Jeremy Corbyn has turned Labour into a middle class personality cult

by George Morris

Jeremy Corbyn has a massive mandate, apparently. The mandate is so big, some of Corbyn’s fans argue, that the current challenge to his leadership is anti-democratic. ‘The People’ have decided that Corbyn is leader, he has a mandate, and everyone else should shut up. But things are more complicated than that.

Christine Shawcroft, a loyalist NEC member running for re-election, recently told the BBC that Corbyn had the biggest mandate in Labour Party history. That isn’t true. What constitutes a mandate is governed by the rules of the game, and up until the mid nineties that meant bloc votes, which invariably delivered enormous mandates to Labour leaders. If you think Corbyn’s 59.5 per cent is impressive, then take a look at Kinnock’s 73.1 per cent in 1983, the first election in which the opinions of people outside the PLP first mattered. When Tony Benn challenged this mandate in 1988, with the backing of Jeremy Corbyn, Kinnock’s mandate got even bigger, at 88.6 per cent. Still, it was nothing compared to John Smith’s 91 per cent in 1992.

Of course, we’re not comparing like with like. Bloc votes awarded candidates with massive chunks of the electorate, and we can expect the numbers to look rather different once selections were opened up. Of the three Labour leaders to have faced the Labour selectorate since the abolition of bloc voting, Corbyn does indeed have the biggest mandate, at 59.5 per cent. Ed Miliband got 50.7 per cent of the vote, in the fourth round, after being behind his brother all the way through, and so it never felt like an impressive victory. But Blair wasn’t far behind Corbyn, with 57 per cent of the vote in 1994.

But we’re still not comparing like with like. For one thing, the size of the selectorate altered massively between 1994 and 2015. Corbyn does beat Blair in the mandate stakes in terms of percentage, but in terms of raw votes there’s simply no competition. Corbyn’s 59.5 per cent was out of an electorate numbering just over 422,000, whereas Blair’s 57 per cent was out of an electorate numbering over 950,000.

Beyond this, however, are structural changes in the electorate, and most significantly what has happened to the representation of trade union members since 1994. Under the system by which Blair was elected in 1994, affiliated trade unionists were given an automatic vote, although the turnout among them was low; a mere 19.5 per cent in the ‘affiliates’ section of the electoral college. This sunk even lower, to 9 per cent, in the 2010 contest. But despite the low takeup, this was still a substantial number of people – there were almost 200,000 affiliates in the fourth round of voting.

The 2015 election was different. Following the Collins Report, members of affiliated trade unions would have to register as affiliated supporters. This, more than anything, shifted the structure of the Labour selectorate drastically. The 1994 selectorate was split between 327 MPs and MEPs, 172,000 party members, and around 779,000 affiliates. Each group voted as a weighted bloc. The 2015 selectorate, meanwhile, was split between around 245,000 party members, around 71,000 affiliated supporters, and around 105,000 registered supporters, with every vote counting in the same way. Not only had the selectorate drastically shrunk, but it had shifted away from union members and towards the new category of ‘registered supporters’.

This fact alone should shake the confidence of those who have decided that Jeremy Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership was driven by a popular insurgency of the disenchanted. Yes, thousands of people were mobilised to support him, but these people were effectively replacing the trade unionists who had historically formed the backbone of the party. There is, furthermore, good reason to believe that the people who paid the £3 to become registered supporters, the people who drove the Corbyn phenomenon, were much more middle class than is often realised.

Party membership is, generally, a relatively middle class phenomenon. That’s one good reason for having trade unionists vote in leadership elections – it broadens out the range of backgrounds from which the selectors come. Most of the available evidence indicates that far from being drawn from the ranks of the disenfranchised working class, Corbyn’s recruits are as likely or more likely to be ABC1s than pre-2015 members. Around 34 per cent of new members were from the South of England, compared to 30 per cent of older members. (Interestingly, while new members were not more likely to come from London, registered supporters were.) And far fewer new members were trade unionists, with around 25 per cent of post-general election members being in a union, compared to 39 per cent of longer term members.

The party itself has clocked the problem. A leaked document revealed in January that their own analysis of party membership showed that the very poorest were under-represented, whereas there had been a 119 per cent increase in affluent city-dwellers since the 2015 election.

This is taking place at the very moment when many fear that Labour is losing touch with its working-class roots and is on course to haemorrhage working-class supporters at the next election. Working-class communities, long ignored by New Labour, now peripheral to the Corbyn project, cannot be expected to simply turn out to wave the red flag on polling day. This is not Corbyn’s crisis, but he is not the man to address it.

Working people are losing their party – what should be their party – to a middle-class personality cult. The mandate of which Corbyn supporters are so proud is, in fact, not much to be proud of if we believe that Labour is, first and foremost, about standing up for working people. Far from being a historically unprecedented expression of working class support, it is in fact a largely middle class phenomenon that has replaced members of trade unions within the selectorate at precisely the moment in our history when Labour’s relationship with working people is being tested to the limit.

Serious thought needs to be given to how we elect our leaders in the future, and to the concept of what it means to be a member of a political party. We should be pleased to have so many new members. Labour does need to return to being a mass membership organisation, with roots in people’s lives and communities. But what we have at present is an illusion of that.

George Morris is a member of Tatton CLP and a commissioning editor for Renewal: A Journal of Social Democracy’

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11 Responses to “Jeremy Corbyn has turned Labour into a middle class personality cult”

  1. Tafia says:

    YouGov members poll shows Corbyn beating Eagle or Smith by 20+ points

  2. Mark Livingston says:

    Corbyn won last year. Everyone knows that Corbyn will win again this year. His mandate this year will be even bigger because the members are fed up with being patronised and/or ignored by an out of touch and elitist PLP.

  3. Mike Homfray says:

    This is nothing new. Trade union membership is not growing significantly and political involvement has been a predominantly middle class activity for a while

  4. You obviously weren’t at the Durham Miners’ Gala.

  5. Tafia says:

    Labour’s PLP is middle class anyway. It abandoned it’s working class roots decades ago.

    It now finds unions and the working class embarrassing bordering on downright offensive.

  6. John P Reid says:

    The only point I’d make is Tristan hunt,is the croft ion to the working class up north blue labour,lot who as a middle class man can Appeal to them

  7. New Labour has relied on the party being made up of middle-class members over recent years. Sure the unintended consequence of opening the vote out to registered voters was that many young people who were not quite so middle-class joined. For me this is a good thing. Obviously for the party elite, it wasn’t.

  8. Eleanor Firman says:

    Labour Party members want to re-set the political alignment and narrative of the party – and the country -away from austerity. Most recognise the LP made mistakes in the 70’s and 80′ and let the country shift rightwards. Blair and Brown encapsulate this trend. Owen Smith cannot bring unity to the party or the country because he is part of the same triangulating tradition that led to Labour being wiped out in Scotland and UKIP emboldened to exploit those in de-industrialised areas to secure the disaster that is Brexit. (E.g. his support for welfare cuts and Trident). Similar dynamics are occurring across Europe too. Of course the anti-Corbyn crew want to pick up swing voters in the south but are there enough to win an election? Hardly! Note the PLP fixation with southern middle class votes is, of course, entirely absent in this essay because the author wants to use the term ‘middle class’ as a way of dismissing Corbynistas. I’m pretty sure all LP members will soon realise the rise in support for Corbyn is based on the policies he stands for, which sensibly address the failure of LP strategies in earlier decades. Of course LP did many good things, but if the PLP don’t want to face up the real failure of triangulating to the right, then the party will likely fold.

  9. Ultraviolet says:

    You still don’t get it, do you? It is not about one man. It is about the party, its democracy, and the utter rejection by the members of the right of the party that has lost the last two general elections and given us ten years of the Tories in Downing Street.

    If the right acknowledged those defeats and explained what they would do differently to avoid another defeat next time, they might have some credibility, some chance of persuading people. Their refusal to do so just proves that they have no chance of winning the next election, and therefore something different has to be tried.

  10. Peter Kenny says:

    First the Unions were the problem hence one member one vote – to effectively get rid of them.

    Now it seems the members are the problem.

    Better get rid of them too.

    If Corbyn’s 60% is nothing to be proud of what was Liz Kendall’s 4.5%?

  11. john p Reid says:

    paul Kenny, the OMOV took away the fact MPS got more of a share plus people would get more than one vote, but, as for the unions we didn’t need their money when we won in 1997 or 2001

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