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Political parties could not function without a significant group of active members, who play a very important role in the political system as members of the 'middle level elite'.(1) That is, they are key intermediate actors between the mass of voters, on the one hand, and the political elites and decision makers on the other. Despite this fact, there has been little empirical research into the members of British political parties, and this is particularly true of the Conservative party. Bulpitt summarized the position very well when he wrote: 'The Conservative Party is one of the least studied political organisations in Britain'.(2)
Given this, little systematic attention has been paid to the question of the incentives for party activism in Britain.(3) There has been extensive survey work on 'orthodox' political participation which pays close attention to the attitudes and activities of individual participants, but this work explains participation in terms of individual and group resources and values, rather than in terms of the response of individuals to incentives of various kinds.(4) Research on the incentives for political action has concentrated primarily on 'unorthodox' political participation, involving activities such as protest behaviour and political rebellion.(5)
One theoretical problem facing research in this area is the so called 'paradox of participation', the idea -- introduced by Mancur Olson(6) -- that rational self-interested individuals will not generally participate in any activity which produces collective goods. Since the policy outputs of incumbent political parties are for the most part collective goods, this implies that rational actors will not become party activists. This 'paradox' provides a theoretical explanation for the extensive survey evidence which shows that high-cost forms of political participation like party activism attract only relatively small numbers of individuals, something that appears to be true in a wide variety of political systems.(7) Recent evidence relating to Britain, for example, suggests that only 2.2 per cent of the British electorate are party activists.(8) Other theories of participation, for example the work of 'group' theorists like Bentley and Truman, are unable to explain this finding.(9) By contrast, the Olson model would explain it as being a consequence of the limited incentives available to induce individuals to get involved in party politics.
Because party activism is a high-cost form of political participation, it provides an excellent means of testing the sort of rational actor model developed by Olson. The purpose of this research note is to test Olson's 'economic' model against an alternative 'general incentives' model of participation in order to determine which best explains party activism. The test uses data from the first national random sample survey of Conservative party members.
The general incentive model of participation was originally developed to explain political activism in the Labour party.(10) The preferred model developed here is an extended and developed version of it. The general incentives model is grounded in the assumption that political activism can be explained by different kinds of incentives. The model takes into account the 'paradox of participation', but it goes beyond a narrowly cast economic analysis of incentives, to include variables relating to affective motives, moral concerns, and social norms -- all of which lie outside the standard cost-benefit approach to decision making.
The discussion begins by examining a rational actor model of participation, which is consistent with the Olson analysis. This leads into a discussion of the attempts which have been made to circumvent the 'paradox of participation' generated by the model. Subsequently we introduce the general incentive model and then go on to test alternative versions of these models against each other. A final section discusses the relationship between the findings reported here and those derived from an earlier Labour party study. EXPLANATIONS OF PARTICIPATION
The starting point of any rational-choice analysis of political activism is the following simple model:
A.sub.i = ( p.sub.i * B) - C.sub.i (1)
where A.sub.i is the level of activism of individual i;
p.sub.i is the probability that individual i's participation will bring about the collective good or policy goals of the party;
B is the collective benefits or public goods resulting from the implementation of a party programme; and
C.sub.i is the costs to individual i of contributing to the collective good. The origin of the 'paradox of participation' is the fact that p.sub.i appears vanishingly small in most situations, since the individual is unlikely to make any significant contribution to winning an election or changing national policy outcomes. Thus as long as costs are non-zero activism appears to be irrational.
In political science there have been four broad approaches to dealing with this 'paradox' as it arises in the model. The first appeals to threshold arguments, suggesting that individuals will not calculate the costs and benefits of collective action when these are very small.(11) This is an approach which applies to the calculus of voting, and it might also explain why some individuals join a political party with the intention of remaining inactive. However, it cannot explain party activism precisely because this is generally a very high-cost activity.
A second approach focuses on the game theoretic characteristics of collective action. Hardin first pointed out that the collective action problem was really an N-person prisoners' dilemma game.(12) Since then a developing literature suggests that co-operation can be obtained in the prisoners' dilemma and the collective good provided, if two conditions are met: firstly, participants should not discount the future too much, since myopia sharply reduces the payoffs from co-operative action; and, secondly, the game should be repeated over time, since the dominant strategy in the one-shot game is always non-cooperation.(13)
Unfortunately these ideas do not apply readily to the question of explaining party activism. While it is true that party activism involves a repeat game, and many party members have a long-term perspective on politics, retaliation against non-cooperation of the type discussed, for example, by Axelrod with his 'tit-for-tat' strategy does not appear to be very plausible. Applied to this case, it would imply that party activists could induce other party members to participate by becoming inactive in retaliation for a lack of their active support. It is difficult to see why such a threat should motivate such members to become involved, particularly if they reason that their own participation is unlikely to make any difference to outcomes. Thus game theoretic …