By Jessica Garland

The local elections next month will be the first significant test of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They will also be the first major test of the 'new politics' grassroots of the party. After the excitement of an unexpected leadership contest, a new leader, a surge in membership and fresh approach to PMQs, what can the party expect from its members and supporters when it comes to doing the less glamourous work of fighting a local election?

Party volunteers are the heart of election campaigning in Britain. Though the ground campaign is not everything, it matters to electoral outcomes. Local elections are harder to recruit willing foot soldiers for and so the question for all parties going into the local elections is: what can your support base deliver? Having achieved a significant boost to membership and supporter affiliation during and after the leadership election, what can a numerically strengthened Labour party achieve? Will those affiliating to the party as supporters contribute the same as members?

Recent research on supporters and members of six political parties by Paul Webb of the University of Sussex and Tim Bale and Monica Poletti of Queen Mary University suggests parties have much to gain from recognising and understanding the contribution of non-member support to campaigning, but there are crucial differences. These findings are supported by my research with Labour party members during and after the leadership contest. They suggest four key lessons for parties in understanding their activist base and what it is likely to deliver for them:

1. Don't forget your core members do the donkey work.

Members of political parties contribute more effort per person to campaigning than supporters do. Members, those formally signed up to the party, take on more activities but also take on activities that require more work. Webb et al. find that party members are significantly more likely to engage in campaigning activities considered 'high intensity', such as canvassing and delivering leaflets, compared to 'low intensity' activities such as retweeting something from the party or putting up a poster.

2. However, non-members supporters have at least as much impact as party members overall 

Whilst supporter activity might be less intense than party members', taken as a group they have at least as much impact. Numerically your supporters form the larger of the two groups of activists. Therefore, their activity as a whole contributes at least as much to overall campaign activity as party members' contributions. It would also be hasty to dismiss lower intensity activities as insignificant. Social media is now part of the tapestry of campaigning and supporters are the people who help weave this tapestry.

3. Understand the differences between members and supporters

While supporters form an important resource at election time, what attracts them to party activity is likely to be different to party members. My research suggests that active core members are incentivised by opportunities (gaining new skills, progressing a political career, or simply taking part) above any consideration of voting rights in internal democracy. What keeps them active and sustains their relationship with the party is the social networks that build up around regular activity, done face to face. Again, individual voting rights have little value on their own. Supporters, by contrast, are clearly attracted to these one-off opportunities. Parties expanding voting rights as incentives for membership might want to consider what type of support they hope to attract with them.

4. You don't need to convert supporters into members.

Using affiliation as a route to party membership, while it has proved successful in the Labour party recently, may be an unnecessary undertaking. Membership levels tend to fluctuate (more often by accident than design) and supporters make an important contribution to party activity outside of formal membership. Providing incentives and opportunities for both members and supporters to contribute, making it easy to sign up and get active in a variety of ways, will reap rewards. Party members and supporters are not the same. They engage in different activities and have a different relationship with the party, but are nevertheless both valuable. Party membership is not as it once was. It is not in terminal decline, but it has changed. In this environment, parties need to adapt to survive. Moving to looser and broader affiliation through supporter schemes is a potentially advantageous option but in doing so parties need to recognise the differences between types of affiliation and the impact of the recruitment incentives offered. May's elections will see armies of tireless volunteers across Britain delivering leaflets and speaking to voters. They, and many others, will also be sharing content across social media platforms. Our research suggests that as long as the former activities remain the proven source of electoral advantage, parties would be advised to not forget about their core membership. 

Jessica Garland is a doctoral researcher at the University of Sussex.

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