This article is the second in a series of three by Dr Robin Pettitt which will explore tactics, strategies and actions around the recruitment and retention of party activists. Read part one here.
One key question in the context of political campaigning is how to raise the ‘army’ of volunteers needed to bring the party’s message to voters’ doorsteps. The below seeks to provide some answers to that question based on the book Recruiting and Retaining Party Activists.
It is true that in all parties there are those with sufficient enthusiasm to turn up to campaign sessions needing only the time and place to be communicated to them. However, these people are unlikely to be enough to cover all the tasks that need doing, and going beyond that pool will most likely be necessary. That means that potential activists need to be identified; persuaded to attend their first campaigning session; and finally supported during that first campaigning experience to maximise the chances of them coming back for more.
Identifying potential activists.
There are broadly speaking three pools from which new activists might be gathered: inactive party members; solid non-member supporters; and community minded potential supporters.
Seeing inactive members as a potential source of activists should be obvious as these people have already shown some level of commitment to the party by signing up and paying their membership fee. For some people paying their membership fees is the limit of their commitment, but there will also be those where the right approach (more on that later) will move them from inactive to active membership.
In addition, it is worth seeing long standing non-member supporters as a valuable source of activists. As one organiser said: ‘sometimes you will knock on someone’s door and say “hi, do you vote [for us]?”, and they say “yeah […] I am a strong supporter”. At that point I would always encourage people to, well “have you thought about being a bit more involved in the party”’. Card carrying, fees paying members are important, but reaching out beyond that group to increase the pool of people willing to help the party is always worth it. It also shows that local campaigning can, not only help identify would be voters to be targeted for get-out-the-vote work on election day, but can also serve to perpetuate and strengthen itself.
Finally, it is possible to use local community activism to ‘flush out’ potential new activists. One organiser suggested local litter picking as an obvious thing to do. The party branding may be relatively low key other than that the session is led by a local candidate or incumbent. People who turn up are minded to do more in and for their local area, are not put of by what party branding there might be, and can then be encouraged to attend further events, ideally by getting some contact details at the end of the session.
From potential to actual activist.
Once potential activists have been identified, the question then is how they can be moved from being potential to actual activists. Three things stand out from the data gathered for the book: the initial move to encourage them to become active is best done in person and one-to-one; moving from potential to actual activists is a gradual journey; and how the potential activist is received at their first encounter with the wider party is important to ensure they come back for more.
On the issue of the initial contact one organiser said: ‘the majority of people who come and help us, help us because we personally contacted them’. The mass email may have its use in disseminating information, but when it comes to persuading someone to become active making the effort to approach them on a one-to-one basis is more likely to yield results. This is obviously more resource intensive, but also worth it.
It is also critical to keep in mind that moving straight from ‘might be interested in doing more’ to ‘here is your map and a pile of leaflets/list of doors to knock on’ is unlikely to work. Rather, it is advisable to let them be introduce to the party via a social event, or an event where they have an opportunity to meet a big name speaker. So, the journey that is most likely to yield results is ‘interested’ to ‘come have a look, socialise, meet some people’, and then, provided the middle step has gone well, to ‘campaigning’.
That does mean that some effort needs to be invested in ensuring that the middle ‘come have a look, socialise’ step goes well. One approach is to have events for people with something in common beyond a potential interest in the party, or at least ensure that a would be activist is introduced to others like them. It is also important to ensure that they are welcomed and acknowledged at their first event. Arriving to a room full of strangers who then ignore you and do not talk to you is unlikely to encourage someone to come back for more. In addition, much as some people love the agenda driven formal meeting, it is unlikely to be a good recruitment event. Further, an informal social event where there is an easy way out is likely to be less intimidating than a formal sit down meal, where getting up and leaving is much more socially awkward. Making the most of big name speakers is also important. Using big name speakers can show someone that being active means directly meeting political ‘celebrities’ in the form of senior members of the party.
A good first campaigning experience.
Finally, the last step of the recruitment journey involves ensuring that their first experience of campaigning is a positive one.
One important factor is to make sure that their willingness to show up and help out is actually met with enthusiasm and something to do. As one senior campaigner said: ‘first rule of having a campaign office is that we must always give volunteers something to do – however big or small’. Having an offer of help turned down is almost guaranteed to result in no further offers being made.
In addition, it is important to support rookie activists in their first steps into campaigning. So, one organiser said: ‘New people are often escorted, so to speak, for the first time they go out, so they knock on doors under supervision, so they are trained on what to do’. This is reflected in a campaign email sent to this author which stated ‘don’t worry if you haven’t canvassed before, we will pair you up with a friendly regular who can show you the ropes!’ (emphasis and exclamation in the original).
- identify your potential activists through pre-existing commitment to the party, principally through (passive) party membership, regular electoral support for the party, or willingness to participate in a party organised social activism event;
- wheel them in gently, most likely through a casual social event, make an effort to ensure they have a good time by being made to feel welcome, and make the most of ‘big names’;
- ensure that the budding activist’s first taste of activism is a fruitful one by having something for them to do and make sure novices are supported when they take their first steps into campaigning.
Dr Robin Pettitt is a Senior Lecturer of Comparative Politics at Kingston University, London.