The change in Labour’s membership is different to the 1980s, but could be just as dangerous

by Trevor Fisher

The Corbyn phenomenon is starting to attract academic attention, and is clearly not understood at any level by the parliamentarians and other observers. It is time to take the phenomenon seriously, as it will not go away. However unlike the 1980s left surge, which was largely activist driven so the approach of the party establishment was to shift to OMOV to outflank the activists with a mass membership, the current surge seems to be a mass membership of Corbynites – though Momentum may not be critically significant –  while the activists are resistant. The recent YouGov poll puts the support for Corbyn highest in new members and  lowest in the older membership.

If the new members are Corbynites the effect will be to undermine the activity base of the party and weaken the attempt to get a Labour government. As set out below, the research throws a grim light on the two theories I have heard in the last week, do nothing and allow JC’s regime to implode, or set up a shadow opposition in the Commons which will match each official pronouncement with an unofficial and critical one.

The research into the post 2015 membership

Professor Tim Bale, using the YouGov data of 2026 members and supporters who joined the Labour Party after May 2015, and comparing with previous data in May 2015 of members ‘when Ed Miliband was leader’, the new members were much the same age as the Miliband era members at just over 51. The youth surge has not translated into member/supportership. Six out of ten have degrees, the same for both groups, but contrasting the pre and post 2015 membership “they are even more middle class, “with 78% of them (compared to 70%) of them being ABC1”.

The survey found 31% were Labour returners – 40% for the over 50s who may believe after Miliband resigned they ‘got their party back’. New members are even less likely to belong to Trade Unions than those who were members before 2015. 25%  were union members – rising to 30% with those joining after Corbyn was elected – whereas 39% of Labour members under Miliband were trade unionists.

Depressingly the surge has made the membership even more unrepresentative of the people Labour is supposed to represent than it was before.

Labourists or Corbynistas?

Joiners who are primarily Corbyn supporters is a recent phenomenon. Of full members, while 64% would vote Corbyn, this breaks down to 46% pre 2015, 68% who joined during the 2015 election and 80% who joined after he was election, suggesting that people now join the Labour Party to support Corbyn. Professor Bale describes these as Corbyn’s “Praetorian Guard”, which is markedly in favour of reselection, including mandatory reselection, to ensure MPs toe the Corbyn line. 32% believe that MPs who “continually vote against the party’s agreed line in Commons votes should be deselected”, and those who joined after the leadership contest record a higher figure at 38%. In fact new members are hostile to public criticism of the Leader, the survey showing that 55% believe that “Labour MPs who persistently and publicly criticise the leadership in the media should be deselected”, rising to 68% of those who joined after Corbyn was elected. The Praetorian Guard speaks.

However Corbyn is seen as a winner

The most significant result is that “the most recent joiners are most confident that a Labour Party led by Jeremy Corbyn will win the next General Election” to wit “some 64% of Labour’s post GE2015 membership believe that Labour is likely to win the next General Election – a figure that rises to 77% of those who joined after Corbyn became leader”.

However the new members don’t intend to work with the electorate to make it happen. The survey suggests the new members are clicktivists (or slacktivists) as has been seen elsewhere in the political universe. While 68% of Labour’s post GE2015 members and supporters have promoted Labour on social media (likely to be preaching to the converted) and 88% have signed an electronic petition on behalf of the party, only 15% have taken part in door to door or telephone canvassing or helped at a party function, only 28% have delivered leaflets. “Some 63% said they had put no time at all in for the party” in the recent elections, and “61% that they have never attended a party meeting”.

While Professor Bale suggests that this means the “obvious enthusiasm for deselecting those hostile to Jeremy” would not be acted upon, the evidence points to something else. Corbynistas seem motivated to deselect an MP, but not to hear their reports, discuss their comments or do any work in the constituency. Frank Field is not a hero, but his comment to J K Rowling that the new membership risks becoming “an execution squad of Labour MPs” has substance. It will do the same damage to Labour’s public standing that mandatory reselection did in the early 1980s.

It is also a logical conclusion that failure at the next General Election would be blamed by the new members on the criticism of the leader, and not the the leader’s actual performance. New members believe that Jeremy Corbyn is  leading Labour to victory, and only those who criticise him will stop this. Any serious discussion of the actual performance of the Labour Party electorally in the next few months has to take this factor into consideration.

Trevor Fisher was a member of the Labour Coordinating Committee executive 1987-90 and secretary of the Labour Reform Group 1995- 2007

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18 Responses to “The change in Labour’s membership is different to the 1980s, but could be just as dangerous”

  1. Mark Livingston says:

    A Tory-lite Labour party lost is 2010 and 2015. I think we should therefore welcome socialists back to the party and the return to our ideological roots. There’s no doubt that the party was infiltrated from the right during the 90 and we lost millions of voters over the Blair/Brown years.

  2. madasafish says:

    >Mark Livingstone

    we lost millions of voters over the Blair/Brown years.”

    Labour votes at General Elections millions

    1979 11.51
    1983 8.46
    1987 10.03
    1992 11.56
    1997 13.52 Blair elected
    2001 10.72
    2005 9.55
    2010 8.61

    Labour’s vote count is virtually unchanged from 1983 (Michael Foot) to 2010 (Ed Miliband). 8.46M plays 8.51M

    And Blair when elected in 1997 gained 2 million votes from 1992 and 3 million from 1983.

    So your one line comment repeated by lots of other posters elsewhere – is – as fairly typical – an abuse of statistics to make a point..You can choose a different start point and get a totally different answer..

    Given that failure to recognise reality, I suspect that Labour are really going to break that 1983 votes low at the next GE. And keep making new lower lows until they do recognise it.

  3. Sean says:

    Mark Livingston,

    We also won more voters in 1997 than any previous labour government since Clement Attlee in 1945. It did subsequently drop, as it tends to in most long serving governments. Labour does not have a good track record under the hard left any way of looking at it.. Mentioning ‘ideological roots’ makes no sense in a party that has always been a coalition on the left, especially now when so few people identify politically with a class. Attlee himself was originally a pacifist unilateralist but realised the need to confront, at that time, the Nazis and then took the decision to develop a british nuclear deterrent The current leadership could learn a great deal from the 1945 labour government about delivering real change.

  4. efcdons says:

    “It is also a logical conclusion that failure at the next General Election would be blamed by the new members on the criticism of the leader, and not the the leader’s actual performance.”

    Well why on earth would anyone think that? /s

    That’s what is baffling about the whole thing. If Corbyn is so incompetent and stupid he would have been thrown out before 2020, right? Unless you think the people who voted him in are mind bogglingly stupid.

    So instead of just laying back and not saying much, good or bad, about Corbyn and his tenure letting him self destruct (as, again, he clearly would if he was as stupid and incompetent and “unelectable” as you guys like to keep saying ad infinitum) without giving anyone but his most blinkered supporters any excuse other than the man himself, someone decided it would be better to do everything and anything to make Corbyn a martyr and make it difficult to untangle Corbyn from his detractors in regards to negative results like electoral defeats or bad polling. This strategy would have been even better for the Labour right in that they could claim to the membership to have “given him a chance” and show the electorate at large “the “adults” are back in charge”. Everyone would be (relatively) happy.

    There are really only two possible reasons I can imagine for the strategy. One, the PLP are really, really stupid and incompetent and don’t understand anything about the Labour membership. I guess this is possible, but unlike the coupsters I try and be charitable in my analysis of other peoples’ capabilities. I could understand the initial Corbyn victory being due to a vast gap between the PLP and the membership with the PLP not yet understanding where the membership was in terms of their vision for Labour moving forward. But at this point only the willfully blind could claim ignorance.

    The other explanation for the current strategy could only be they were worried Corbyn wouldn’t self destruct. That he wouldn’t loose local elections or parliamentary by-elections. That there would be no calls from people who supported his leadership to step down around 2018 or so. This is the only reasoning that lines up with the actions of the PLP anti-Corbyn people. The current strategy is so clearly the messiest and most destructive for the Labour brand it could not have been the first choice.

    Though maybe it was a first choice. Maybe the plan is to throughly destroy Labour to show the Labour left “this is what happens when you are in charge. Don’t ever try this again.” A version of the US Vietnam war strategy of “burn the village to save it.”

  5. Landless Peasant says:

    I agree with Mark Livingston. Because of Corbyn I am considering voting Labour again for the first time in decades. Get the Party back to beingg. a proper socialist party that people like me can vote for. Get rid of the Blue Labour Class Traitors and get back to fighting the Class War against our Rich enemies the evil Tory Scum.

  6. Jack says:

    A little off topic, but this is a good piece on why in certain circumstances the failure to intervene militarily can be murderous

  7. John P Reid says:

    Mark Livingston, labour lost in 2010 after he press convinced the public we caused the bank crisis, were too left wing,much of our core vote went to the libdems who were too the left of us, and after 13 years we were burnt out, Ed miliband spent the last 5 years denouncing new labour, saying that labour were right to not start cutting quicker, we were too the left of he public, we weren’t Tory lite, Ed lost as he was seen as being too left wing, we lost millions of votes over the Blair years but not as many votes as we gained over the Kinnock /Blair years in the first place, yes we are getting a few green voters now, but we arelosi g even more centre ground voters to the Tories,

  8. I think it is worth remembering that Corbyn won 49% of first preference member votes in 2015. This pretty well guaranteed he would have won the leadership without the supporter votes on second preference member votes. The member votes would not have been influenced by Momentum recruiting although it could be blamed partly on the Miliband surge. There is an attempt to equate Momentum with Militant and blame the party’s problems on that. In reality New Labour supporters have to look at themselves and try to understand why three of their leading politicians were so convincingly beaten by Corbyn in 2015. Until then they can only be sore losers.

  9. Mike Stallard says:

    What do we want!
    Nannies for Tarquin and Jessame!
    When do we want them?

  10. Tafia says:

    So from this article are we to assume that Labour does not want socialists in it’s membership anymore? How bizarre.

    The reality is that the Labour Party – quite correctly, is what the membership say it is. After all, they own it. And that’s something the PLP better get in their heads and sharpish because at the moment they no longer seem able to understand reality.

  11. NickT says:

    What amazes me is that the Corbynites glibly call the 2015 Labour party Tory-lite – and fail to see that Corbyn is offering nothing but repackaged Red Ed policies and a hefty helping of incompetent arrogance of his own. The guy can’t even manage to develop his own policy program, never mind such little concerns as winning a general election.

    At some point the Corbynites are going to discover that you can fool willfully gullible cultists for a while, but the British electorate aren’t going to vote for a man who has no answers to the major questions of the day and has never bothered to think through even the few half-baked ideas he has.

    And no, the party wasn’t infiltrated from the right in the 90s. Blair made Labour credible with a centrist program – and won elections, which is the Labour party’s mission and has been since the day it was created. Corbyn isn’t electable because he offers precisely nothing to the vast majority of the British people and they, very sensibly, see no reason to endorse the vacuous self-promotion of a serial betrayer of his party, a serial embracer of bigots and terrorists, a serial incompetent who has achieved nothing in his life-long career as a professional politician.

  12. John P Reid says:

    Landless peasant do you actually know what blue labour is, it’s not Neo liberal,as for you thinking of voting labour, that’s great, gain one communist, lose 4 million social democrats

    Danny Speight, as Ed I’m.ibane spent the 5 previous years denouncing New labour,me Andy Burnham, was the reincarnation of Ed M, I wouldn’t say he was new labour when he lost,

  13. Tafia says:

    Landless, Blue Collar means industrialised – no-skill, lo-skill. skill. It refers to the colour of the overalls. In short, ‘working class’.

    Without them, Labour is nothing, stands for nothing.

    They are socially conservative, extremely proud, try to be self-independent, find being on benefits humiliting, do not like ‘idle-arses’, expect people to work wherever and whenever they can whether the like it or not, are proud of their country and their region, accept immigrants who come here to support themselves and integrate (ie abandon their heritage fully), are compassionate to genuine refugees, will help their neighbours and think people who freeload and take the piss are twats and should be treated as such.

    In short, they are workers and proud of it.

    They are dismayed at the unions and their obsession with diversity garbage and pay union fees as a sot of resentful insurance and little more.

    They are the salt of the earth and the backbone of this country.

  14. Mark Livingston says:

    madasafish. Thanks for proving my point!

    1983. Often pointed to by our right-wingers as the nadir of Labour’s post-war fortunes (“longest suicide note…”). But don’t forget a) the SDP splitters took loads of our voters with them; and b) the UK voting population was a lot smaller back then.

    The fact is we now have around the same numbers of voters as when we were last competing with a right-wing left opposition (as well as the Tories) and when the UK population was 58m (against 65m now!)

    Your figures also demonstrate the collapse in Labour’s vote (against an increasing population which traditionally votes Labour) since 1997.

    The Tory-lite strategy has failed twice. We can’t fall into the same mindset again for 2020!

  15. Landless Peasant says:

    Blue Labour is people like Glassman, who believes in totally dismantling the State and leaving everyone to fight it out amongst themseles, dog eat dog, which is alright for multi millionaires like him.

  16. JohnP Reid says:

    Mek livingston, Ed milibnd wasn’t Toey lite, Ken livingatone said of it, that Ed miliband was the last chance in his life time for a real socialist government,

    The SDP took our voters with the, did you call the police for that,hoe about saying we drove away voters with silky policies,that if we didn’t have would have stayed,and we should be great full, they voted for us in 1964,1966 and 1974 in the first place, as for the electorate being Walker there were 76% turnouts in 1979 73% turnouts in 1983 75.8% turnout in 1987 78% turnout in 1993 much more than any times sine or the 1974 elections.

    Who increased labour a vote by 5.2m since 1983-1997

    Landless peasant when asked you did you know what blue labour was, I de t realize you haven’t a clue glasman believes no such thing, the fact that the state can be additionally helped by charities, such as the Salvation Army, local communities or St Johns ambulance doesn’t mean a thing about dismantling the state

    Communist party board this way >

  17. James Martin says:

    As a member for over three decades I remember the last mass membership surge (although a far smaller one than we have experienced in the past year) when Blair was first elected leader. Even my (at that time future) mum in law joined, but aside from the irony of lots of people joining when Blair and his other entryists (Mandelson et al) was steadily destroying internal democracy, most of these people (and my mum in law is a good example) never went to single meeting or delivered a single leaflet either.

    And while Fisher is right to identify a problem with some of the newer members in terms of participating in the life of the Party, Fisher as an old fart (like myself I hasten to add) makes the classic mistake of blaming young people for not wanting to do the same things as he does (I could almost hear him muttering about the loudness of these newfangled ‘beat combos’), but he is quite wrong to confuse that with apathy or lack of activity. The huge turnouts of young people completely new to politics at Corbyn rallies in 2015 and 2016 gives the lie to the claim that these are social media only activists – but I would also point out to Fisher that if some of them are, so what? Where does he think most people under 30 consume their news media and political information, because it sure as hell isn’t by buying newspapers, listening to the radio or watching the telly anymore!

    One of the biggest tasks we face is turning around the steadily declining voter turnout from young people, and unless Fisher has a better idea (and if he has he is keeping it very secret) then having a weight of social media activists will surely matter, just as the size of the Party now means that we have full members in most workplaces, pubs, school gates and the like which again begins to be just a good a route to building up support for Labour at elections than pushing boring leaflets through doors that hardly anyone reads (I’m sorry, but we all know that’s true) and wrongly believing that leaflet pushing to be the height of electoral activity. I honestly don’t think Fisher gets it, but then often in politics the older generation benefits from being educated once more by the young.

  18. The only really relevant comment on the data in the article is the last one. The future of the progressive movement is with the young, but that does not mean that we should ignore what the young are doing and turning up at Corbyn rallies has not translated into any political action yet. The Data in the YouGov survey shows that the new members surging into the Party are both middle aged and even more than the existing members are university educated.

    So the problem of the youth involvement in day to day politics is continuing. The internet is not where it is at whatever Martin thinks. Slacktivism is merely political masturbation, and has no effect whatsoever. The anti BNP campaing in Stoke some years ago through the anti fascist action group NORSCARF found that some 100 students at the local universities had signed up and then spent all their time on social media. Not one student talked to a single fascist inclined voter – and there were many, one ward had three BNP councillors – and the old ways of politics eventually had the desired effect. There are no BNP councillors in Stoke. But a mass of UKIP ones. And they did not get into power through social media either.

    The internet can’t be ignored, but its not the magic bullet either.

    Finally, another piece of evidence about the young and how to get their involvement. Three months before the 2015 election, the parties noticed 2000 voters had not registered in the Keele ward of Newcastle Under Lyme. It contains Keele university and due to New Labour’s damaging registration changes, they had not registered and could not vote. All the parties apart from UKIP rushed up to the campus and there was a mass registration campaign and got the students onto the register. Labour held the seat by 650 votes

    The young can get involved in politics, but they have to vote to be in the frame. When the campaign to register at Keele was run, it was a case of knocking on doors and getting people to sign bits of paper. The social media impact was marginal.

    Like the theory that bombing wins wars – all battles are won by ground troops – the changing social behaviours will need to be addressed, and use will have to be made of them. But unlike bombing, which can be very effective when used in conjunction with ground troops as Hitler showed in 1940, there is no evidence at all that it has yet been effective and much that it leads to failure to engage with the electorate. There are few signs of real debate on the internet, mainly because people get into ghettoes and talk to each other.

    As for surges, Martin is right that they do not replenish the activist base. Apart from the Blair surge in 1994-1997, you can also cite the SDP, which was equally massive. The SDP no longer exists. Labour, which did not have the new member surge of 1983 and New Labour, which had the member surge Martin mentions, collapsed after the 2001 election. I have no doubt the corbyn surge will go the same way. In electoral politics as in most pop fashion, its what David Bowie once sang. “Fashion – move to the left. Fashion – move to the right . We are the goon squad and we’re coming to town. PiP Pip” – While new moves have always a place, joining up because it is the thing to do never works long term

    Trevor FIsher

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