Labour’s New Members

Aaron Bastani

More than 150,000 people have joined the Labour Party since May’s defeat, a figure which exceeds the total membership of any other political party in the UK. Over 60,000 have joined since Jeremy Corbyn became leader, more than either the Liberal Democrats or Ukip can boast among their ranks. The composition of the party is changing too. The average age of the party membership fell by 11 years over the summer – from 53 to 42 – and more women than men joined. Something similar happened with the SNP after the independence referendum, when its membership, in a nation of only five million, surged beyond the 100,000 mark. There, too, new members were younger and most of them were women.

At his party conference speech last Tuesday, Corbyn touched on all of this, pointing out that the deluge of new members to Labour – on a scale unseen for five decades – represents a break with trends across Europe for parties of the centre-left. The hypothesis that the continent's historic parties of social democracy, now bereft of a coherent ideology or social base, were facing inevitable decline, now has an almighty outlier in the British Labour Party.

Still, for many commentators, membership figures matter less than the opinion polls that show the Conservatives well ahead. What that misses, however, is that in politics, resources – money and members – always matter. By 2020, Labour could have more of both than any of their rivals, so much so that overcoming a hostile mainstream press would not be unthinkable.

Labour now has more than 350,000 members, and Corbyn says he wants a million before the next election. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have not filed any data on the matter for almost two years, but Conservative Home calculated in 2013 that the party probably has fewer than 100,000 members. That activist base is getting older as well as smaller, with the average member somewhere between 59 and 68. When it comes to campaigns on the ground, age matters. It can make the difference between no leaflets through the door and six. A large, young base can also play a central role in getting more voters registered over the next few years, with Corbyn – as he tacitly admits – needing a huge increase in turnout to stand any chance of becoming prime minister in five years’ time (Obama’s victory in 2008 was based on an increase in voter turnout of 7 per cent compared to eight years earlier).

The question of whether Labour could leverage the rhetoric and dynamics of a social movement to come to power, as Obama did, is no longer academic. Britain is seeing the revival of social democracy – and socialism – as a mass movement. The Tories, for all their money, mainstream media influence and Australian spin doctors, might find it too much.


  • 5 October 2015 at 12:14pm
    bluecat says:
    Some of those ageing voters might feel a little different if they knew that, at the Conservative conference right now, the Taxpayers' Alliance leader Alex Wild is arguing that pensioner benefits should be cut immediately, on the grounds that many of those affected will not live to vote against them in 2020, while others will have forgotten who to blame by then. (I thought this was the Daily Mash at first, but no.)

    "Fringe group" (addressed by the versatile Dr Liam Fox) maybe, but an astonishing number of their past proposals have become Tory party policy.

    Oh, and they're funded by Lord Ashcroft, who may be looking for a new... um... client to lead the Conservative party now that Cameron has let him down.

  • 6 October 2015 at 10:03am
    Susan Sydenham says:
    "Age matters. It can make the difference between no leaflets through the door and six."
    If only this were true. Tories can and do, pay people to deliver their leaflets. Tories don't need members, they have money and media barons instead. Having said that, the main strength of the vastly increased Labour membership will be word of mouth. With one member for every 100 members of the electorate, we will slowly but surely wake the masses up. Once awakened, people don't go back to sleep.

  • 6 October 2015 at 2:04pm
    sebastianss says:
    Figures on the Labour party's twitter released today has membership number at 180,000.

  • 7 October 2015 at 12:00am
    Amateur Emigrant says:
    Tony Blair and New Labour's chief achievement appears to have been the loss of around 4 million Labour voters since 1997, roughly the number by which the body of non-voting citizens has swollen over the same period. It would be interesting to know what proportion of Labour's new members are previous abstainers (in keeping with the party's favourite manner of exercising democracy).

    In 2013 a Survation poll indicated that the 16 million non-voters were quite likely to be younger (38% aged 18-34), female (58%), poorer (55% had household income below 30,000) and nearly a third of them said if they were to vote it would most likely be for Labour (double the number who would vote Tory). Something of an untapped market out there, but the Blue Labour suits are still desperate to target the thin band of Tory swing voters as a means to power.

  • 7 October 2015 at 7:38am
    ashleyshield says:
    Why would the tories necessarily need actual members to get leaflets out and people on the streets? could they not just pay for people to do this for them?

    • 7 October 2015 at 9:23am
      semitone says: @ ashleyshield
      They don't even have to do that. The Telegraph, the Daily Mail, and the Murdoch papers are all essentially Tory leaflets.

    • 15 October 2015 at 3:10am
      John Cowan says: @ ashleyshield
      If enough people join Labour, the Conservatives will not be able to hire such people. Unless you were starving, would you accept a job pushing leaflets through doors for a party you disagreed with? I certainly wouldn't. If I did it at all, it would be for a party whose causes I believed in. So if by the next election or so, there are few Conservatives and not very active ones, they will have trouble getting their leaflets distributed.

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