Labour’s resurgence must in part be due to its bold membership experiment

A man of the people. Dominic Lipinski/PA Images

Labour’s surprise surge in the 2017 general election has been credited to party leader Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpectedly dynamic campaigning. But it also owes a lot to Ed Miliband. Corbyn’s predecessor took a gamble on a new model of political organising that changed the shape of the party.

Behind Corbyn’s electoral turnaround is an army of over half a million party members and more supporters. Many were attracted by the opportunity to take part in the leadership elections of 2015 and 2016. By extending democracy within the party, the Labour party pulled off an incredible balancing act. It has attracted new supporters without alienating or losing its loyal and active membership base.

Opening up internal party decision-making to non-members has changed the party beyond imagining. Introduced in 2013 with very little fanfare, the change to the rules put the party at the extreme end of open party democracy. Non-members were given equal right to vote in the party’s leadership election if they signed up and paid £3. The first outing of these new rules saw the party engage in a frantic vetting process amid concerns of infiltration both by Conservatives and far-left supporters.

Only six other parties across Western democracies have introduced rules that formally include non-members in party decisions. This model of political organising is not widespread for a good reason. Sharing members’ voting rights with those who have less connection or commitment to the party clearly creates a potential conflict. Yet it would appear that Labour’s experiment has worked. There was a reported drop in membership after 2015 but that was due primarily to members who had joined for the leadership or general election failing to renew their membership. Only 992 members actively resigned in the same period.

New vs old party members

Research with Labour party members during this period suggests this has been possible because active longstanding members are not primarily motivated to stay involved in party activity by the opportunity to vote in leadership elections. They are willing to sacrifice individual benefits of this kind for the greater good of the party.

In interviews with Labour party members during and after the leadership election in 2015, very few wholly opposed extending leadership voting rights to non-members. They instead tended to take the view that the wider benefits of such a move for the party superseded their own preferences: “I personally feel discomforted by it but actually I think it’s probably, as a strategy, the right thing to be doing at this time,” one said.

This response was typical among those who supported Corbyn and those who didn’t. Active members were also not primarily motivated by these voting rights. Typically active members relish opportunities for active participation and the benefits that may bring. They joined the party to learn new skills, meet new people (“I thought this is probably quite a good opportunity to practice my leadership skills”). Sharing voting opportunities with non-members has little impact on these activities.

Corbyn is backed by a loyal following. Neil Jones/PA Images

Yet while Labour appeared to have survived this move to a more open style of political organising, a question remained as to whether those attracted to the party in order to vote in leadership elections could also be persuaded to engage in traditional campaigning activities.

It seems that new supporters and members can and do become more involved but they appear more inclined to online activity and signing petitions than campaigning on the doorstep.

But that in itself is significant given how this election campaign ultimately played out. The widespread use and impact of social media gives new weight to these activities.

Different kinds of people may have been encouraged to get involved with Labour when the rules changed but to be able to mobilise half a million old and new members and supporters in both traditional and online campaigning activity is an example of “multi-speed membership” organising at its most effective.

Much has been made of the message of hope at the heart of Labour’s campaign, but a message is only useful if you have a campaigning machine to carry it. Labour’s gamble of opening up the party has provided it with a new army to deliver that message, and it is a gamble that for now seems to have paid off.