.81) The basic idea is that moral reasoning plays an important role in explaining participation for some individuals. They may be conscious of the paradox of participation, and they may even discount collective thinking of the type discussed earlier. But they participate anyway, out of a sense of duty or a moral imperative. This is an aspect of the ‘civic culture’, which is a set of norms and beliefs about how the political system should work, and what role the citizen should take within it (see Almond and Verba 1963). It provides an additional motive for joining the party in the general incentives theory. Very often, these moral motives will be expressed in terms of idealistic goals, such as the desire to ‘build a better society’ or because of a general belief in liberal principles. Such general motives may of course have policy implications, but a moral imperative is the driving force behind the decision to participate, not the specific policy goal.

Yet another factor, which explains participation within the general incentives framework, are incentives based on emotional or affective attachments to the Liberal Democrat Party. These motives lie outside the standard cost – benefit model of decision‐making, with its emphasis on cognitive calculations. Such motives have long been discussed in the literature on party identification, since the early theorists saw partisanship as an effective orientation towards a significant social or political group in the individual's environment (Campbell et al. 1960); they have also been discussed in relation to economic voting (Conover and Feldman 1986) and in the US literature on presidential voting (Marcus 1988). A formal theory of expressive voting has been developed which postulates that voters are motivated by a desire to express support for one candidate or policy outcome over another, independently of whether or not their vote influences outcomes (Brennan and Buchanan 1984; Carter and Guerette 1992). In this interpretation, some people are motivated to join by an expressive attachment to the Liberal Democrat Party, which has little to do with the benefits obtained from membership. Such motives for joining are grounded in a sense of loyalty and affection for the party that is unrelated to cognitive calculations of costs and benefits. Frank (1988) argues that such emotional commitments provide a mechanism for overcoming collective action problems by inducing people to cooperate even in situations where significant short‐term benefits accrue from free riding.

Finally, social norms constitute a fifth set of motives for joining a party. These also lie outside the scope of a narrow rational choice model of participation. A key feature of such norms is their enforcement by other people. ‘Significant others’ who express approval or disapproval can influence the individual's behaviour (see Elster 1989: 97–151). Thus, party (p.82) members motivated by social norms are responding to the perceived opinions of individuals whose views they respect and value. We have seen in Table 4.1 that many people become party members because of their family and friends, and this illustrates how social norms can influence party membership.

Overall, then, the general incentives theory of political participation postulates that five distinct factors are at work in explaining why people join a political party or become active once they have joined. These are selective and collective incentives, altruism, affective motives, and social norms.

4.3.3 Applying civic voluntarism

Our discussion of the civic voluntarism model explains an individual's participation in terms of his or her resources, psychological engagement with politics, and sense of political efficacy, and also by the process of mobilization. There are a number of variables that are relevant for testing the civic voluntarism model in the survey. The constituent parts of the model include a measure of the individual's political efficacy and socio‐economic status, and a measure of the extent to which the individual has been mobilized to be active in the party.

The first of the empirical measures relates to the individual's sense of political efficacy (Verba, Schlozman, and Brady 1995: 272). Table 4.7 contains two indicators which suggest that Liberal Democrat members' sense of political efficacy is high. Seven in every ten members believe that by getting involved they can have a political influence and eight in ten think that Liberal Democrat members can change Britain. The recruitment variable included in Table 4.7 is coded from the responses in Table 4.1. The recruitment measure focuses on recruitment by social networks, the percentage of members who were recruited by friends or family, or at the workplace. The score of 21 per cent on this variable is high in comparison with an earlier analysis of Labour and Conservative party members, which returned scores of 7 per cent for Labour and 12 per cent for the Conservatives on the same measure (Whiteley and Seyd 2002: Table 4.5, 67). The Liberal Democrat score demonstrates the importance of social networks for the recruitment of party members.

Most of the remaining predictor variables in Table 4.7 measure the individual's socio‐economic status. We have already discussed the socio‐economic profile of Liberal Democrat members in Chapter 2. However, it is worth repeating some of that evidence here because of its importance to (p.83)

Table 4.7. The civic voluntarism model indicators

Political efficacy

%

People like me can have a real influence on politics if they are prepared to get involved (% agreeing)

70

When Liberal Democrat party members are united and work together they can really change Britain (% agreeing)

83

Recruitment

Family, friends, and workmates

21

Resources

Full‐time employment

49

Unemployed

2

Income

Less than £10,000

16

£10,000–20,000

27

£20,000–40,000

35

£40,000+

22

Social class

Salariat

74

Routine non‐manual

11

Petty bourgeoisie

7

Foreman and technician

4

Working class

4

Education

Graduate

42

Non‐graduate

58

Strength of party attachment

Very strong

26

Fairly strong

49

Not very strong

22

Not at all strong

4

Membership of local groups

None

42

One

23

Two

17

Three

10

Four or more

8

the civic voluntarism model. Based upon their socio‐economic profiles, Liberal Democrat members fit the description of likely participants. We can see from Table 4.7 that the majority of them are employed full‐time, enjoy a reasonable standard of living, and are middle class. Furthermore, a large proportion of them have a good educational background. In addition, the majority are fairly strongly attached to the party, which provides an important stimulus to join, are members of local groups, and are involved in community politics. In terms of the civic voluntarism model, these characteristics are all positive predictors of participation and should encourage individuals to join the party. All these characteristics suggest (p.84) that resources and motivations of the type discussed in the civic voluntarism model are important in explaining why people join the party.

4.3.4 Applying general incentives

We have suggested that five factors discussed in the general incentives theory play an important role in explaining why individuals join the party, and why some of them become active once they have joined. If these factors are important, we should observe clear differences between party members and party supporters in the electorate. If we compare Liberal Democrat members and Liberal Democrat identifiers in the electorate, we would expect the former to be more highly motivated than the latter in each of the relevant variables in the general incentives model. Thus, members should be more in favour of Liberal Democrat policies, more emotionally attached to the party, and more motivated by process, outcome, and ideological incentives, although as we pointed out earlier, this depends on their rates of activism. In addition, they should feel a greater sense of duty to participate and, finally, they should be more influenced to participate by other people who are close to them. Unfortunately we do not have the data to test all these factors, since that would require a survey of Liberal Democrat voters, which contained precisely the same questions as the survey of party members. However, useful comparisons can be made between the members in the survey and Liberal Democrat identifiers identified in the 1997 British Election Study. The comparisons are limited, since that particular study was not designed to test incentive theories of participation. However, in Table 4.8 we compare the responses of party members and Liberal Democrat identifiers on a set of questions that is closely linked to the general incentives theory.

The first section of Table 4.8 relates to expressive or affective attachments to the Liberal Democrat Party. We use the same variable in this table as in Table 4.7. It is clear that members are more strongly attached to the party than are Liberal Democrat identifiers in the electorate. Twenty‐six per cent of the members are very strongly attached compared to only 5 per cent of identifiers. This margin of 21 per cent compares favourably with Conservative party members where the margin is 14 per cent (Whiteley, Seyd, and Richardson 1994: 91). The evidence here is consistent with the proposition that expressive attachments motivate individuals to join the party.

Collective incentives are measured by policy goals, and in this case we compare party members with Liberal Democrat identifiers in the election (p.85) study on a set of three key issue indicators in the second part of Table 4.8. The basic idea here is that if collective incentives motivate people to join the party, their policy goals should be more closely aligned with those of the party than is true of supporters in the wider electorate. Thus, policy agreement with party positions should, in part, explain why supporters become members. The items in Table 4.8 relate to public expenditure on health, welfare, and education, attitudes to nationalization versus free enterprise, and attitudes to Britain's membership of the EU.

It is necessary to get some independent measure of where the Liberal Democrat Party is located on these issues if we are to determine whether members are closer to the party than voters. This can be done using the party manifesto evidence discussed in Chapter 1 (see Budge et al. 2001).

Table 4.8. General incentives: a comparison of members and identifiers in the electorate (percentages)

Expressive incentives

Members

Identifiers in the electorate

How would you rate yourself as a Liberal Democrat?

Very strong

26

5

Fairly strong

49

41

Not very strong

22

52

Not at all strong

4

Collective incentives or benefits

The government should reduce taxes and spend less on health, education, and social benefits

1

2

The government should keep taxes and spending on these services at the present levels

16

14

The government should increase taxes and spend more on health, education, and social benefits

83

81

None of the above

3

3

In favour of more nationalization of companies by government

28

31

In favour of leaving things as they are

63

56

In favour of more privatization of companies by government

9

10

None of the above

6

4

Britain should leave the EU

6

26

Britain should continue as a member of the EU

86

65

Do not know

8

9

Perceptions of efficacy

Strongly agree +Agree

Strongly disagree +Disagree

It does not really matter which party is in power; in the end things go on much the same (members)

18

75

It does not matter which party is in power; things go on the same (identifiers)

42

38

People like me can have a real influence in politics if they are prepared to get involved (members)

70

15

People like me have no say in government actions (identifiers)

52

23

(p.86) Figure 1.2 showed that the Liberal Democrat policies have taken a fairly positive view of welfare spending, so we should expect to see members being rather more supportive of welfare than identifiers in the wider electorate. Similarly, Figure 1.3 showed that the party has consistently supported European integration over time; thus, we might expect members to be more Europhile than identifiers. Party policies on nationalization were not discussed in Chapter 1, but the positive references to the subject along with positive references to free enterprise in manifestoes appear in Figure 4.1. The evidence in Figure 4.1 shows that the party has always been more favourably inclined to free enterprise than it has to nationalization, with the exception of a brief blip during 1974. As a result, we should expect party members to be the same, and be less enthusiastic about nationalization than Liberal Democrat identifiers in the electorate as a whole.

Referring to Table 4.8, we can see that party members are more positively inclined towards the EU, more sceptical about nationalization, and slightly more inclined to support welfare spending than is true of Liberal Democrat identifiers in the electorate. This supports the proposition that party members are closer to the policy positions of the party as set out in the manifesto than are identifiers in the electorate. According to the general incentives theory, this is one of the reasons why they are party members, and not just supporters.

                   Why Join the Party?

Figure 4.1 Positive references to free enterprise and nationalization in Liberal Party and Liberal Democrat manifestos 1945–97

Source: Budge et al. (2001)

(p.87) A sense of personal efficacy also plays an important role in the general incentives and civic voluntarism models. Accordingly, both models predict that party members should feel a greater sense of efficacy than supporters in the electorate. We can see that the evidence in Table 4.8 is consistent with this expectation. Members are much more likely to feel that they can have a real impact upon politics in comparison with identifiers. There are differences in question wordings on these items, which make exact comparisons difficult, but it is nonetheless clear that members have a much greater sense of personal efficacy than identifiers.

Comparing the responses of members and identifiers to various issues is one way to test incentives theory. Another is to ask members why they joined the party in the first place, and then examine the answers to see if they can be classified according to the various categories of the theory. Table 4.9 clearly shows that expressive attachments play a very important role in explaining why members join the party. Expressive attachments are dominated by a liking for Liberal Democrat principles, which, as we argued in Chapter 2, were highly important for the members. At the same time, a small group of members joined because they liked the local party, which is another aspect of expressive attachments.

Table 4.9. The general incentives model indicators

What was your most important reason for joining the Liberal Democrat Party?

%

Expressive attachments

Paddy Ashdown

3

Like work of local party

10

Liberal Democrat principles

38

51

Collective positive

Liberal Democrat policies

16

PR constitutional reform

8

24

Collective negative

Oppose Labour

2

Oppose the Conservatives

10

12

Selective process incentives

To be politically active

3

Social reasons

1

To be better informed about politics

1

9

Selective outcome incentives

To have an influence on the party

1

Social norms

Joined because of family and friends

4

(p.88) The second most popular reason for joining the party is collective incentives. Collective positive incentives include key party policy commitments framed in rather general terms. Also included in this category are the negative incentives, which are manifest in the form of a desire to oppose rival parties. Equally, selective incentives provide an insight into the private reasons for joining the party. Some members wanted to be politically active for its own sake, whereas others had social reasons. A small number wanted to have influence on the party, which is a type of outcome incentive. Finally, an important group of members were induced to join by social norms, that is, by their friends and family. More members are influenced to join by family and friends than those who join to be politically active.

It is perhaps not surprising that expressive motives for participation should predominate in the party in which most members are not active. Since inactive members are not receiving selective incentives, and collective incentives are subject to the paradox of participation, we might expect expressive motives for joining to be more important factors than other types of motives in the minds of most inactive members.

4.4 Conclusions

In this chapter we have outlined two rival theoretical explanations of why some supporters in the electorate might end up joining the Liberal Democrats. We have also looked at some evidence, which is consistent with different aspects of these theories. However, the evidence does not provide a definitive test of them, primarily because our survey did not include a sample of non‐members. It is therefore impossible to model the differences between members and non‐members using the same measures—something required to test the theories properly. On the other hand, if either of these theories can be used to explain why people join the party, they should also provide an explanation of why some people are active when others remain on the sidelines. Since we have data on variations in activism in the party, this can be used to test the theories applied to the task of explaining activism, and this is done in Chapter 5.

Notes:

(1) However, as a recent analysis has shown, even the Labour Party has been losing members at an alarming rate (The Guardian, 27 September 2002).