In the last few days a range of outlets have reported that the Labour Party has suffered a sizeable fall in its membership. The Herald has seen evidence of a decline of almost 20 per cent in Scotland. Peston says his sources estimate the losses at 150,000 people. The estimates vary, but it seems that a range of different analyses all show the same downward trend.
That idea is reinforced by the news that Labour is apparently in financial difficulties. Paul Waugh reports that the Party has been forced into emergency measures to try to limit its money troubles, and has fallen into deficit for the first time since Jeremy Corbyn became leader.
Put together, this has several implications:
Some of the shine is wearing off the Absolute Boy. Sure, he still has a sizeable number of dedicated members of the JC personality cult, but to shed at least tens of thousands and possibly up to 150,000 members is a sign that something is going at least a bit wrong. Some might be the last, most optimistic and perseverant elements of the old Blairites, finally realising that they have been defeated. Perhaps some are alarmed at the continuing anti-semitism scandal, or are confronted by one poor excuse for past behaviour too many. Some are definitely people who particularly prize EU membership above all and have belatedly realised that Corbyn is not in fact promising to Remain in the EU. Either way, this is a serious issue for a party which has become built on and driven by belief in the personality of the leader, and should give some heart that his surge is not inevitable, irresistible, or eternal.
Less money will cramp their campaigning style. In 2017, the Labour Party under-performed in campaigning terms when compared to its vastly expanded grassroots. Like the Red Army on the Eastern Front, it was able to make up with sheer weight of numbers what it lacked in equipment, experience or strategy. However, falling membership figures make that harder to repeat – and a lack of money is a challenge to necessary efforts to fill the gap with training and better campaign management. Tellingly, one of Waugh’s sources attributes the money troubles in part to hiring too many local ‘community organisers’. In an effort to train and develop its grassroots faster, Labour might have over-reached financially and could now fall between two stools.
This poses questions for the future of political fundraising. ConservativeHome is not alone in believing that politics would be improved by the parties fundraising from a wider base of smaller donors. While we urged the Conservative Party to get ahead of the field, in the event it was Labour under Corbyn which first managed to perform the feat, thanks to that vast new membership. They proved that it is possible – but this crisis now raises the question of how, once achieved, that arrangement can be sustained. In theory, a wide base of small donors should be more resilient to downturns than a narrow base of massive donors – you can’t lose a third of your funding by alienating one person – but the very focused way in which Corbynism built that base in a short period of time appears to have some built-in vulnerabilities. People joined at the click of a mouse, sometimes on a whim and often with a specific and transactional expectation of what they would get in return. People who were easy joiners can, it seems, all too easily become easy quitters. This raises interesting issues of how to build a relationship with an organisation that can survive disagreement on one policy topic or another.
The unions will regain some of their power. Gaining that mass donor base gave Corbyn something Ed Miliband never had: a high degree of operational freedom from the trade unions. While a small circle of barons were able to dictate Miliband’s policy and strategy, Corbyn has been able to drive them round the bend without consequence. If he is out of money, however, he may have to come crawling back – and canny negotiators will attach strings to any bailout.
Labour has lost a whole Conservative Party and is still triple our size. Yes, losing 150,000 members is huge – but it’s impossible not to notice that it is particularly huge when compared to the estimated size of the Conservative Party. Corbyn will be weakened, obviously, by shedding so many followers and supporters, but the remainder of his Party still amounts to three or more times the size of ours. As I’ve written before, that disparity makes it all the more remarkable that the Tories are still in any sort of campaigning contention, but it also underscores the need for the blues to grow, to get back on the front foot, and to maximise the efficiency at which any Tory campaigner operates. On the current numbers, there is no reason to expect we will cease to be outgunned any time soon.