Saturday, 13 July 2013

30,000 UKIP Members Is A Great Achievement, But To Really Grow We Need To Become A Social Network

Political party organisation has been much in the news this last few days, with the Falkirk debacle leading Ed Milliband  to make radical changes to the Labour Party's relationship with the unions. However, Labour are not the only party with management issues:  we have had the news that around half of Tory activists feel undervalued and demoralised, and have given up campaigning for the party. More ominously, we have seen the resurrection of suggestions for state funding off political parties as a solution for their ever more precarious financial condition. Lastly, we have had the wonderful announcement that UKIP has reached a record high of 30,000 members. Given a fair wind, it is likely that we could overtake the LibDems (2012 membership 42,501 - and falling) by the next election.

30,000 members is a great achievement, and speaks volumes for the sheer tenacity of UKIP members, and it's energetic leader, in building the party from scratch against all the odds. Given the free fall of other party memberships and the lack of morale in the Tory party in particular, it is likely that in 2015 UKIP can launch a ground campaign that will match each wing of the LibLabCon in our target seats.

But it is not enough. The fact is that UKIP has very significantly smaller funds than the other three major parties. Granted, some City donors, disillusioned with the Conservatives, have expressed interest in funding UKIP, but we do not want to be reliant on a small number  of big donors who could pull the plug at any time: at the very least, this could lead to accusations that we are just another insiders party, our strings being pulled by City moneymen.

Realistically, in order to really challenge the other parties, UKIP must look to boost growth in a way that   would put even our recent meteoric rise in the shade,  and for that we need to embrace the concept of the diffuse network.

Diffuse Networks are neither new nor the latest irritating organisational fad. Since the advent of the internet and in particular social networking, they have become commonplace throughout industry and commerce. The central concept is that, rather than being rigid, the boundaries to organisations are essentially blurred, with many individuals having a very close, symbiotic relationship with an entity without formally belonging to it. For instance, in addition to having fully permanent staff for it's baseload functions, a large corporation may embed contractors within it, who may be easily fired or hired as circumstances arise. Many contractors will retain long term relationships with the company and come and go several times during their career. This gives the corporation both flexibility and access to a reservoir of talent who, crucially, can still give an outsider's perspective to challenges and opportunities.

Political parties are still more or less organised in a very rigid way: you are a member or you're not. Even worse, in recent years most parties have been internally restructured to become increasingly top-down organisations: ordinary members have been reduced to the status of mere envelope stuffers, while a closed elite decide everything that matters and take all the prizes. No wonder parties organised on that model are dying.

Strangely, even though politicians now heavily engage in the diffuse networks of social media, few really seem to understand why the old model is broken. One who really does is Douglas Carswell, who has long argued that membership of the Conservative Party should be spotified. This post is an absolute must read for anyone interested in the subject and UKIP should seriously study his suggestions with a view to shamelessly stealing some of them.

Organisations must not become too diffuse, of course, because that would risk undermining their core identity. For that reason, personally I am strongly against Carswell's idea of open primaries, where a party's candidate selection is thrown open to the electorate as a whole. At the end of the day, institutions need committed members who can act as the custodians of its culture and memory: the kind of candidate that is selected by the party to represent it must reflect it's values, not the values of the whole local electorate, which maybe very different and can ebb and flow with the times.

But nonetheless diffusion is the way to go, and will come sooner or later. Here, UKIP have one enormous advantage over the LibLabCon political class parties in making this significant cultural change: we actually trust and respect the electorate, rather than viewing them as a threat to our glittering careers. The political class and the metropolitan elite it is part of have prospered by silo-ing themselves away from the country as as whole, and it is very noticeable that their instinctive response to problems of funding and declining membership is to circle the wagons still closer by advocating state funding for political parties. Leaving aside it's obvious immorality, that kind of rigidity will, in time, lead to certain extinction, and UKIP should have absolutely no part of it.

Instead, let us look and see how we can embrace diffusion.

How Can UKIP Easily Embrace Diffusive Networking? By Crowd Sourcing Policy Formation

One of the most interesting areas where diffuse networking can be explored is in policy formation. Here, we could create an online dialogue with individuals who may be passionate about individual causes but not that keen on joining a political party.

Some suggestions:

  • Each policy area would have it's own dedicated online forum, memberships of which would be free and fully accessible to paid up UKIP members. However, the general public would be able to read all posts and non party members could sign up and subscribe a flexible amount to the forum via Paypal, which would give them the right to contribute to the forum discussions. At each post their subscription credit would be deducted by a set amount, and once their credit reached zero posting to the forum would be denied, whereupon they would be invited to resubscribe. To attract people to become full members, we could have a process that if someone made more forum subscription payments than the value of the annual membership fee within a 12 month period, they were invited to join the party free of charge for the rest of that 12 month period.
  • Members of the UKIP policy group (restricted, of course, to select party members only, as it is today) would be expected to engage with the forum on a regular basis, and have a summary of the forum posts read out to them at policy meetings and the substance of them discussed. Representatives of the policy group would then relay, at their discretion, some of the substance of their deliberations back to the forums.

The beauty of this is that it is a positive feedback model. In order to attract paid subscribers to the forums, there would be a real incentive for policy group members to meaningfully engage with their discussions and where appropriate allow them to influence their decisions: failing to do so would mean that subscriptions dry up. Subscribers, even if they opposed UKIP generally, would feel engaged with the political process, and really committed forum contributors would have an economic incentive to become full members. In return UKIP get significant subscription revenues, a potentially huge reservoir of future members and not least the crowd sourcing of suggested policy directions, long before those policies were set in stone or formally adopted. As well as avoiding institutional myopia, crowd sourcing would negate the need for expensive polling and would be vastly superior to the ghastly focus group driven politics adopted by the political class parties as a way of testing out new policy ideas.

There would be risks, of course. Enemies of UKIP may subscribe and post inflammatory material in order to discredit the party, so all forums would have to be strongly policed. To reduce the risks of this, obnoxious postings or spamming would lead to an instant ban and in extreme cases forfeiture of any remaining subscription. Nonetheless, certain sensitive subjects, such as immigration policy, may be deemed unsuitable for the crowd sourcing model for that reason. Also, single issue fanatics hostile to UKIP policy direction may attempt to swamp forums in order to skew the perception of a policy's likely popularity or workability - but at least they would be paying for the privilege of doing so!  However, on the whole the risks are worth it: if we really do trust the electorate and do not believe them to be the apathetic bunch they are often purported to be, then this model makes perfect sense.

So, those are just the suggestions. In the great tradition of crowd sourcing, the discussion is now thrown over to others!