Labour pains of finding members

Just like businessmen, politicians are being forced to confront the increasing complexity and fragmentation of mass society with an array of precision marketing tools.

Nowhere is this process more acutely understood than in the Labour Party, whose national membership churn rate is dicing with freefall. Since the last election, it has lost 54,000 members out of a total of 405,000. True, it has managed to offset this figure by recruiting a further 40,000, but the net loss is still a hefty 14,000 – and growing.

Cynics may argue this decline has more to do with time-honoured political realities than debatable societal trends. Before the last election, rallying the party faithful and tapping them for funds was a cinch. All you had to say, in effect, was ‘Let’s get rid of the Tories’. It is after the election that apathy begins to set in. With the big battle won, every little reverse, such as with fox hunting, lone parent benefit and the moral integrity of cabinet ministers, takes its toll.

But this is to miss the point somewhat. Without a swelling membership, Labour will soon find itself in financial difficulty. It spends about 20m a year supporting itself. In the past, it could depend upon the trade unions, or indeed, the odd bung from the likes of Bernie Ecclestone. But large-scale, mysteriously provenanced donations of that kind are coming off the agenda, post-Gordon Downey. Small donations (under 1,000) from the party faithful, which already account for about one-fifth of revenue, can only grow in importance.

If, that is, Labour’s newly appointed direct marketing consultancy, Brann, carries out its brief successfully. Part of that brief will involve maintaining and updating Labour’s prospecting file, which seems unexceptionable enough. It will help the party to discover who its members are, how they can be rebalanced to reflect all social strata, and how much they may donate. But, having found new members, you’ve got to retain them. Here, Labour’s strategy is not altogether clear.

In the party’s first ‘annual report’ there is much loose talk of applying commercially successful precision marketing techniques to the problem. ‘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. The reality is political parties cannot offer the long-term benefits of cutting-edge customer loyalty practitioners such as Tesco, the National Trust or the AA. Why should ‘customers’ continue to part with their money year in, year out, when all they need to do is vote?

One tempting bypass around the problem would be to encourage life-membership. All right, it would mean changing Labour’s constitution. But pitched at a tempting price, it could encourage just the kind of younger voter Labour needs. Here, of course, is the rub. Any lump-sum keenly targeted at a 24-year-old is unlikely to seem quite so smart 20 years later when it is matched against the potential income derived from annual membership over that period.

Cover Story, page 24

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