Issue 221 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published July 1998 Copyright Socialist Review

FEATURE ARTICLE: Whose party is it?

Patrick Seyd author of various studies on the Labour Party, explains his latest findings to Martin Smith.

MS: How far do you think it is true that Tony Blair has transformed the Labour Party?

PS: There has been much speculation about the new members of the Labour Party. The New Statesman described them as 'armchair supporters', the Independent as 'increasingly middle class and inactive' and Tribune as 'upwardly mobile yuppies, reminiscent of the old SDP, save that they now clutch mobile phones rather than filofaxes'.

These arguments come primarily from the left who argue that Blair has taken the Labour Party away from its roots. However, Blair and his supporters also like to claim that they have transformed the Labour Party. When Tony Blair spoke at Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation conference in Australia in 1995 he said: 'We have increased our individual membership by 120,000. By the next election over one half of our members will have joined since the 1992 election. It is literally a new party.'

Blair's supporters claim that the party is different. In some ways it is but in many others it isn't. The motivation for the study is that there are very few facts. We thought it would be good to do the actual research and come up with the hard evidence.

MS: How many have joined the Labour Party since 1994?

PS: When Blair became leader in 1994 there were around 265,000 members. There is no doubt that by the time of the general election Labour Party membership was around 400,000. So about 140,000 had joined.

However, a number of people have left the Labour Party. The majority of people before 1997 left because of inertia or changes in personal circumstances. The one issue that prompted people before 1997 to leave the Labour Party was its support of the Gulf War in 1991.

The present study was completed before Labour announced cutting single parent benefit and disabled benefits. I am sure that these issues will have prompted people to leave.

MS: How was the survey conducted, and what methods did you use?

PS: This survey was conducted between July and December 1997. When Paul Whiteley and myself published Labour's Grass Roots in 1991 we surveyed over 430 constituencies. This time we selected a representative sample of 200 constituencies. The Labour Party allowed us to use its membership lists. We wanted a larger number of responses. We surveyed around 30 members in each constituency and we got a response rate of 63 percent, which is high. We had a total sample of 9,000 members of which 6,300 replied.

I have broken the findings down into categories.

Class composition(table 1)

Table 1

The number of working class Labour Party members is not as high as it should be. There is a real problem of the under-representation of the working class in all forms of political life. Interestingly the number of working class people who joined the Labour Party has increased since 1994. This may be because the trade unions have taken a more active role in recruitment. You would have expected that figure to go down.

Trade union membership

Before 1994, 38 percent of the Labour Party belonged to a trade union. Now it is 29 percent. That is partly due to constitutional changes inside the party. At one time all Labour Party members had to be members of a union. That rule no longer applies. A word of warning that it is not quite as stark a picture as presented is that although the figure of 29 percent looks very low, a significant section of those in the survey cannot belong to a trade union - ie pensioners, students and the unemployed.


In 1992 we made the point that there were almost two Labour Parties. There is the affluent Guardian reading party member and there is the poorer Daily Mirror reading Labour Party member. It seems to me that the same problem remains. Incredibly you have 23 percent of Labour Party members with an income of less than 10,000 a year. The poor are still in the Labour Party. You can argue that the more the trade union role is diminished inside the Labour Party the voice of the less well off also diminishes.

TABLE 2: Labour Party members election activity

                               Yes             No

                          New      Old    New     Old

Display election poster    72      82      28      18

Donate money               61      82      39      32

Help run a party day

election room               8      23      92      77

Drive voters to polling

station                    10      21      90      79

Take numbers at

polling station            17      33      83      67

Remind voters on

polling day to vote        40      48      60      52

Attend the counting

of votes                    7      15      93      85

Activity (table 2)

The problem for Blair is that a relatively high number of new members are 'virtual members'. They give money to the Labour Party, but in terms of distributing leaflets, canvassing and so on they do far less party work. Many of them joined just to help get rid of the Conservative government.

This is a fundamental problem for the Labour Party. All parties need local activists. There are several explanations for this lack of activity. One is it takes a period of time to socialise new members to any party. It can also be argued that the leadership does not really encourage grassroots activity. The other explanation is that they are recruiting a different kind of person, who does not want to be active, but just wants to identify with the party. We believe it is the latter. We hope to conduct the survey in another three years. If this is the case the Labour Party does have a problem.

You can't win elections without active members, as the SDP showed. The SDP could have all the glitz and glamour it liked, but when it comes to winning elections you need to mobilise people. The best example is James Goldsmith's Referendum Party. He had all the money in the world, but without human resources he couldn't win.

For a party to be successful it has to offer incentives to its activists. The activists go out and do the recruiting, canvassing and encourage others to join. But if you create a party that bypasses the activists, which I think the Labour Party has done over the past ten years, those incentives disappear. The Labour Party does have very strong vertical communication between the Labour leadership and party members. But it also needs horizontal communication - people in the same street or area who go along to their friends and remind them to vote. That communication is very weak.

Labour's key policies (table 3) Table 3

The assumption is that Labour is recruiting a different type of person with different values. Our evidence is that this is not the case. All the members are slightly less committed to key social democratic reforms, such as high income tax or public expenditure. New members of the Labour Party are not significantly different from their older counterparts. These changes could be due to the success of Thatcherism, the Labour leadership conceding the political ground on these issues or the fact that working class struggles have suffered many defeats.

There is still a significant commitment to the fundamentals of 'old' Labour values. For instance, a majority of members still believe that trade unions are important. A significant number of members are for curbs on the free market, and there is still huge support for the NHS. Even today 67 percent of Labour members are committed to the idea that wealth should be redistributed from the rich to the poor. This does not coincide with Blair's agenda!

There have been shifts inside the Labour Party, but there still remains a strong commitment to the social democratic position. The area in which you do see a significant difference is on penal policy. I was astounded to see that people who have joined the Labour Party in the last four years believe on penal policy that 'life means life' and 'three strikes and you're out'. They reveal a much more populist approach where a criminal needs to be treated in a tough way.

Around 55 percent of New Labour members believe that the Labour government should discourage the growth of single parent families compared to 44 percent of Old Labour members. So there has clearly been a much greater shift on social, penal and moral issues.

That may be because of the extra working class populist support. Or it could be because Labour refuses to make a stand on these issues. For instance up until recently Labour has opposed private education. In 1990 we found that 64 percent of Labour members thought private education should be scrapped. In 1997 only 54 percent of members supported this position. This shows that if a party does not articulate a point of view that point of view will lose support, even among party members.

You have to be careful in talking about a Blair revolution. Blair is not the only person responsible for shifting Labour policy. In 1983 many Labour activists believed the party had come within an ace of disintegration. Both Neil Kinnock and John Smith played a very large part in the transformation that followed. Blair has taken that shift a leap forward, but it was well grounded before he arrived.

MS: How much has changed in the Labour Party since you published Labour's Grass Roots?

PS: Many grassroots Labour members don't like the changes that have been made. But most have had to adapt. The election defeats and the defeat of the miners coupled with the failure of municipal socialism have seared the minds of Labour members. The left inside the Labour Party has been disorientated by the shifts that have taken place. The weakening was a process and was not due to one issue.

I know that the grassroots of the party are committed to basic social democratic demands. But I am not so sure on the other side of the equation. I don't know where Blairism is going and his relationship with the grassroots of the party.

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