Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Why Membership Matters

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.

There is no escaping the statistics: Labour gets far more votes in general elections when it has a larger membership.  Falls in party membership pre-empt electoral failure (apart from in 1939 when more significant factors might have been at work).  Don’t just take my word for it; there is plenty of academic work to back this up.  Seyd and Whiteley – in a number of articles in the 1990s – concluded that mass membership was an essential ingredient of winning and that, for Labour to win again, it needed new members.  Against an academic orthodoxy of a few years earlier, they concluded that a mass membership made a party more representative of the public.  Their theory was put to an early test, where New Labour saw a significant influx of new members and Labour won the 1997 General Election (and of course won it by a very large margin).  This mirrored the thinking of Tony Blair (“This mass membership – extending the membership of the party – that’s not a glorified recruitment drive to me, it’s about transforming the way the Labour party works and it operates and it thinks... We are changing the whole culture of the party and the way it works”) and Gordon Brown (“for this army of supporters now waiting in the wings, individual membership should be inexpensive to buy and attractive to hold”.)
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.

Monday, 1 August 2016

A Response to Owen Jones

Owen, I read your recent article, about the questions we Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer, with a great deal of interest.  I think, in some ways, the questions are even bigger than you acknowledge as most are questions that all Labour supporters need to answer, regardless of their position on the current leadership question.  But some are clearly focused on the left.  While I am a little confused by the timing of the article, in the middle of a leadership contest, I take the article as questions from a critical friend and will attempt a response in the same spirit.

1. How can the disastrous polling be turned around?

As with all the questions, the answers are not only in the gift of one section of Labour supporters, but we do - of course - need to improve our position in the opinion polls.  It is worth bearing in mind that, while Labour's polling is a long way from where we need it to be, the current very low rating has happened quite specifically following three events: the Brexit vote, the arrival of Theresa May and the "coup" attempt.

May will of course go up and down in the polls as people get to know her more and we can't read too much into her initial popularity.  Callaghan got a huge boost in the polls when he replaced Wilson, the same was true of Major and Brown: none of these went on to be hugely successful leaders (although Major did, of course, win the next election).

The referendum was never going to be good for Labour electorally, whatever the result.  A strong Remain result would have been presented as very much David Cameron's victory; absurdly the narrow Leave result was presented as Labour's loss, despite polling evidence showing that Labour voters predominantly voted Remain and however people voted in the referendum, how Westminster politicians implored them to vote was unlikely to make much difference (except perhaps a negative one).  The "Corbyn lost the referendum" narrative was one created entirely to help lay the foundations of the "coup" and therefore must be added to that pile.

The factor that was in Labour's power to avoid was the "coup".  As I know you agree, it was wholly unnecessary and appallingly timed and has made it much harder for us to answer your questions because, at a time when we need to be speaking to the country, we've been forced into speaking to each other in a pointless leadership election.

But let us just remind ourselves of the impact of the coup.  On the 25 June Labour and Conservatives were tied.  I totally accept that that isn't good enough in the context of the Tories-at-war scenario that had been played out, although not entirely surprising bearing in mind the (yes, anticipated) relentless media storm against Corbyn and Labour.  The nosedive in the polls has all occurred since then, although it's worth bearing in mind that it has primarily been a boost in the polls for the Tories rather than a significant reduction for Labour, and this might partly be down to UKIP voters returning to the Tory fold in the context of Brexit, which should perhaps not be all that surprising.  I think we have to be healthily sceptical of polls in such a volatile political climate, but it's worth bearing in mind that the ICM poll that had everybody deeply miserable in July did ask what people's voting intentions would be like if Eagle or Smith were Labour leader rather than Corbyn and the Tory vote stayed the same and the Labour vote fell further.  Take that with a healthy pinch of salt; Smith in particular was not well-known to voters, but it does suggest that it was May bringing the Tories up rather than Corbyn particularly bringing Labour down.  It's worth adding to that that in early April Corbyn's personal approval ratings were higher than Cameron's.  Again, in the context of the media attacks - and no small amount of friendly fire - that is no mean feat in itself.

There is an oft-repeated slogan on social media that Labour had its worst local government election performance since 1983.  Actually it was the worst since 2015...  In the leadership elections, there was a doom and gloom prediction that Labour would lose 500 council seats if Jeremy were to win the leadership election (based on an assessment of how Labour would perform if we remained where we were in terms of popularity following the 2015 General Election) rather than the 18 we actually lost.  No complacency - we should be winning council seats - but not the predicted crisis either.  The same is true of the by-election and mayoral results too.

But to improve them?
- Divided parties are unpopular parties; we are where we are but we must somehow neutralise the division in the party when this pointless leadership election is over and we must continue to operate an effective opposition as best we can while it continues.  The latter is happening; despite the twin handicaps of an unnecessary leadership election and mass front bench resignations, the government is still being held accountable on issues like education, housing, the economy and the environment.  We need to get those messages out loud and clear so that the only noise people are hearing from Labour isn't leadership nonsense.  The former is much harder because it isn't only in the gift of Corbyn supporters.  After all, there was a massive effort to be collegiate in September.  I supported it then, I'm not so sure now.  If everyone on the left and centre left had been given plum jobs maybe that was a parliamentary coalition we could have held together rather than trying to keep on board people who were never going to be anything but hostile?  Some MPs (and particularly some "supporters" outside) are threatening to simply reload the coup or, worse, split or create some sort of partial split.  Unlike you, I've never thought a split to be an appealing idea.  I think Labour has to be able to work as a broad church.  But I think those that would not welcome a Corbyn government - regardless of whether they think it electable or not - would be best dealt with as a backbench awkward squad rather than an internal enemy.  Those who are broadly supportive of the direction of travel but are concerned about electability or have concerns about leadership styles, etc need to be embraced and brought back on board.

- Play to our strengths.  There are a number of strengths we can focus on.  The UK is just as anti-politics and anti-establishment as it was two months ago and one outlet of that is potentially in a worse state than Labour (although nobody is paying much attention): UKIP.  So if we can retain the sense of popular insurgency - of being the outsiders at the top table - that is something we can certainly tap into (although it's important in the mean time not to lose the votes of people who are more deferential to traditional political structures).  Jeremy himself is a strength.  It's not popular to say it at the moment, but when people see Jeremy himself, unspun and unmediated, they are usually impressed.  He's likeable, honest, thoughtful.  Also, he's actually rather nuanced and unorthodox in some of his political thinking (a million miles from the cartoon that is often presented).  The very fact that Jeremy doesn't look like a polished presenter who has spent his life preparing for power is a strength; an appealing factor.

Most of the responses to how we improve in the polls relate to your other questions and I don't want this article to be a book, so I'll move on!

2. Where is the clear vision?

I think, when you see the huge crowds at Corbyn rallies (that you rather surprisingly compare with Foot rallies; an unnecessary echoing of other media criticism) clearly a lot of people see a clear vision.  I think we could all see a clear vision in September, and we can see it today too - there was a bit of fogging in the middle, I would agree.  The trouble is, Jeremy is a democrat and does not believe that by winning the leadership election on a particular set of policies that they automatically become Labour policy.  And he also tried very hard to be collegiate and bring in people from all corners of the party, which inevitably muddied the water a little in terms of policy and vision (and I know policy is a separate question so I'll try and keep the answers separate).

So, the vision?  To transform Britain into a significantly fairer, more equal and kinder society where nobody is left behind and where our role in the world is to lead ethically and to be a force for peace and progress.  A bit general?  (Visions often are).  But okay; to ensure that middle and lower earners, workers and small business owners, get a fairer share of the proceeds of economic growth; to devolve power from Westminster and the centre to give people wherever they are in the UK more say over how they are governed and the services they can access; to re-cast government as an active force for good, that will plan and intervene in the interest of the long-term development of an economy that will deliver this.  A government focused on making lives better, for parents, children, workers, pensioners.  A government that will protect and improve the best of British, what people really value - like the NHS - and will bring us new sources of pride, in the form of a National Education Service (free lifelong education and training), improved, democratised public transport and a new era of municipal entrepreneurialism.

As Jeremy says: "a society where nobody and no community is left behind and where we only achieve things by working together."  Seems like a pretty good vision to me.

3. How are the policies significantly different from the last general election?

First of all, I think Labour had some really good policies at the last election, coupled with some really bad messaging.  I don't think there being some overlap of policy is a bad thing, especially when put in the context of the fact that there has been little opportunity to formally and democratically change policy since the manifesto upon which the current MPs were elected.  That said, there is inevitably some disconnect between what we might describe as Corbyn policy and Party policy.  And of course Jeremy gave portfolios to people who were not necessarily signed up to the policy documents that he put out during the leadership election and, correctly, gave them space and opportunity to develop their own initiatives.  So a glib answer might be: the policies are still very similar to the last general election because Labour hasn't developed its next manifesto yet (and neither have any other parties).  But that is glib: there are clear, distinct policies being developed that are significantly different from those offered at the last election:

- National Investment Bank and network of regional banks
- Public ownership of rail and mail
- Restoration of the NHS
- Abolition of university tuition fees
- Restore collective bargaining and repeal anti-union legislation
- Restore the Migrants Impact Fund

There is more of course, and we have to see this in the context of a sudden and massive change for the UK - Brexit - which is changing policy thinking in all parties, and in the context of some areas of policy where there are clear differences that are still being played out (e.g. nuclear weapons).

4. What's the Media Strategy?

Good question. This is one where I think we would all appreciate your assistance with some answers as well as a question...  It's bloody difficult isn't it?  As we all knew it would be.  The bulk of the mainstream media is absolutely against Labour and even some Labour-supporting media is largely against Corbyn.  Better or more timely press releases isn't really going to reverse that. So yes, social media ends up having to be a huge part of it.  I know you weren't impressed but the "we are his media" stuff is one approach.  And you can dismiss it, of course, but the social media reach is huge and will only become more significant.  Of course there are significant sections of society that it doesn't reach.  But people like Jeremy and John - and also Cat, Clive, etc, too - are making regular media appearances and tend to get a lot of very positive responses to them.  There is a problem that, however positive and constructive those appearances are, a minor controversy is identified therein and that becomes the news.  But that would be true of whoever was Labour leader.  After all we had five years of a leader whose approach to a bacon sandwich and his father's alleged lack of patriotism were considered newsworthy. Whatever the strategy, Labour is not going to get an easy ride in the media, whoever is leader and (almost) whatever the policy trajectory.  One useful change could be if our critical friends focused a little more on the friendship and just a touch less on the criticism (as, to be candid, the criticism is not in short supply).

5. What's the strategy to win over the over-44s?

There's a double-edge to this question as firstly, it is hugely important to appeal to older voters, even if the psephology did not demand it, but secondly the psephological analysis you point to could also be partially dealt with by mobilising more of the younger voters to actually vote.  So you'll forgive me if I try and address both?

This might be a slightly controversial point, but part of this is about class politics.  In the UK today there is some truth in the idea that wealth and assets is generational as well as social: that a significant proportion of the older generation have wealth and assets denied to the generations that followed, particularly through home ownership.  Therefore, to a certain extent, it might be expected that a low tax, low spend, keep-things-more-or-less-as-they-are agenda would appeal more to this relatively prosperous section of society than any call for radical change. Of course the so-called "grey vote" is not homogenous and Labour could, as Jeremy replied to your question, focus on an agenda based around respect, pensioner poverty, protecting pensions and supporting and improving social care (and especially improving its funding).  But only some of that will appeal to the more prosperous older voters, and of course there is a major overlap there with your question about appealing to Conservative voters.

It is also worth bearing in mind that a lot of older voters do care about their children and grand-children and do worry about them.  And policies that are aimed primarily at those voters can be "packaged" for older voters too.  Tuition fees, for example.

But also, I think our massive increase in membership has lots of potential in terms of getting more people to vote.  But I guess that relates to a later question...

6. Whats the strategy to win over Scotland?

Yes, this - like the last one really - is one of those questions that the whole Labour Party needs to think about, not just Corbyn supporters.  It's really hard, isn't it, because an awful lot of Scottish voters don't want to be won over.  I speak to plenty of Scottish voters who are broadly supportive of Corbyn; would be far more likely to vote for a Labour Party led by him than by any likely alternative, but think of Labour as an English party.  From their perspective, they've moved on.  I don't have the answers.  I know that Labour moving away from the left, putting up some identikit "Better Together" type would be absolutely the worst thing to do.  I think Labour consistently pointing out where the SNP are cutting, privatising and generally going against the rhetoric they use will bring some voters back our way in the long run if we persist.  But I genuinely think it's going to take years, not months, to make any significant inroads in Scotland.  It was not just a protest vote, but something more fundamental.  And let's be candid; that something more fundamental could easily happen in the north of England too.  Is anywhere really a safe seat anymore?  Again, the real risk would be if we could arrive once again at a place where some populist party - left or right - can go to voters in Sunderland and Doncaster and say "they're all the same" and receive a sympathetic hearing.

7. What's the strategy to win over Conservative voters?

Persuade them.  I mean, what other strategy is there?  Neither of us have any time for the triangulation strategies of the past.  That ship has long sailed. Yes, we can look at the language we use and vary our messaging.  But ultimately we have to win the arguments.  Like with any block vote there is a part of it that is ideologically committed, who we could never persuade to vote for any Labour Party, and there is another part that is at various levels of volatility, who could be persuaded.  And yes, sometimes it's possible to do that persuading by being seen to be more competent on the big issues of the day, or because leaders dress nicely or speak well.  But I think politics is changing fast and I'm not sure how much credit to give that any more.  It's not just a question of having a better line, a better message, a better soundbite.  It's about having policies that you and your supporters really believe in and then explaining why they're right and trying to persuade people. Obviously that all comes together with the vision and the media strategy, but it's what we should be doing.  Now.  Instead of having this conversation really.

8. How would we deal with people's concerns about immigration?

Interestingly, during the referendum campaign, Jeremy was the only leading politician I heard taking these concerns remotely seriously.  Every other leading politician lied about immigration.  From UKIP and right-wing Tories pretending they wanted to significantly reduce immigration (when really they want fewer regulations so they could better exploit workers from wherever they might come from) to Labour politicians suggesting that perhaps they could control immigration from within the EU or the single market.

Jeremy, instead, took the question seriously, although he was reported sparingly and badly, so you had to see the actual interviews rather than read anything that was published by anybody in the media.  Of course, post-Brexit, some of his ideas are now not achievable: like leading the charge for a Europe-wide cost-of-living-indexed enforceable minimum wage. But it was a really good idea.  Other ideas are still within our power: collective bargaining, trade union rights, agency staff rights, a higher,  better-enforced living wage.  And the restoration of the Migrant Impacts Fund.  It's important to have this discussion seriously and not lie to people or patronise them or pretend to agree with them if we don't.

Nationally - there is little evidence of immigration leading to wage suppression.  Of course, in individual industries or in some local areas it might have done.  But that is the impact of bad bosses and inadequate regulation, not of immigration itself which, as we know, has innumerable benefits for the UK.  We can make that argument and win it.  Not with everyone, because some people are anti-immigration because they don't like foreigners.  But listening to people and taking them seriously is not the same as pretending to agree with them, making completely unachievable pledges and then blaming somebody else when they're not achieved.  That's the Tory way.  We can pursue a better approach: I hear you; I don't entirely agree with you; here's why; here is my alternative solution to the same problems; what do you think?

9. How can Labour's mass membership be mobilised?

The first thing that must be done.  Now.  Is for Labour MPs to stop insulting new members.  I've never seen anything quite like this.  There has never been a time when new members have been made less welcome and at a time when there have never been so many new members. So that's the first thing: MPs must stop calling new members trots, rabble, dogs, scum, entryists, etc.  Of course where new members have behaved badly - just as with old members (and even the occasional MP!) - that must be dealt with in the appropriate ways.  But most new members are keen, committed, doing something that they perhaps never thought they would and actually pretty excited about what will happen.  And then what happens?  They're insulted by MPs.  They're not allowed to vote in the leadership election unless they pay another £25.  They're told there'll be no more meetings (to protect MPs from the likes of them) and then some meetings are organised for leadership nominations but they're not allowed to come, so aren't invited.

So that's the surest way NOT to mobilise the new members.  Actually to mobilise them?  I think we saw it in Oldham and London and to great effect.  New members want to get involved, they want to do things.  We need local campaigns on issues; more politics in Labour meetings; we need to encourage them, get them on the Execs and GCs; book bigger rooms.  We need to improve our political education - lots of these new members are new to politics and don't know the history of the Labour Party or understand what someone is going on about when they start tweeting them about Militant or George Lansbury.  They need to be met with enthusiasm, support and some assistance; not with mockery, derision and name-calling.

More than anything else, they need Labour to be looking outward so they too can be mobilised outward.  And we can only do that if we can go 9 months without a leadership election and 9 days without displays of self-indulgence on the back benches.  I want a year in Labour's life when criticisms on the back benches are reserved for significant policy differences and, beyond that, we pull together.

There is SO much potential.  We are the biggest left-of-centre party in Europe.  We could do things that we couldn't dream of a year ago.  But only if the Labour Party as a whole acknowledges that that is who we are now.  That these people are new Labour Party members and they're really excited, really proud, really want to get stuck in. And yes, some of them might not have voted Labour at the last election.  Some of them may say something really daft.  We can tear ourselves apart and mock and deride or we can actually fulfil the potential that there is here.

One thing I hope we can agree on, Owen, is that the worst possible answer to most of your 9 questions, would be for Jeremy to lose this unnecessary, distracting and divisive leadership election.  Because then 1) we'd be even more divided; 2) our vision would be back to being muddled and muddied; 3) who knows where we would be on policy as most of Smith's supporters presumably do not support his proposed policy agenda; 6) our strategy would seem to be to abandon Scotland for ever; 7) our strategy would be to triangulate towards Conservative voters in the way that has led to a collapse of social democracy across Europe; 8) we'd be right back to immigration mugs; and 9) our new members would feel utterly betrayed and demoralised.  (PS: I did write something for 4 and 5 but deleted them in the interests of party unity).