In the second of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, University of Sheffield Professor Emeritus Pat Syed considers how the Labour Party has changed since 1997.
The twentieth anniversary of Labour’s 1997 election victory is an opportune moment to reflect on the state of the party as an organisation. In May 1997 when the Blair government took office the Labour Party still exhibited many of the essential features of a traditional social democratic party; in particular, it possessed an individual membership and a set of institutions that provided these members with a role in the party’s political direction. Twenty years on the party looks very different.
When the Blair government took office there were 405,000 individual members of the Labour Party. Today that figure stands at 448,000. On the surface it would appear, therefore, that little has changed. In fact this is far from the case. During the thirteen years of Labour governments the number of individual members dropped dramatically; by the end of the period in government the party recorded the lowest ever figure (156,000) in its history. The causes of this haemorrhaging in party membership were various. First, the opposition of many members to government policies, both domestic and international, prompted resignations. Second, the concentration of powers in the party leadership at the expense of the party’s extra-parliamentary institutions (the annual conference and the National Executive Committee) led to the marginalisation of individual members. Third, there was an inevitable falling away of people keen to identify with the party when in opposition but no longer feeling such a need once the party was in power. And, finally, Labour was not immune to the tendency across all advanced liberal democracies for people’s political attachments to diminish.
However, since the party returned to opposition in 2010 the number of individual members has increased; not dramatically during the years of the Miliband leadership (2011 193,000 – 2015 201,000) but with a quantum leap once Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign, and subsequent election as party leader, occurred.
The crowd at a rally for Jeremy Corbyn during the 2016 leadership election (Picture courtesy of PaulNUK via Wikimedia Commons)
During Labour’s thirteen years in government the role of the party member in policy deliberations was increasingly marginalised. For the New Labour leadership party members were only important for two reasons: firstly, to legitimate policies initiated from on high and, secondly, to provide the foot soldiers at elections. And, from 2010 onwards, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, no attempt was made to reverse this trend. In fact, the one major party reform initiated under Miliband’s leadership – the election of party leader by a ballot of individuals, comprising members and supporters – further diminished the role of the party member. Why pay £45 or more to be a party member when one could pay just £3 as a party supporter and yet still vote in the election of party leader? In pandering to plebiscitary sentiments Labour had introduced an ill-thought- through open primary system.
To what extent will this enlarged membership influence the outcome of the forthcoming General Election? For all of Miliband’s talk that ‘one million conversations on the doorstep’ would win Labour support in the 2015 general election, the party was out campaigned by the Conservatives in many constituencies (due in no small part to the considerable financial resources at the Conservative’s command). There is no doubt that in some constituencies Labour activist campaigning will have an impact but it is likely that Labour’s large membership will have little impact on the overall result.
On the assumption that the election campaign is unlikely to shift popular attitudes that significantly – and therefore Labour is likely to face five more years in opposition – the party will then have to address the question of its membership. Should members play a significant role in policy deliberations and, if so, how? In addition to electing the party leadership and selecting local government candidates, how should members influence the policy-making process at national and local levels? If party members are still to be seen as ‘ambassadors in the community’ then their ambassadorial role needs to be taken much more seriously than has been the case since the Blair victory of 1997.
Pat Seyd is Emeritus Professor of Politics at the Sir Bernard Crick Centre of the University of Sheffield
Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.