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Labour's membership crisis: no end in sight

Press release issued: 10 January 2013

Labour’s latest campaign to attract members has run into the sands because the party has failed to learn the lessons of past failure in the Blair years, according to an article by two University of Bristol academics published today in the journal British Politics.

At the tail end of Gordon Brown's leadership in 2010, party membership dropped to around 150,000 – an historic low.  Subsequently Labour embarked on a series of initiatives designed to 'refound' itself as a mass membership party.  But the article by Dr Hugh Pemberton of the Department of Historical Studies and Professor Mark Wickham-Jones of the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies, which compares the 'Refounding Labour' initiative with New Labour's successful membership drive in the mid-1990s, is profoundly pessimistic about the prospects for success.

The researchers analysed the full extent of the membership crisis in 2010 using new data.  They found that it was not just that overall membership was low, in many areas of the country it was catastrophically low.  Moreover, membership had declined fastest in areas of the country where Labour needed to gain seats to win back power.  Outside London (which increasingly dominates the party membership) Labour had been reduced in many areas of the country to a rump of committed activists and inert members.  The decline in membership had been particularly acute during the years of the Blair administration but, Dr Pemberton and Professor Wickham-Jones found, the 'Iraq factor' was much less important in the contraction than is generally assumed.

In fact, New Labour had been effective at building up the party membership, which reached over 400,000 in 1997, but many of those new members proved hard to hold onto – often failing to renew their membership the following year.  A net contraction set in immediately after the 1997 election and thereafter the decline was relentless.  Dr Pemberton and Professor Wickham-Jones argue that: "New Labour showed that gaining new members through grass-roots initiatives was relatively easy. The problem was holding on to them once they had been persuaded to join."

Labour under Ed Miliband appears not to have learned this lesson.  Professor Wickham-Jones said: "The latest membership data suggests that little has changed.  The emphasis continues to be on recruitment not retention, many of the recruitment techniques being used are much less novel than is claimed, and the recruitment campaign appears already to have run out of steam with membership levels falling back towards the historic low of early-2010."

Dr Pemberton said: "Labour has still not developed a coherent and sustainable mass-membership model.  Unless it can do so we believe that the era of mass Labour party membership is over."

Paper

 ‘Labour’s lost grassroots’ by H. Pemberton & M. Wickham-Jones in British Politics