This article is the first in a series of three by Dr Robin Pettitt which will explore tactics, strategies and actions around the recruitment and retention of party activists. This first feature will provide a broad overview of the matter, with subsequent features giving a deep dive in to recruiting and retaining members.
Local activism is the life-blood of any party. It provides a link between elected politicians, via activists, to the voters. It is also an essential element of any election campaign. Regardless of how sophisticated the national campaign is, a significant proportion of the work is about identifying which voters are persuadable or already onside but needs to be mobilised on election day. Generating and converting that knowledge into actual votes in the ballot box is overwhelmingly done by volunteer activists. The big question then is how a party can then identify, recruit and retain the people needed to fill the ranks of the volunteer army. That is the subject of Recruiting and Retaining Party Activists: Political Management at the Grassroots a summary of which is presented below. The book is based on interviews with experienced campaigners from the Labour Party, The Conservative Party, and the Liberal Democrats, party documents, the author’s own experience of campaigning going back to 1996, and academic literature on the subject. Future pieces will provide deeper dives into the two sides of the recruiting/retaining coin.
Recruitment has three stages: identifying potential activists; moving them from potential to actual activism; and supporting them in their first steps into activism.
Identifying potential activists is arguably the easiest part of the process. The first step is, perhaps self evidently, targeting existing, but inactive members. It is true that for many members, paying their membership fee is the limit of what they wish to contribute, but having taken the effort to signup for membership does at least suggest the potential for more. The second source of potential activists can be found in local canvassing returns. Local parties should target long standing firm voters to encourage them to take their support to the next level. This does not necessarily mean joining the party (activism is useful whether it is card carrying or not), but rather about taking their support beyond the ballot box. The final source is a little more complicated and involves local community action. By engaging in local community activism (e.g. litter picking) and inviting residents to participate local parties are not only making a positive difference to their communities, but are also able to identify those who are a) willing to work for the betterment of their local area; b) willing to do so with the party. Obviously, not everybody who is willing to participate in community activism would be willing to support the party more directly, but some will.
Once a potential activist has been identified they need to be gently guided towards becoming more active. This is very much a journey and is less likely to be successful if the local party tries to take them straight from potential to actual activist. The question ‘are you interested in being more active in supporting the party’ is less likely to be answered in the affirmative than the question ‘we are having a social with party supporters and Big Name Speaker will be there. Would you like to come along?’. It does not have to be an event with a speaker, but something relatively low commitment that will allow a potential activist to get to know the local party, before being asked to come out campaigning.
If a potential activist has agreed to attend a low commitment event with the local party, they need to be looked after at this event. They will need a friendly welcome; to be introduced to key local members; and Big Name Speaker if there is one. It is also important to keep them away from the almost inevitable ‘fanatics, cranks and extremists’ (the words of Sidney Webb, not me!) that exist in every local party. Once a potential activist has met the local party, hopefully had a good time, and seen that being active involves hanging out with nice people and meeting Big Name Speaker they can then be gently encouraged to come out on the campaign trail.
The final part of recruitment is to make sure they are well received and supported at their first campaigning session. Canvassing has the potential to be socially awkward and can led to unpleasant encounters. Rookie activists need to be paired with veterans and supported as they take their first hesitant steps into the world of political activism.
Once a potential activist has been guided through their first encounter with campaigning and has returned for more, the focus needs to shift to retention.
Retention of activists can sometimes be overlooked in the rush of campaigning or the recovery after an election. However, not looking after activists means the effort in recruiting new activists is wasted if they quickly drop out, or the loss of experience and institutional knowledge if veterans drop out.
Unlike recruitment, retention is not a journey with an endpoint, but a continuous process of creating a retention enhancing campaigning environment. This process has several elements that are non-exclusive and can be seen as a toolbox of options to be used as appropriate.
Retention has a human side and an organisational side.
The key element of the human side of retention is to recognise that whilst becoming active is initially driven by supporting what the party stands for and does, retention is principally about the enjoyment of doing things with likeminded people, many of whom may become friends. Political commitment will only drive someone so far – the long term is about fostering a sense of belonging and human connection. Obviously, the party cannot ‘make’ people become friends, but can encourage social interaction by frequent socials, and at the very least ensuring that each campaigning session ends with a social element. This helps strengthen the social side of campaigning by allowing people to bond through e.g. the sharing of ‘war stories’ from the campaign trail.
The key element of the human side of retention is to recognise that whilst becoming active is initially driven by supporting what the party stands for and does, retention is principally about the enjoyment of doing things with likeminded people, many of whom may become friends
Ensuring that there is a social side to campaigning is also important as a way of saying ‘thank you’ to activists. Organisers, candidates and Party Big Wigs should frequently and in as many ways as possible express (at least seemingly) genuine gratitude to activists, e.g. by arranging post-campaigning socials and victory/recovery parties, and simply saying ‘thank you’. This may seem obvious, but can be overlooked in the drudgery of the long campaign or the intensity of the short campaign.
The final element of then human side of retention is to always remember that we are talking about volunteers. Good activist management is crucial as there is often very little cost, and perhaps even some benefits in terms of time freed up, to dropping out of active support for the party.
On the organisational side there are three key elements.
The first is to tailor campaigning as much as possible to the capabilities and wants of the activists. There are obviously some basic things that needs doing, e.g. canvassing and leafletting, and there are only so many speech writers and policy advisers a party needs. Nevertheless, making campaigning as easy as possible to engage in, at times and intensities that suit individual activists and understanding what activists are willing and able to do are all key.
It is also important to give activists a say in the campaign. Making the campaign about local issues that activists care about, as well as giving people a say in the running of the campaign can provide people with a stake in the campaign and make them more likely to keep at it. In addition, identify potential leaders and support them in having a greater input into the campaign.
Finally, it is important to share with activists the fruits of their labour. Show them how their work fits into the wider campaign. Explain how their work fits into the wider campaign and how what they do makes a difference. Share with them important achievements and milestones reached. Receiving regular WhatApp (or other preferred comms channel) updates on achievements during the polling day can be a godsend when standing outside a polling station in horizontal torrential rain.
Finally, it is important to share with activists the fruits of their labour. Show them how their work fits into the wider campaign. Explain how their work fits into the wider campaign and how what they do makes a difference.
In short, recruitment is a journey from using existing support for the party to identify potential activists, via a gentle social introduction to the party, to support during the first campaign session. Retention is a never-ending process of building a retention enhancing campaigning environment through building social ties; saying thank you; respecting and working with the volunteer status of activists; shaping the campaign as far as possible to the activists themselves; giving them a stake in the campaign; and sharing with them key pieces of information about their purpose, successes and impact.
Dr Robin Pettitt is a Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at Kingston University, London.