Exit, voice, loyalty: What’s a LibDem to do?

For the second day running a confluence of events got me thinking. At lunchtime yesterday I had an interesting discussion triggered by a recent paper (here for those who can access it) that uses Hirschman’s famous Exit, Voice, Loyalty framework to examine recent developments in education policy in the UK. Hirschman’s framework has been applied in a number of policy fields including, probably most prominently, the reform of public services.

Later on, in the aftermath of the tuition fee vote, I was mooching around the LibDem blogosphere and encountered a thought-provoking post by Richard Huzzey on LibDemVoice, explaining why he felt that resigning from the party was the only way he could register his unhappiness at the direction policy/the party appeared to be heading.

It seems to me that Hirschman’s framework could have something to say to any member of the party thinking about how to respond to the way the Coalition is evolving, and in particular those who are deeply unhappy with the leadership’s approach to the tuition fees issue (among others).

In the briefest outline, Hirschman’s argument examines the social mechanisms by which organisations receive feedback on their performance and how they respond to that feedback. Broadly speaking he argues there are two routes available to consumers or organisational member who are dissatisfied. The first is to walk away from the organisation and seek another supplier (or employer). This is the so-called exit option, which is typically associated with market mechanisms. An alternative is to stay put and to signal your concerns to the organisation through elections, complaints procedures or participation mechanisms. This is, you may have guessed, the voice option, and is more typically associated with political processes. The reform of public services since the Thatcher government has in many ways been about substituting exit (choice in markets) for voice (through the ballot box or complaints procedures), because voice wasn’t seen as being an effective mechanism for delivering quality services. In some respect, parts of the Coalition localism agenda appear to be returning to an emphasis upon voice.

Loyalty enters the picture in a number of ways. Organisations need time to receive and respond to negative feedback on their performance. If, for example, everyone exits instantly when performance drops, the organisation will go out of business before it has chance to address the problem. So for organisations to have the time and space to make changes some consumers or organisational members need to show “loyalty”: either they have to be relatively insensitive to quality deterioration or be committed to the objectives of the organisation such that they want to stick around to exercise the voice option and work to make things better.

Hirschman argues that in some circumstances voice and exit are complementary and can work in tandem to raise quality. But in other circumstances they might conflict – many consumers rapidly exiting can, for example, undermine the effectiveness of voice. And he argues that organisations are typically more sensitive to one mechanism than the other.

Clearly this speaks  to the LibDem dilemma. There are many members who are deeply unhappy. They feel that the leadership is taking the party in a direction – further to the political right and complicit with the Tories in a vindictive and illiberal agenda – they find unacceptable. And some have decided that exiting – either to become non-aligned or to join the Greens or Labour – is the only option they feel comfortable with. But, of course, this means that they can no longer exercise the voice option from within the party.

The big question is whether a political party is sensitive this type of exit. If long-standing members are leaving the party – either because of a perceived rightward drift or in protest at the seeming lack of integrity and trustworthiness shown by the Coalition LibDems on issues such as tuition fees – is that an effective mechanism for sending feedback to the organisation? Will the exit be recognised and responded to? One might argue that if there is – and it is an ‘if’ that is hotly debated – a strategy on the part of the leadership to move the party to the Right so that it aligns more naturally with the Conservatives in a longer term coalition, then the exit of centre-left members will be a matter of relative indifference – except perhaps in the short term decline in subscriptions – because it just accelerates the realisation of that strategy.

So is it better to stay part of the organisation and seek to find a voice – with the aim of reclaiming the party and returning it to the principles and values that have been central to its political platform? Are there enough people willing to show loyalty and exercise the voice option to give the party time to regain that which it has lost – a clear sense of identity and a leadership characterised by trustworthiness and integrity? Can they gather sufficient momentum and unity to make the voice option effective (a point I speculated upon a while ago). Many of the responses to Richard Huzzey’s post suggest that there are quite a few members out there who, while respecting his decision, believe that staying and fighting is the better strategy to adopt. So there is perhaps some cause for hope.

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