Party Membership 101

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Leadership Wednesday, September 11, 2013 View Count = 12818

Party Membership 101

This post continues a series Samara started on the ins and outs of political parties. We set out to explore several aspects of federal Canadian political parties, including their functions, regulations, finances and memberships. Today, Margaret Radon gives us a rundown of party membership and touches on what it means to her.

Margaret is a graduate of the University of Toronto, majoring in Political Science. She is currently the VP Outreach of the York South-Weston Federal Liberal Riding Association.

To continue Samara’s series on political parties this blog looks at one of the main lifelines of political parties - party memberships. As a member of a political party, I have enjoyed the experience immensely. The learning curve for navigating the party organization can be initially frustrating; however, it is very rewarding to be associated with a group whose passions and convictions I share.

Arguably, the total number of card carrying members gauges the strength and popularity of a party. Memberships connect people to the party by enabling citizens to participate within the mechanism of the political party structure, for example, an opportunity to vote at local Electoral District Association meetings, policy conventions, and leadership conventions; they also enable members to help frame the party’s policy by providing a channel where concerns and ideas can be voiced. Perhaps most importantly, from the party leadership perspective, membership lists allow for fundraising and volunteer opportunities. Large membership lists function as a base from which parties draw their volunteers for fundraising activities and during campaign seasons.

While memberships are an important aspect of political parties in Canada, a relatively small number of Canadians are actually affiliated with a political party. The generally accepted percentage of Canadians with membership registration is estimated at less than 2% of the population.

The true challenge becomes validating this number since party membership lists are tightly guarded. A national database on membership does not exist, and parties are not obligated to reveal who is a card carrying member. As a result, membership lists are often exaggerated by a party, with the intent to intimidate the opposition and show their popularity.

Party membership levels tend to fluctuate. In between election years party memberships can lapse because efforts to increase them are concentrated during leadership contests, candidate nominations, and election years.

With more parties abandoning the older delegate style election conventions and switching to a one member one vote system, party membership offers more influence than ever.  Delegated conventions only allow for a small portion of chosen members and ex-officio’s to vote. This system is akin to the American Electoral College, where only a small percentage of people cast the deciding ballots. Newer one member one vote conventions allot equal weight to each member’s vote within their electoral district; this is seen as part of an attempt to democratize political parties and abandon the oligarchical delegated system. Recently, emphasis on grassroots involvement at the local level by all parties is an attempt to engage and show appreciation for members, and retain members during non-election years.

In order to encourage participation, most party memberships are fairly inexpensive. Both the Liberal and Conservative Parties of Canada charge under $20 yearly. The NDP is the only party to charge different rates based on province: As little as $1 in Alberta, or as high as $25 in Ontario. Additionally, an NDP membership buys you both federal and provincial status, whereas the other two recognized federal parties require you to purchase provincial membership separately.

The party is made up of many volunteers who donate their time in addition to working full time jobs and running households, and as a result emails, calls and requests can have slower response times than we might hope.  Parties have a lot of diversity among their members. I have had the opportunity to network at events and conventions, and meet people that I consider role models. It is a great feeling to engage with other residents and work towards goals you all share that you know will make an impact in your community.
Members are the most important aspect of the party, in my opinion, without them a party is defunct.

Also in this series: 

Political Parties: expectations and realities

University students skip the party

All politics is local

Parties aren't perfect, but that's why I belong to one

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