20th January, 2016
#LabourCurve: Labour’s lost and leaving members
How many people are leaving Labour?
The short answer is that we can’t begin to know.
There are problems. Political parties keep their records badly, and they keep their records politically. The Tories have been plagued for years by local associations hiding numbers in order to keep costs down. A similar blind eye is turned to local Labour members now in arrears, with those who say they are leaving asked to take two, three or six months grace before taking the conversation further. In the meantime, they retain local voting rights.
Nationally, the grace period is even more generous. Like any political party, Labour depends operationally on enthusiasts, and for everything else on quiet, good members who support party values, pay and stay home. They cancel their standing order before they speak, and account for four out of every five members leaving.
Labour gives those members six months grace before they show on the figures.
So there’s the invisibility of those who are leaving, and then there’s the confusion around those who have joined.
The problem is compounded by the lack of research on why members joined, or indeed, left. Corbyn supporters say that they joined for him. Corbyn deniers point to people like my sister — who joined because she has always supported Labour, because she supported Labour in the election, and because the election result encouraged her to think it time for a clear statement of support.
My sister had never been a member of a political party before. She assumed that Labour’s values are fixed, and the leadership election meant correspondingly little to her. They aren’t, and she left at Christmas. She’ll show in the figures just in time for the summer.
The results for those who have joined since Corbyn became leader are more interesting, simply because Corbyn supporters often draw a correlation between the growth in total membership figures and Jeremy Corbyn’s particular mandate. Actually, Corbyn’s selection marked the point at which the growth in membership started to slow.
According to Labour, between Corbyn becoming leader and Christmas Eve, 87,158 members joined and 8,567 left. That’s at once undoubtedly impressive, less impressive than Corbyn supporter’s claim, and more impressive than those who oppose Corbyn thought. It contrasts with estimates from Labour Party grandees such as Peter Mandelson, who said that he believed 30,000 members to have left during the same period.
Was Mandelson wrong? Well yes, and a little bit no. The members who are now counted as ex-members may not reach 30,000, but constituency information suggests that at least that number are in part of the process of doing so.
Finally, it takes nothing from Labour’s impressive increase in membership to point out that between the combination of unexpected loss (thanks pollsters), a leadership election under which membership could be secured for the price of a cup of coffee, genuine support for Jeremy Corbyn, and moral pressure for those on the other side of Labour’s new political divide to stay, the forces encouraging people to join have significantly outstripped those encouraging people to go.
It takes effort to set up a standing order and equally to end one. There is perceived virtue in joining, none in going. My sister assumed that by setting up the standing order she had legally committed to a year’s membership, and others will do the same. It took having someone on the inside to reassure her that she could go.
There are relationships where it is easier to stay than leave. Labour is one of them, and still, despite that, the #Laboursurge of the election is turning steadily to a #Labourcurve. Given the strength of the forces that have driven membership upwards, that’s more significant than we think.
Between the grace periods, and the pressure and the confusion, what matters in Labour right now isn’t just in the figures. It’s in the sentiment — and precious little work is being done into that.
[This article originally appeared here.]