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On Trying to Join a Political Party

My interest in politics started at the age of 11. The secondary school I attended in small-town Warwickshire marked the 1974 General Election with a mock election of its own. Pupils stood as representatives of the political parties standing in the national poll. Hustings were held, speeches given, ballot boxes set up.

I found myself drawn to the Communist candidate. He was tall and pale, with the hair of a prog rock bassist. He painted utopian word-pictures of the egalitarian paradise that would follow if the UK were to elect a Communist government. Justice would roll like waters, swords would be beaten into ploughshares, and the lion would lie down with the lamb in Kenilworth High Street.

After one of his speeches I approached him to find out more. Not details of farm collectivisation under Five-Year Plans in the 1920s, or tractor quotas. Just broad-brush questions about the Communist vision. And very inspiring it was too.

Even at the age of 11, I was dimly aware of rumours about the mistreatment of political dissidents in the Soviet Union, so I asked him if this was true. Ah, he said. Yes, sadly these things do happen in the Soviet bloc. But here’s the thing: those people aren’t real Communists. Real Communists would never punish dissidents or shed blood for the cause.

At the time his reply seemed fair enough. At the age of 11 I hadn’t read Marx or Lenin, studied the life of Mao, or read accounts from those who saw Russian gulags and Cambodian killing fields up close.

Time, then, to let real Communists have a go at building utopia in 1974, starting in Kenilworth.

When the results of the ballot were announced, I saw I was one of a small handful who voted Communist. From memory, one of three. Had the shaggy Tru-Marxist paid an election deposit from his pocket money, it would have been well and truly lost.

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Aftertaste of Snake-Oil

I’ve remained fascinated by politics, but never joined a party. Down the years I’ve attended political events (the late Shirley Williams was particularly impressive), interviewed politicians as a radio journalist, and been fired up on single issues. But I’ve never been convinced by an entire party prospectus.

Maybe I’ve also carried a subliminal sense down the years that the gap between fine political rhetoric and disappointing reality will invariably prove unbridgeable. The snake-oil I was sold at the age of 11 had a lingering aftertaste.

In the past few months, I’ve been reconsidering. Maybe the time has finally come to take the plunge and throw my lot in with a political party. No party is perfect, of course. But democratic party politics seems the least bad system of government, and some parties definitely reflect my views better than others.

In recent months, events around the globe and closer to home have rekindled my interest in party politics. There are still the big issues of poverty and environment I’ve long cared about. More recently, though, I’ve also grown more concerned about identity politics, free speech, the status of women’s rights, and issues behind the Israel/Palestine conflict.

Events at a personal level have put party politics back on my mental horizon too. A family member recently became a parliamentary assistant in one of the UK parliaments.

Then there’s the friend who was the prospective parliamentary candidate for a south London constituency. His credentials and party loyalty were beyond reproach, but when the local party discovered he was a practising Christian they immediately dropped him as their candidate, amid a barrage of bitter personal vilification.

This happened to be the party I've usually voted for, but no longer. Women’s rights groups have a slogan, ‘Respect My Sex if you Want My X’. I’d add: 'Respect My ✝︎ if You Want My X’.

Finally I felt ready to join a political party, fired by a desire to see positive change, and concerned by some of the troubling trends and tangents in contemporary culture. I’m reluctant to name the party I approached, because that’s not the focus here. This is about the mechanics of trying to join a party, and its wider lessons for any membership organisation that wants to attract new members.

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Approaching the Party

I found the website of the party and emailed their membership secretary. I said I was interested in membership, felt jaded with parties I had voted for in the past, named a few issues where their prospectus seemed appealing, and asked when they held open meetings newcomers could attend, meet people and find out more. After a few days I received a reply from a regional rep who was pleased to receive my inquiry. Yes, they hold monthly meetings. He would copy in two senior members, who could give more information.

After a few more days, I received a reply from one of them. No, I couldn’t attend meetings, as they are only for party members. I would have to join the party first, before I could meet people in the party or attend meetings.

It was a friendly enough letter. I appreciated that he took the time to read the features on my blog site. After reading up on my own agenda, he was confident I’d find like-minded people in the party.

But I was struck by his unexpected placing of cart before horse. I’d have to join the party before I could meet party members or listen in on discussions.

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Car Sales and Evangelism

In motor trade terms, this was the equivalent of me going into a Toyota showroom, saying I was keen to buy a Toyota and asking for a test drive – and being told no, I’d have to buy the car before I could try it out.

There are many areas of life and culture I know nothing about. But one area I do know a little about is church outreach, and the dynamics of church growth. When I changed from radio journalist to parish priest I worked in a number of struggling churches. The question of church growth has dominated my working life for decades. Later I went on to be Head of Church Growth for Greater Manchester, and wrote a couple of study courses on outreach.

In our turbulent, secular age, people do still come to faith. The process by which an adult finds faith and joins a local church almost always happens along recognisable stages or stepping-stones. Take Dee, a composite for a journey I’ve seen happen up close dozens of times.

Dee starts chatting to colleague, neighbour or social contact she didn’t know was a Christian. They get on well, and friendship develops. Over time trust grows, cultural stereotypes about the evils and bigotries of religion start to be dispelled, and the beliefs of Dee’s friend start to feel less implausible. She searches out podcasts and books on faith and doubt. Dee starts to slip into the back row of a local church on Sundays, which dispels a few more myths. She meets more Christians in person and gradually realises with some shock that she quite likes attending church, and misses it when she’s away.

This journey happens in tandem with a gradual rethinking of worldview. One day Dee wakes up to find a paradigm shift has taken place. She knows something has shifted. She’s looking at the world through different eyes.

Belonging comes before believing. The experience of relationship and community comes before readiness to sign up for membership or doctrines.

Let’s be honest, something similar happens with cults too. Nobody wakes up thinking

What I most want is to give my life savings to a guru who makes me wear weird clothes and believe unhinged conspiracies, takes sexual advantage of me and serves me poison-laced soda.

It all starts with friendly conversation and a desire for community. The reason this works with cults, as well as churches and political parties, is because that’s how people tick. Belonging comes before believing.

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My Reply

I sent the regional party rep the following reply:

Dear N,

Many thanks for this. Glad you looked at my blog articles. I will think seriously about joining.

Just one thought, as it will also affect other potential members too.

If a person can’t attend any party events or meet any party members in advance of deciding whether to join, you dramatically reduce the number of people who will join.

A policy of having to join a party before attending meetings assumes people join parties only on the basis of their manifesto, which is not the case.

One of the areas I know well is church growth. If a church said a person had to believe a particular doctrine and be a paid-up member before they could attend church, nobody would join. What happens in the real world is that people attend a local church and decide whether it’s a community and set of values that resonate, as they see these lived out (or not lived out) in community. The people matter as much as the ideas, because the people embody (or fail to embody) the ideas.

I might agree with manifesto points and join the party. But when I attend a local or national meeting, I might find:

• A thoughtful, compassionate group who live out their politics.

• A bitter group who complain all the time about the other parties they have left.

• A cult-like group who clamp down on independent thought.

• An angry group who are plotting to change the manifesto, and hate the current leadership.

• An awkward, introspective group who resent newcomers.

Any of these is entirely possible – how would I know in advance?

In other words, I can’t know if I want to join a party without meeting any local party members. At very least, you could have open meetings once a quarter where people can meet existing members. Otherwise, the blind leap of faith involved in joining the party feels too great. I for one would be hesitant to join a party without meeting anybody from that party.

Two months later, I’m still waiting for him to get back to me.

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© Mike Starkey 2024

Pic under licence from Pixabay


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