The increase in Labour’s membership is profound. Reports suggest an additional 170,000 members have joined, including the 60,000 since Jeremy Corbyn became Leader of the Opposition. These numbers are unprecedented and should be a cause for deep celebration. But who are the people who’ve joined us, and what might they mean for the make-up of our membership?
Most coverage of our expanding size before Corbyn’s election focused on potential “entryists” or mischievous Tories, but now we must reflect on the significant change taking place in terms of the party’s composition.
Previous Fabian articles have touched on the split between the “old core” (white, working class, stable communities) and “new core” (egalitarian, university-educated, public sector workers and BAME communities) of the Labour Party. Is the same now happening with Party membership?
Talking to colleagues across the country, it certainly appears that the Party across England is becoming more like the Party in London. The vast majority of new members come from the middle classes, the public sector and BAME communities, all sharing a distinctly cosmopolitan outlook. This makes perfect sense, of course – polling suggests these groups are least likely to be concerned about immigration and most concerned by cuts to the public sector. So they’re much more likely to be attracted to Jeremy Corbyn’s clear policy approach in these areas.
As a result, the membership of wards in middle class areas is growing much faster than wards in working class areas. Membership is also growing fastest in London and slowest in the North East.
All new members are welcome, but we need to recognise that the revival in membership is not happening equally across the country, or even equally within constituencies or communities. As a result, the overall character of Labour Party membership is shifting.
This shift in the composition poses a number of challenges for Labour, not least how the party can develop a coherent vision that appeals to both sections of its membership. Before it can unite its “new core” and “old core” voters, Labour needs to unite its “new core” and “old core” membership.
The Labour Party’s structures and meeting culture remain broadly unchanged from thirty years ago. They take place within a strange environment, using abbreviations and language almost never used outside of the reified confines of these particular meetings. It is not surprising that Labour’s unique bureaucracy and language is off-putting to the Party’s more traditional members.
Members also tend, understandably, to select candidates who share their views and values. We have a problem, then: if Labour’s membership is becoming greater in number, but less diverse in its outlook and composition, how does the Party train and select candidates who represent other perspectives that are more closely allied with its traditional voters? Put bluntly, Labour could struggle to select more working class members when working class members make up a smaller and smaller proportion of our membership.
Similarly, Stella Creasy has set out the risk of Labour becoming “the public sector party”. If Labour’s new members are overwhelmingly drawn from the public sector and its associated professions, how do we reassure voters that Labour understands the private sector and is sympathetic towards it?
This should be of serious concern to the party, particularly in the wake of the Tories’ recent positioning – ludicrous as it is – of themselves as the “workers’ party”. The Tax Credits debacle has blunted that attack, but we must assume that the Tories will return to this theme and continue to push a message that has the potential to split Labour further from its traditional support.
The unprecedented increase in the number of Party members is extremely welcome and provides Labour with scale, skills and opportunities it has not had in living memory. But the Party must also ensure its membership reflects our country and our communities in all ways, especially among those who would benefit most from a Labour government. To build the broad, united movement we all want, Jeremy Corbyn must first address this particular challenge of Labour’s unprecedented, but also unequal, revival.