Labour’s post-Corbyn membership is overwhelmingly white, well-educated, middle class and middle-aged, and living in southern England. Labour members are disproportionately likely to work in the public or charitable sector. They are left-wing, socially liberal, and pro-European. This means they have a lot in common with Labour MPs but much less in common with many of the voters Labour desperately needs to win back. A significant number of members could leave as a result of Corbyn being replaced by Starmer, but whether this will have much impact on Labour’s electoral prospects is debatable.
Why is membership important?
The British media tends to assume that members are always more extreme than party leaders and are therefore a liability rather than an asset. But there are reasons why parties are still concerned to maintain and increase their membership levels. A vibrant appeal and healthy levels of internal activity helps to establish legitimacy with the electorate. Members provide a reliable core of voters, becoming ambassadors for the party in the local community, and are a source of candidates for public office. Parties still rely on members to do necessary voluntary work during an election campaign, especially intensive activities like canvassing and leafleting, as well as for their significant financial contribution. Finally, members can be a source of policy ideas and a direct link to information about public concerns.
Labour members, Labour MPs and potential Labour voters
Some 83 per cent of Labour members voted Remain in 2016, and—very much in keeping with the media stereotype—the majority of members are pretty left-wing and socially very liberal. Our surveys showed that in 2017 two-thirds of Labour members fell into what we call the socially liberal left cluster, with the rest divided fairly evenly between the conventional centre and the socially conservative left—and none at all in the socially conservative right.
Despite what we sometimes read in the media, which tends to play up ideological divisions between them, Labour’s MPs and its members are closely aligned on many social and economic issues. MPs are, if anything, more radical than the party’s rank and file: some 59 per cent of the latter but 74 per cent of the former, for instance, disagree with the notion that ‘young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’; meanwhile the proportions disagreeing with the idea (popular among voters) that ‘people who break the law should be given stiffer sentences’ run at 40 and 45 per cent respectively.
But if there is less difference between Labour’s MPs and its grassroots members than is often imagined, what about the differences between the rank and file and those who it needs to vote for it?
The party’s members are a little more left-wing than the party’s 2019 voters and significantly more so than voters as a whole—especially those voters Labour will have to win back if it is to stand any chance at the next election. Only 17 per cent of Labour members agree that ‘young people don’t have enough respect for traditional British values’, but this view was held by 88 per cent of Labour-to-Conservative switchers in 2019. This is just one illustration of the fact that the gap between Labour members and those who switched was much bigger on social values than economic ones, which is also one of the reasons some Conservatives see electoral benefit in pursuing ‘culture wars’.
This is a potential problem for Starmer’s Labour: it might try to produce policies and project an image more in keeping with the views of the voters it needs to win back, but that effort may be compromised by those it relies on to communicate it on the ground.
Antisemitism at the grassroots
One big problem facing Starmer with regard to the membership is his decision not to re-admit Jeremy Corbyn to the Parliamentary Labour Party. This has caused considerable anger among some at the grassroots. Recent polling suggested that 48 per cent of LabourList subscribers believed Starmer was wrong not to restore the whip to Corbyn. And, although when asked whether the Labour Party was currently moving in the right or wrong direction, 55 per cent replied ‘right’, 40 per cent still said ‘wrong’, with that proportion increasing to 53 per cent among those who joined the party in 2015 or later. Starmer does indeed have a fight on his hands, one he clearly has to win if he is to retain the support of the Jewish community and the respect of many of the voters Labour needs to switch from blue to red in 2024.
Our research shows that members tend to quit when they become less closely aligned with their parties, suggesting that many of Corbyn’s followers will eventually leave if they haven’t already done so—especially if Labour under Starmer distances itself from the Corbyn era yet looks as if it is failing to reap any electoral rewards for so doing.
The atmosphere is certainly febrile. But we have been here before. Aside from the 1990s, there isn’t a decade in the post-war period which hasn’t witnessed Labour’s members trying to constrain its leadership, then getting angry and leaving—often in their tens or hundreds of thousands. Labour members are fairly unrepresentative of the voters Labour needs to win over to its cause before 2024, so giving them what they want in order to prevent that happening would be risky—and as Labour discovered to its cost in 2019, a large membership doesn’t necessarily help you at election time. This doesn’t mean that grassroots members are always a liability. Indeed, the capacity to realise their potential as an asset is surely one of the marks of effective leadership.
You can read Tim Bale’s full article in the Political Quarterly journal here.