A common criticism of “Corbynism” and recent developments in the Labour Party is that members don’t matter, what matters is the electorate. On one very basic level of course this is true: winning general elections requires the votes of many more people than will ever join the Labour Party. But our party’s history shows that on another level this is a false dichotomy of epic proportions. And the Corbyn project – of turning the party back into a mass-membership movement – has some surprising historical supporters.
Labour now has more members than it has had since the 70s and has reversed a trend that has been seen in major political parties of all ideological persuasions across Europe: one of membership decline. It’s hard to get a precise membership figure but it topped half a million in early July. History tells us that this should be an encouraging development:
While in the mid-1930s membership briefly exceeded 400,000 at a time of slow rebuilding for the party after the splits of 1931, membership really got going in the early 1940s, reaching a peak of over a million in 1950/51. This period obviously includes Labour’s landslide victory of 1945 and also the 1951 election which saw Labour lose despite getting its highest ever popular vote. Of course we cannot prove causality, but there was undoubtedly a correlation between mass membership and a high popular vote. After some decline, membership increased again in the early 1960s (topping 800,000), heralding the 1964 election result and remained reasonably buoyant (over 600,000) until 1979 when the membership took its sharpest and longest ever fall. It remained at a much lower level through the 1980s (though still higher than we came to accept as normal after 2000) – between 250 and 300 thousand.
What happens next is fascinating: Tony Blair and Gordon Brown conclude that mass membership is a huge key to election success: it is a massive ingredient of the New Labour project. Particularly from 1994 there is a membership surge, peaking at over 400,000 in 1997. From then there is another decline to our lowest membership levels since we have clear records (1928). It is slow, it is steady but it is a decline nevertheless, dropping below 200,000 by 2005 and staying in those depths (despite a barely-perceptible increase in 2010, presumably from people wanting a vote in the leadership election) until 2015 when we get a rapid surge in labour membership figures, challenged only in our history by 1944/5, and one that is still continuing, has taken us past the early/mid-90s surge and back to numbers we haven’t seen since the 1970s and possibly the early 1960s.
Now we need to be clear that Blair and Brown’s thinking was a little different from that of “the Corbynistas” but the difference is interesting in itself. They believed that a mass membership would be naturally more moderate than activists. They felt that the officers in CLPs and members of GCs tended to be politically-radical, partisan, old Bennites and the like, whereas a broader membership would reflect the floating voters who populated the new reality of the electorate. And I remember being the left-wing equivalent of a “bitterite” at the time, annoyed at these new members who’d probably voted Tory or Lib Dem at the last election and weren’t interested in proper meetings and just wanted discos and barbeques…
And part of what Blair, Brown and their academic supporters hoped for didn’t happen: there was not a significant increase in activism and, disappointingly, membership levels slumped. There’s some evidence to suggest that Blair became less interested in mass membership (after members did annoying things like vote for Ken Livingstone in London) and saw the idea of registered supporters as a way of bringing less political people into politics. Again, this has not turned out as he might have imagined.
But the truth is that wanting to join a political party (as a member or a supporter) is not necessarily “normal”. The biggest political parties are still going to be made up of people who are more political than the general public, and that was true in the 1940s and 50s as well as today. Despite this, mass membership unquestionably goes in tandem with electoral success. Members, as Blair suggested, are two-way ambassadors for the party who embed the party into communities. For that to work, of course, the party and its members must be on much better terms and there needs to be effective political education to ensure that members’ conversations with other voters are constructive. There also needs to be great care that we are not seeing a temporary membership surge and that new members are made welcome and encouraged to become activists.
Whatever happens in the leadership election, we need to embrace mass membership party politics. It is Labour’s best chance of finding a route to success and is the party’s one significant advantage in the current political climate. If people are inclined to insult or dismiss new members, they are insulting and dismissing Labour’s future electoral success.