Incentives to Membership in Canadian Political Parties

By Young, Lisa; Cross, William | Political Research Quarterly, September 2002 | Go to article overview

Incentives to Membership in Canadian Political Parties


Young, Lisa, Cross, William, Political Research Quarterly


This article analyses data from the 2000 Study of Canadian Political Party Members to address the question of why individuals join political parties in Canada and to trace their paths to activism. Because Canadian parties are essentially brokerage parties characterised by ideological flexibility and limited substantive roles for their members, membership in a party is likely to be motivated less by ideological concerns than by membership in a social network mobilised in support of a particular individual. As a consequence, most accounts assume that individuals are mobilised into party membership by family, friends, and neighbors in order to support candidates for the leadership or local nomination. In contrast to this expectation, we find that for all five major Canadian political parties, it is the members' ideological or policy-related commitment to the party that is by far the most important motivation for joining. Although parties do, to varying degrees, rely on social networks for recruitment into party life, ideological concurrence between member and party acts as a constraint on recruitment. The data also indicate considerable differences between the two traditional brokerage parties and the newer, more ideologically oriented parties.

In the study of Canadian political parties, one of the neglected subjects is the party member. Extensive study of the party system (Carty 1992; Smith 1985; Carty et al. 2000), party organization and officials (Carty 1991; Whitaker 1977; Wearing 1981), and party conventions and convention delegates (Perlin 1988; Courtney 1995) left us with only a very impressionistic understanding of why individuals join Canadian political parties. In large part, this absence reflects the relatively unimportant role, in comparative terms, that Canadian political party members have played in determining party policy and animating party life. It also signals a related logistical impediment to research focusing on individual party members in Canada in the past: the absence of reliable national membership lists for some political parties.

In 1993, the entry of two new parties into the Canadian party system and the precipitous decline in the fortunes of two of the existing parties ushered in a period of transition to a new party system (Carty e. al. 2000). Among the other characteristics of this system was a change to the meaning and structure of party membership in Canada. Both the new parties-Reform (now the Canadian Alliance) and the Bloc Quebecois-were committed to involving party members more directly in decision-making. Reform consciously set itself apart from its opponents by trying to develop a direct link with its members, and was the first federal party to permit voters to join directly through the national office, rather than joining a riding association or provincial party The Bloc followed suit, and the Conservative Party has also adopted a national membership structure in recent years. Moreover, internal practices in all five of the parties are changing in the direction of what might be termed "plebiscitary democracy" which entails direct member involvement in party decision-making, most notably with respect to selecting the party leader (Young and Cross 2002). As a consequence of these changes, study of individual party members is now both more relevant and more feasible.

The issue of incentives to membership in political parties is all the more relevant in light of evidence of declining rates of party membership in many industrialized democracies (Katz and Mair 1992). In the Canadian case, recent evidence regarding the age breakdown of members makes this issue of considerable practical concern. According to the findings of our survey of members of the five major Canadian political parties, their average age is 60 years, and only 5 percent of members are under the age of 30. The apparent "greying" of Canadian political parties' membership throws into question the capacity of the party system to fulfil its essential democratic functions. …

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