Giving Less for More: Members of Political Parties in Israel

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  • Cover Type: Softcover
  • Number Of Pages: 171 Pages
  • Center: Political and Electoral Reform
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A policy paper that explores the role of members of Israeli political parties, based on a survey of 1,210 party members, and makes recommendations that can rectify some of the problematic aspects of party membership in the future.

What is the role of members of political parties in an era in which the importance of political parties is on the wane? Do party members still have a great deal of influence, perhaps even more than in the past, despite their dwindling numbers? Who are the citizens who choose to register and become members? Are they indeed representative of the party’s voters?

This policy paper focuses on political party members in Israel. It examines the decline in their number over the years and highlights problems associated with party membership in an era of primary elections and mass registration campaigns: "vote contractors," insincere membership, and a gap between the nature of the active members of a party and the nature of its voters.

Drawing on a pioneering survey of 1,210 members of political parties in Israel, this study analyzes the demographics of party members and explores their channels of recruitment, positions, involvement, and behavior patterns. In addition, it compares the nature of party members who retain their membership and those who drop out of parties, as well as comparing active party members and passive members who do little or nothing on behalf of the party.

What is the future of party membership in Israel as a main channel of political participation? While the institution certainly seems to be on the decline, at least for now, party members still wield significant and sometimes even critical influence over the political process and the identity of elected officials, at least in the large parties. In recognition of this fact, this study proposes that a deal be struck between the State and its democratic parties: The parties will maintain intra-party democracy, and the State will provide them with financial resources that will guarantee the quality of their internal democracy.

Members of political parties form the basic tier of many party organizations in modern democracies. Of course, it is possible to have parties without members, but these cannot claim to be democratic. The participation of party members in internal elections serves to grant an aura of democracy and legitimacy to the party in the eyes of the media and the public. Indeed, in many cases, the members constitute an important link between the party’s voters and its elected representatives.

For many years, beginning with the founding of the state, the major parties in Israel were based on a large body of members. Since the 1980s, however, party membership has declined while the rights of those individuals who do decide to remain members have broadened. A striking example of this expansion is the adoption of the primaries system for selecting party leaders and Knesset candidates, under which it is the party members who are the selectorate. Intra-party democratization, which has also had problematic consequences, has turned the party members into a group with considerable political influence, and hence a subject worthy of scholarly attention. Yet despite this, the research literature in Israel has rarely addressed the topic of party members. The primary goal of the present policy study is to address this shortcoming by casting a spotlight on party membership in Israel in the early 21st century.

The Role of party members in the early 21st century

At present, we are witnessing two key trends: a decrease in the number of party members, and an increase in the rights of those who choose to retain their party membership. In Israel, the decline in membership is especially noticeable if we examine the proportion of party members among the voters, based on figures provided by the parties as well as analysis of public opinion polls in which respondents were asked about their party membership.

  1. In Israel, as in most Western democracies, party membership declines; however, this trend is much more prominent in Israel than in other countries.
  2. The analysis points to a troubling phenomenon of casual, short-term membership—a by-product of the mass registration campaigns that are conducted prior to party primaries.
  3. Since the 1990s, many party members in Israel are enjoying broader rights than they did in the past. The most obvious change is the right to take part in selecting the party leader and sometimes even in candidate selection.

Negative effects of the era of primaries and mass registration campaigns

In recent years, we are seeing so-called vote contractors who recruit members and “trade” their votes, whether to promote group interests (labor unions), advance a cause, or serve the personal needs of the recruiters. These dubious practices are leading to the creation of a sizeable group of party members whose membership is not sincere, meaning they do not support the party they belong to, and do not even vote for it in elections. This phenomenon helps widen the gap between members and voters, thereby diminishing the party’s representativeness and responsiveness, since its leader and/or Knesset members are actually representing two separate constituencies that differ from one another in their demographic makeup and worldview.

Who are Israel’s party members?

The study examines, inter alia, the demographic characteristics of party members in Israel, the ways in which they were recruited, their opinions, and the scope and patterns of their party activity. Our findings are based on a comprehensive survey, the first of its kind, conducted in 2010 among a representative sample of 1,210 members of the three major democratic parties at the time: Kadima, Likud, and Labor. The sample consisted of interviewees who were either members of one of the three parties at the time of the survey (909) or former members (301).

  1. Characteristics of the party members surveyed

    We classified the party members surveyed by age, gender, education, social class, religiosity, and nationality. In Israel, as in most established democracies, it was found that the social composition of the party members is not an accurate reflection of either the general voting public or of that party’s voters. The known bias identified in studies of political participation in democracies arises in this case as well, namely:
    • Over-representation of men, older adults, the educated, and members of the socioeconomic upper class.
    • On this point, we also found interesting differences between the parties: In Kadima, the gap between the share of women members (36%) and women voters (58%) was especially pronounced, whereas in the Likud, what stood out were the gaps in age and education: the average age of Likud voters was 44 as opposed to 51 for the members, and 42% of the members held an academic degree compared with 27% of the voters. The Labor party also showed a disparity in educational level (48% of its members held an academic degree versus 31% of its voters) and—like Kadima—in the high proportion of Arab members (14%) as contrasted with their low percentage among the party’s voters (4%).

  2. Factors motivating citizens to join a party, their degree of involvement, and their opinions on the division of power within the party

    The survey demonstrated the following:
    • The decision to join a party is motivated by a variety of factors: ideology, social reasons, wish to support a specific candidate in the primaries, or desire to advance personal interests.
    • When respondents were asked about their reasons for joining a party, they were more likely to ascribe the decision to ideology with regard to themselves than to others (showing a relatively high social desirability bias).
    • Slightly less than half the members reported that they joined the party on their own initiative, while other stated that they joined in response to appeals by others, primarily family members or friends.
    • The survey showed that most party members in Israel are totally passive; even among the active minority, only a small number devote a substantial amount of their time to party activity.
    • When respondents were asked their opinions on the division of power within the party, there was a clear tendency to support intra-party democracy and even to extend it beyond the party members.
    • With regard to party discipline and cohesion, and patterns of responsiveness, we noted an inconsistent desire among many members to enjoy the best of all worlds, namely, decision-making by party leaders on controversial issues and a high level of cohesiveness, in tandem with autonomy for the party’s Knesset members.

    Former party members

    1. No significant differences were found between those who had quit the party and those who were still party members at the time of the survey in terms of age, socioeconomic class, or nationality (Jews or Arabs); however, there were slightly more women than men who had left their parties (relative to the proportion of women on the party rolls).
    2. Above all, what typified the former party members was the large number who had joined a party shortly before the primaries in the run-up to the elections for the 18th Knesset (2009).
    3. The survey found differences between Labor and Likud members in their reasons for leaving the party as well as the willingness of current members to renew their membership. These differences apparently reflect the deep rupture within the Labor party at the time of the survey as the result of a dispute between the party leader, Ehud Barak, and large segments of the membership (not long after the survey, Barak quit the party along with four other Knesset members and founded the Independence faction).

    Party office holders and active party members

    1. According to the survey, those who hold party office (i.e., delegates to party congresses, members of the central committee, and the like) are generally older, have been members longer, and are more often male (relative to their proportion of all party members).
    2. Differences in education, income, and religiosity between those who hold party office and those who do not are negligible.
    3. In the period between 1986 and 2009, the population of party office holders “matured,” with the average age rising by five years in the Labor party and ten years in the Likud. This is an interesting finding, and supports data (in Israel and the Western world) that point to a lack of interest on the part of young people in political activity, and parties in particular.
    4. Among office holders in both the Labor and Likud parties, the share of those with an academic degree nearly doubled between 1986 and 2009. This finding reflects the changes in Israeli society in recent decades, as higher education has become more accessible.
    5. In both the present survey and an earlier poll, party office holders were more cynical and critical than rank-and-file members with respect to intra-party politics.
    6. In a comparison between active and passive party members, it was found (as expected) that the active members are older, have been involved with the party longer, and include fewer women.
    7. With regard to other demographic characteristics, no significant differences were found between active and passive members. However, the active members expressed greater satisfaction with the party, and were more certain that they would continue to support it in future.

    Recommendations and reflections on the future of party membership as a channel for political participation

    While our study indicates that party membership is on the wane in Israel, nonetheless we found that party members still exercise considerable—at times even crucial—influence on the political process and the identity of elected representatives, at least in the major parties. With this in mind, we propose the following recommendations, which will help rectify some of the problematic aspects of democratic party membership in Israel:

    1. Legislative and oversight measures by the state to prevent membership in more than one party simultaneously (“dual membership”) and ensure proper registration processes.
    2. Monetary and other assistance by the state to the democratic parties to aid them in running a sound intra-party democracy.
    3. Measures at the party level, including:
      • Insistence on a lengthy waiting period for members before granting them the right to vote in primaries.
      • Encouragement to join parties online and not via middlemen.
    4. An appeal to all citizens to heed the call of civil society organizations and join political parties in a direct, above-board manner so as to neutralize, as much as possible, the influence of vote contractors.