Political parties turn to perks to woo members

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The Independent Online
TORY MPs enjoying free holidays at the Paris Ritz are not the only people benefiting from the perks offered by politics. Any private citizen joining a British political party today is offered a host of goodies, from credit cards to mail-order smoked salmon.

This week the Conservative Party is starting a discount wine club and the Liberal Democrats have just introduced a mail-order development service for holiday snaps.

As political patronage, be it from unions or wealthy benefactors, is becoming harder to attract, party members - who are increasingly called on to fund campaigns - are treated less like foot soldiers and more like cherished customers.

A sophisticated package of discounts and special offers is now manufactured by most parties to lure members and maintain their loyalty, and raise funds.

For the consumer whose political instincts are volatile, joining a party can present more of a quandary than choosing from the menu at Le Gavroche. Do you opt for a teapot, a trip abroad and travel service, or a drinking club, calendar and party newspaper?

The Lib Dems began the consumerist trend in politics when they created a Visa card by which the party gets 25p for every pounds 100 spent. Labour and the Conservatives soon followed with their own credit cards.

Not all these schemes are profitable, although parties are loath to drop them for fear of alienating members.

For the person fond of a tipple, the choice of which party to join is a difficult one.

John Major's portrait adorns bottles of 'Premier Whisky' offered to Conservatives at pounds 36.50 a bottle. Those of Thatcherite inclination might opt for 'Maggie Whisky' at the same price while more traditional types can order a set of 15 bottles with portraits of all the Conservative prime ministers since Robert Peel.

The Lib Dems have their own wine service with cut-price bottles for members 'whose knowledge is limited or extensive'. In a truly egalitarian fashion, the service includes factsheets on each wine, including 'an indication of when best to drink the wine.' But for the politically motivated, food and drink are not the only bonuses on the political menu.

Plaid Cymru has formed a credit union with generous loans, while Labour and the Lib Dems offer their members free financial advice.

The Conservatives have a household insurance scheme: the brochure ominously warns that 'the number of homes being broken into is increasing every year.'

A now defunct Lib Dem travel service may soon be resurrected and Liberal study tours are in the offing.

Only the Green Party dismisses the notion of treating its members as consumers. 'The whole idea of credit cards is to get members into debt,' said a spokesman. 'We are against the consumer society.'

Conservative membership: 500,000 Dues: discretionary (pounds 1+) Benefits: credit card, household insurance, wine club, party newsletter, John and Norma calendar, 1,500 clubs Conservative gifts: 'Tory Tea' teapot (pounds 10), John and Norma jigsaw (pounds 2), Tory tie slide (pounds 10), John Major blended whisky (pounds 36.50), lapel badges (pounds 5-6), lady's headscarf (pounds 10), John Major posters (pounds 2-pounds 3), hand flag (pounds 7.25), cuff links (pounds 10), limited edition John Major mug (pounds 3), Tory ruler (pounds 1) Campaigning: 'That is discretionary and is organised within local constituency associations.'

Labour Membership: 292,000 Dues: pounds 15 standard rate, pounds 5 concessions (OAPs, unemployed etc.), pounds 3 students, pounds 1 15-18 year olds Benefits: credit card, subscription to Labour Party News, financial advice, constituency events (eg bingo), membership certificate, Labour drinking clubs Labour gifts: polyester tie (pounds 7.99), lapel badge (pounds 1.80), wool scarf (pounds 13.99), Labour mug (pounds 3.50), gold lapel badge (pounds 95), Labour Party diary (2.99), historic Labour poster (pounds 7.50), tea towel (pounds 4.75) Campaigning: 'You can do as much or little as you like.'

Liberal Democrats Membership: 103,000 Dues: pounds 3 minimum rate, pounds 23 recommended donation Benefits: credit card, financial advice, wine club, subscription to Liberal Democrat News, mail order photo service, Lib Dem international study tours (China, Baltic states etc.) Lib Dem gifts: Paddy poster (pounds 2.50), birthday and christmas cards (pounds 4-pounds 7), cook book (pounds 4.95), golfing umbrella (pounds 25.95), jockey cap (pounds 4.95), silk handkerchief (pounds 4.45), Paddy and pensioner poster (pounds 2.50) Campaigning: 'We encourage people to canvass but if they want to be an armchair member that's fine.'

Scottish National Party Membership: 15,000-20,000 Dues: about pounds 10 (depending on constituency), concession pounds 5 Benefits: quarterly newsletter, constituency services SNP gifts: pewter pendant (pounds 12), SNP earings (pounds 10), umbrella (pounds 13), polyester tie (pounds 3.50), baseball cap (pounds 4), nylon holdall (pounds 5) Campaigning: 'It's voluntary, but we're looking for activists.'

Plaid Cymru Membership: about 9,000 Dues: pounds 10, concession pounds 4 Benefits: credit union: English and Welsh newspaper, financial advice Plaid Cymru gifts: golfing umbrella (pounds 15), watch (pounds 12), baseball cap (pounds 2.50), car sticker (50p) Campaigning: 'We encourage everyone to get stuck into canvassing, leafleting, fundrasing and helping out at branches.'

The Green Party Membership: about 5,000 Dues: pounds 19, concession pounds 8, couples pounds 26/pounds 11, life pounds 247 Benefits: party newspaper, magazine Green gifts: unbleached cotton T-shirt (pounds 4.50), badge (pounds 1.50), mug (pounds 1.25) Campaigning: 'It's totally voluntary whether you campaign, but we encourage members to be active as much as we can.'

The Official Monster Raving Loony Party Membership: 3,500 Dues: pounds 7.99 Benefits: photographs of Screaming Lord Sutch in various poses, 'Drive carefully I vote Loony' car sticker, four Loony million pound notes, certificate of sanity, 'Are you a Loony too?' badge Loony gifts: Lord Sutch T-shirt (pounds 5), sweatshirt (pounds 7.99), sew-on patch (pounds 2.50) Campaigning: 'Lots of our members join so they can stand in elections and get their picture in the paper.'

(Photographs omitted)