The challenges of rapid expansion in a short space of time
At the end of my civil service career I went through the opposite – the largescale downsizing of an organisation numbered in the thousands. The Green Party judging by recent headlines now has more members than UKIP, and at the time of writing is not far off the Liberal Democrats, all three hovering just over 40,000 members across the UK.
“Hang on a minute, how did this happen?”
The Green Party’s membership has been steadily rising over recent years, and shot up in 2014.
(Above graph via @Jim_Jepps and @steve4319).
What then followed after the European elections (where The Greens missed out narrowly on doubling their MEPs with defeats in the North West & East Anglia by small margins) was the Scottish Independence referendum. On the side of a dynamic and radical ‘Yes’ campaign (from what my Twitter friends in Scotland from across the spectrum told me), The Scottish Greens experienced a surge in membership numbers shortly after the ‘No’ victory was announced. By ‘surge’ I mean they more than doubled their membership of just over 2,000 to well over 5,000…in three days.
“In three days?!? Crikey!”
It was even more for the Scottish National Party – who now look very likely to take control of a significant number of Scottish constituencies in the Westminster Parliament in the May 2015 general election. I’ll explain why this matters later on.
“Are they or aren’t they a major party?”
In October, the TV broadcasters got together to announce the planned format of the TV debates as they had in 2010. They included UKIP but excluded The Greens. The Greens, supporters, sympathisers & those that wanted a more plural TV debate started signing a petition. In their hundreds of thousands – nearly 300,000 at the time of writing this. Combined with the argument of Caroline Lucas’s presence in the Commons, representation in a number of councils, three MEPs and two MSPs in the Holyrood Parliament in Scotland has put pressure on the broadcasters.
Cameron steps in and puts The Greens on the front pages
At Prime Minister’s Questions on 14 January, Cameron put The Green Party on the front pages of the politics news (and of the evening news because they report PMQs as ‘real’ news) when attacking Miliband & Labour. (See here, from 5m30s). This meant that Wednesday’s evening news led with Cameron and Miliband clashing over whether The Greens should take part in the TV debates. Publicity gold dust given that many outside of politics may not have known about The Greens, or saw them as a tiny party not worth the attention because the news didn’t feature them. With a greater frequency of higher profile news coverage and a general desire for ‘something new’ in politics, at the moment The Greens are benefiting.
“What’s Cameron’s game? Why is he deliberately inflating The Greens given they stand for almost everything he does not?”
Good question. Note that George Osborne repeated Conservative backing for the Greens to take part in the TV debates a day earlier in Parliament. (See here). In a nutshell, it’s tactical. UKIP are likely to take more votes off the Tories than Labour or the Lib Dems. By having The Greens on the same platform, Labour and the Lib Dems will have to watch their left flanks. With little chance of either The Greens or UKIP winning power, they can afford to be more radical with their policies. From a disgruntled voters perspective, between the Greens & UKIP there is very clear political water between the two. Cambridge will be a microcosm of this throughout 2015 as the media-friendly duo of Patrick O’Flynn & Dr Rupert Read (of UKIP and The Greens respectively) go head to head at the fringes. Although both are unlikely to win Cambridge, the question is how much of the Lib Dem and Labour vote will go to either of those two parties. Note in 2014 at the Euro elections the two of them totalled over 12,000 votes in Cambridge.
Rapid growth brings risks – as Nigel found to his cost
Despite electoral success, the rise of UKIP was plagued with media stories of ‘politically incorrect’ (to downright offensive) outbursts from various activists, candidates and even elected councillors. As Farage commented at the time, UKIP simply did not have the administrative infrastructure in place to do basic background checks on all of its new members and candidates. As a result, Farage found himself having to fight off negative headlines on a regular basis.
Could the same happen to The Greens? Quite easily. With a rising profile comes greater scrutiny. Expect to see a number of media splashes where a tweet or a Facebook post is taken ‘out of context’, or where the direct action past of someone is plastered all over the media. My advice? Get your staff trained in crisis management communications. The Media Trust are particularly good at this – see their courses here. In fact, that goes for other parties and campaign groups too.
Not all membership fees are comparable across parties
This is the other thing to consider. In the case of The Greens, their fees are based on income, starting at £5 pa for students, under 18s & those earning less than £10k per year. (See this tweet). For UKIP it’s a flat £30 per year bar special offers for armed forces & under 22s. Labour fees are also income based (see here). For the Tories, it’s more simplified (see here) and for the Lib Dems, I couldn’t find publicly available numbers. I’ve seen some social media comments about the impact of varying fees, but I’d guess for many people – especially young people, the low annual starting rates are not a huge barrier to getting involved.
“What do you do with all of these new activists?”
Keep an eye on the various party political vacancies on W4MP. The vacancies there often tell stories behind the headlines of the organisations that advertise. The challenge any rapidly-expanding organisation has is inducting new members into its culture, systems and processes. There’s also the challenge of developing trust. What do you do as a party/campaign administrator if you suddenly get over 100 membership applications from a part of the country that you’ve never been active in before? Where do you start?
In the case of Cambridge, there has been rapid growth – the local party having over 200 members and climbing still. The difference with Cambridge is that there are long-established environmentalist groups such as Cambridge Carbon Footprint and Transition Cambridge with a very solid core of long standing community activists, some of whom inevitably are members of political parties. But what if you don’t have that local activist or community base to build from? Where do you start? How do you know who to trust? What do you do if the trust breaks down?
It might sound corporate and bland, but I wonder if The Greens have done a basic risk assessment on the back of the surge in numbers. What are all the good and bad things that could happen as a result of this huge increase in numbers? What are their plans to mitigate any risks that might occur (and thus become incidents)? The same goes for Labour and the SNP – especially in a social media age where every social media molehill will be turned into a mountain by a sensationalist media. Why feature complicated policies when you can have a short “10 social media fails by [insert name of party]”?
Who will become the voices and faces of The Greens with this raised profile?
Updated to add: Funnily enough, within minutes of me posting this blogpost, The Greens updated their website with a substantive list of policy spokespersons (and their social media contacts). See the list here.
At a national level, The Greens have a number of experienced elected representatives – see here. But as with UKIP, how do/will they manage below that surface – especially at city/town/village level with local media? In Cambridge for The Greens this has been a real challenge over the past few years. What do you do if you’re in an area where none of your activists wants to be the point of contact for the local newspaper or radio station? Cambridge Greens have been fortunate with Rupert Read running a more proactive and disciplined media operation – not least reflected in his regular letters published in the Cambridge News reminding some 30,000 readers that the party is there. Whether that turns into votes or members remains to be seen.
How will the Greens cope when their opponents inevitably fire back?
Because party politics can be a very, very dirty business. The first exchanges in Cambridge between the five candidates together was on BBC Cambridgeshire with Chris Mann.
Obviously it won’t be the last.