Hard Labour

The Labour Party has lost 54,000 members since the last general election and it has also lost the direct marketing agency which helped sign them up in the first place.

Evans Hunt Scott, which applied direct marketing techniques to Labour’s national membership recruitment, and added up to 100,000 new members between 1995 and 1998, split with Labour at the end of last year. “Differences of strategy” were cited as the reason, though the agency’s creative director Terry Hunt refuses to expand.

This week, Labour is expected to appoint another DM agency, Brann London, to pick up where EHS left off, staunching the departure of existing members while bringing in new ones (MW January 7). A party spokesman says the 54,000 departures could include up to 7,000 people who have died. And some 40,000 members have joined the party since the election, meaning total numbers are down from 405,000 to 391,000.

But Brann, whose major clients include Sainsbury’s, has a much tougher task than EHS in building recruitment.

Before the election, Labour was able to offer supporters a strong reason to join the party – to help get rid of the Conservatives. With this achieved, members are melting away, and Brann will have to help build a new proposition to win them back. Tony Blair’s honeymoon with the British public is ending, and creeping disillusionment is setting in.

One source says: “Maintaining membership is both politically and financially imperative. But now the proposition has gone from offensive to defensive, and they are asking people to give money to what they perceive to be the Government. The hard core of activists will stay, but New Labour is based on attracting thousands of previously uncommitted people as members.” A strong mem- bership is a sign of a strong party. Big numbers are needed to justify the whole New Labour project.

Members are also crucial to funding the party, which spends on average about 20m a year. Small donations (under 1,000) – many from ordinary members – account for a fifth of the party’s income. They have increased in importance, as trade union contributions have declined, and large donations (such as Bernie Ecclestone’s 1m) become more suspect. Membership recruitment has risen up the agenda of party managers, and is a prime consideration for general secretary Margaret McDonagh, who took over from Tom Sawyer last autumn.

According to the Labour spokes-man: “The biggest problem is that people join for a year and don’t renew membership because someone does not come round to remind them. People move around: we are keen to improve systems to deal with this. The least likely reason for leaving is resignation.”

The spokesman says the party’s priority through 1998 was to remove the 4.5m debt incurred during the election, and this has been achieved. He adds: “About eight to nine per cent membership has lapsed in the past year. The problem is the number recruited has fallen. There has been no money to invest in recruitment and updating our message.”

He says with Labour’s finances now on a more stable footing, the money is there for a recruitment drive to keep numbers buoyant.

It is an expensive business. In 1997, expenditure on membership and fundraising, partly through direct marketing, came to nearly 6.5m, though it brought in some 25m from affiliation and donations (only six donations of more than 1m were reportedly received.)

Brann will work with head of direct marketing Martin McEwan and Mike Emery, brought in on secondment from Thomas Cook to oversee the new membership drive. It will work on specific projects, such as promoting the centenary of the founding of the party.

The agency’s task will include maintaining and updating Labour’s “prospecting file” – where existing members are profiled, and the data is extended using bought-in lists to target new prospective members. The need for a broad membership, reflecting the mass nature of the party, makes this process of profiling all-important in achieving a balance of members from different social classes. But it is also important to bring in sufficient numbers of better-off members, as they are the ones who will make bigger donations.

But some question whether simply putting more money into recruitment will be sufficient to secure new members – a theory which assumes there is deep well of public support for the Government. Governments of any political persuasion tend to get blamed rather than applauded, even by their own supporters say the sceptics.

Labour policy reversals on key issues are understood to have led to a loss of membership with a common reason given by defectors being the Government’s failure to push through the Bill to outlaw hunting. Many people have joined Labour on the basis of single issues – animal welfare, the environment, or education – and when they find their issue is being downgraded, they rapidly withdraw support. Hundreds left after the Lone Parent Benefit vote in 1997, though the spokesman claims relatively few leave because of these specific issues.

While the appeal of joining Labour before the last election was based on removing the Conservatives, Labour will have to raise the prospect of a revived Tory threat to encourage recruitment. If it performs poorly in the local, European, or Scottish and Welsh elections this year, this will provide added impetus. The worse Labour performs, the stronger its case for encouraging people to join.

There is a sense that Labour is becoming a victim of its own slick marketing. Under previous head of marketing Mike Cunnington, and with the help of EHS, joining the party was simplified. With a credit card and a telephone, you could kick out the Tories and change the world. Labour wants to make it even easier to join. But if it is easy to join, it is just as easy to let membership lapse.

Labour must demonstrate the clear benefits of joining before it can expect money to be handed over. The team at Brann will have to ask what additional benefit there is being a party member, rather than simply a voter.

Labour is to put more emphasis on signing people up on the doorstep and “member get member” recruitment, which it says is more cost-effective than direct marketing. It is also likely to engender greater loyalty. However, this method is thought to be less effective in recruiting better-off members, who are more responsive to direct marketing.

Labour’s first annual report, published last year, reminds us that the party understands how other organisations hang on to their members. “Loyalty schemes, ‘direct’ services and customer-care helplines are just a few of the ways organisations are seeking to build deeper and longer-lasting relationships with customers it says.” But these other organisations offer readily understandable benefits – the National Trust tells you about places to visit, the AA will fix your car and Tesco will even bring shopping to your house.

The party is now pushing its “partnership in power” initiative, which seeks to give greater communication between members and the Government, partly through a helpline, but also through local policy forums and community forums. But some wonder whether this will be sufficient to encourage people to join the party as opposed to simply voting Labour. The party opened a call centre last September where it runs the Labour Support Line which offers information, and takes donations and enquiries about Government policy.

A range of initiatives to stimulate recruitment are expected, such as joint family memberships, and there are plans to offer life-membership. Increasing the proportion who pay by direct debit – about one-third at present – reduces the likelihood of people dropping out. But this is all tinkering on the outside.

The fundamental reason people join a political party is to make a difference, and in a small way, to change the world. Unless Labour can find ways of offering the chance to do this, the 14,000 membership deficit since the election could turn into an avalanche.

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