The last thing we need is a membership drive, says Peter Watt

Rites of passage often involve the adherence to certain rituals that help mark significant moments in life. Think of weddings and think exchange of rings, the best-man’s speech and embarrassing dancing. The point is that the rituals happen almost without thinking and often invoke feelings of familiarity and security.

The same is true for the Labour party. Election victories, election defeats and new leaders are all rites of passage with associated rituals. Generally these rituals are benign at worse and even sometimes helpful. The coming together at conferences to show unity, the cries of ‘all Tories are evil’ and trade union general secretaries condemning the government all help the party feel at ease with itself.

But there is another ritual that almost always occurs and that is far from benign; in fact is positively damaging. The membership drive.

I urge Ed strongly to resist the temptation to call for the party to leave Manchester and go out and recruit more members, however tempting such an entreaty may be.  The truth is that membership goes up a bit when we are in opposition as some people decide that they want to help get the Tories out.

Then it goes down when we win.  We may well recruit some more members over the coming months, but it will not mark an end to a trend that we must not ignore – fewer and fewer people want to be members of political parties. In the early 1980s, approximately four per cet of the electorate were party members. The figure is now less than one per cent.

So at conference next year Ed may well be able to point to the number of new recruits as a sign of our progress towards electoral victory. But, as night follows day, membership will then begin to fall and he will be criticised for causing the decline. Remember how Tony Blair was lauded for raising membership levels to 405,000, and then hammered for causing the (inevitable) post-1997 decline.

And the problem is that the longer we remain focused on bucking an un-buckable trend, the longer we put off facing some uncomfortable truths. We use talking to members and membership recruitment as a proxy for listening to voters. They are not the same thing at all. In fact, if we are honest, party members are not in any way representative of voters and never will be.  People who join a political party are in a tiny minority and we political activists who choose to deliver leaflets, attend meetings or spend time at a party conference are weird.

Yet we allow ourselves to pretend that it is OK for this tiny group to select candidates and set policy for millions of people.  And then we scratch our heads and wonder why so many people are not interested in or are hostile to party politics.  Our focus on membership reinforces the dangerous separation between the party and voters.

Organisationally, we also waste money trying to recruit members. Which means that when we are not successful we have to pretend that we were. Every year the NEC sets a membership target that is frankly unachievable – and shockingly not achieved.

Of course we need money and there is no doubt that our members raise considerable cash for the party.  The 34000 new members since May will certainly bring welcome extra gold to party coffers. But we will not raise enough to run the party from membership subs alone.

Ed has called for the party to change. He should use the authority that he now has to set a different course and begin quickly to mould the party into a fundamentally different shape. Members will continue to be important, of course. We need an inner core of activists.  But they should not be the focus of our activity. Those members are already motivated enough to take part through the effort of joining. We should nowadays provide them with the tools, both online and offline, to get on with it.

Our focus should be the electorate.  Candidates should be chosen in open primaries and leadership elections should involve votes for the public. Our website, our publications, our events should all be designed to attract and welcome voters. We should set targets for the number of people that take part in selection contests – not how many people join.  It is a strange world indeed when the Conservatives have had primaries to select candidates already whereas we, with one or two unofficial and laudable exceptions, have not.

At a local level, we should be seeing how we can help other people’s campaigns – not just running our own. Our best advocates at election times should be local people telling each other stories about how the Labour party helped their campaign to change their area for the better.

Change is coming to the party, but some of that change will happen whether Ed or anyone else likes it or not. The membership decline will continue to affect all parties (even if we have a temporary reprieve in the coming months), and the government is going to legislate on party funding, which will force us to look at the nature of our relationship with affiliates.  We should now respond to these changes positively, avoid wasting time and money trying to recruit members, thus organisationally reinforcing our separation from the electorate.  Instead, we should reach out to those who may never consider joining the party.

I am – as we all are – proud to be a members of the Labour party. But you know what they say about pride.  So Ed please, please, please, when the dust has settled on yesterday’s speech – NO membership drive.

Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.


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18 Responses to “The last thing we need is a membership drive, says Peter Watt”

  1. Jeremy says:

    This is why you were the worst Gen Sec is recent memory.

  2. Peter Watt says:

    That’s not very nice Jeremy, but not very articulate either.

  3. Jouno says:

    What a bizarre argument, that membership of political parties will inevitably fall – so I guess eventually there will be no one left! And surely if we focus on the electorate as you suggest and convince a few of them to vote for us, a few of those might want to join the party as well. So do we just turn them away and say we would rather not have their membership fee and boots on the ground?

    I disagree about party membership declining. With new media (like here) and social networking it is much easier to contact people directly and get messages across, as indeed you say. Also I believe anyway that we have reached a bottom in terms of political apathy in this country; the only way is up. But surely we should at least put a bit of effort in!

  4. Excellent piece Peter – perhaps the most insightful and intuitive analysis I have read during the recent conference season.

  5. Given 700 people allegedly joined in 24 hours after Ed became leader he possibly does not need your advice. I hopemany of them are people who left because of Blair……..

  6. Jane says:

    Excellent advice. Interesting, I left the party when Tony Blair was ousted!! Not a surprise that I always disagree with Susan (above). Funny how a successful PM who delivered three terms of office can not be acknowledged favourably by those who support the party. The past incumbent and the current one will never match up to him. Delighted that you all got your man and mine did not win. Delighted too that Neil Kinnock is saying that “we” have got back the party. Jolly good – lets see if it appeals to the country. Somehow I am not optimistic – just look at the CLP rresults for the South…….

  7. John A Bateson says:

    Peter, I think the wierd charge is a bit strong, but you probably have a point. Traditionally members in the workplace were useful as they could articulate the party cause, and encourage active trade unionship.
    Things are different today, but if the party wants good councillors, and MP’s a strong activist base is pretty essential. Furthermore more young members can inject new ideas, and prevent local parties becoming cliques.

  8. Joe says:

    I fundamentally disagree with this thrust of this article.

    In order to recruit more members we need to communicate with more people – people who happen to be voters. Therefore a determined and coherent membership recruitment campaign will neccessarily carry our wider message to the general public.

    There is nothing inevitable about declining membership.

  9. And the elephant in the room you don’t mention is how much it costs to join. The Party is stuck between a rock and a hard place – afraid to cut fees because those that ‘remain’ members are happy to pay it, but hard to recruit new ones because it’s simply too expensive for community activists in many of our core constituencies.

  10. paul barker says:

    Over the last 60 years there have been 4 major peaks in Labour membership-
    1952 One Million
    1980 700 thousand
    1997 400 thousand
    2010 180 thousand

    In case the trend isnt clear, thats-
    1952-80 10 thousand members lost per year
    1980-97 20 thousand
    1997-2010 much the same.
    To me that looks like a dying Party. Why dont you try a membership drive.

  11. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Peter, you have two choices: either you can delivery every bloody leaflet round in every marginal constituency in the country, or you can accept that we need new (and younger) members to do the hard work of canvassing we need to do.

    It’s that simple.

  12. Alex says:

    The suggestions in this artical are erroneous as they are laughable, this article misses the point so badly it is hardly worth reading. In this election, labour struggled to campaign through lack of funds and lack of people on the ground, a recruitment drive will bring both money and improve campaigns. What good is a party at winning elections when it has nobody to campaign for them?

  13. james says:

    Peter, you assume that trends are inevitable. This is a mistake.

    I’d argue that the fall in party membership, coupled with the lack of internal democracy, is what led our party to lose so many votes since ’97.

    Loss of membership might matter in some places more than others – I’m not sure how the spread is. But in those seats we need to win, I’d say we need as many members as possible to campaign and GOTV.

  14. Peter Watt says:

    I agree with Henry. I wish people would stop characterising my argument as being ‘anti member’ or as a wish to see the Party wither or to do with centralisation of the Party.  Of course we need activists but ‘join to help deliver leaflets’ has limited appeal. Generally those who want to join will do so anyway.  We should invest more in providing our activists with the tools to do the job – like online phonebanks. But we should also concentrate on those who will never join the party (the vast majority) and see what we can do to help them and make them the focus of organisational politics.

    Now that is not a downgrading of the Part or centralisation – quite the contrary.

  15. Stuart says:

    To be perfectly honest I find it hard to seperate your views from your previous actions. I recall you speaking at a CLP meeting and assuring those present that the Party was on a sound financial footing whilst the reality was somewhat different.

    Aside from that I believe your analysis to be flawed. Membership dues provide a substantial slice of the party’s funding. My £36 is a donation, not a loan.

    I find it somewhat ironic that some in the party seem to believe that it is illegitimate for trade unionists to have an individual say in the party through the leadership election but then believe it is another story altogether to give members of the public a say in choosing candidates. I for one have actually taken part in a Tory primary, as did other members of my CLP, for the express purpose of voting for the worst Tory candidate on offer.

    This would appear to be some sort of an attempt to transplant American style primaries onto the British political system. However not much thought appears to have gone into it.

  16. Gareth says:

    “Of course we need money and there is no doubt that our members raise considerable cash for the party… But we will not raise enough to run the party from membership subs alone.”

    Got any bright ideas?

    If membership is constantly in decline can we expect the same with party activists? I wonder what will then happen when we have no one to deliver leaflets…

  17. Peter, you suggested we absolutely should not try to raise membership. Whether or not half a million people will ever join Labour (and the overwhelming likelihood is that they won’t) this is obviously a silly idea. And it is ‘anti-member’. Inherently.

    Maybe most people don’t want to join, but there are a lot more than 200,000 who are open to the idea and they’d be even more willing if we dropped the fees a little.

    Online phonebanks are great, but they’re not a replacement for the local Labour activist the whole community knows. Community campaigns are great, but you need Labour representatives at or near the head of them if Labour is to benefit, and for anything above the community level you need the Labour Party to get it done.

    For that matter, I don’t think that there’s that much difference between community activists and party members. If they’ll do one, they’ll often do the other. The problem is that in the past decade it hasn’t seemed worthwhile to join the party for many people. Understandably, as all that happens is that they get asked to deliver leaflets and condescended to by disgraced former General Secretaries. And I’d say that it’s actually the second rather than the first that is more salient here.

  18. Peter Watt says:

    Dear Edward, I am sorry that you have resorted to personal abuse as part of your post. It’s a shame that you were unable to debate the argument without resorting to it. I hope with hindsight that you regret it.

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