The underlying assumption of New Labour strategy with regard to mass membership of the Labour Party was that mass membership would always push the party to the right (which was the direction in which they wished to go), and that the Party was only leftist because of a small number of left wing activists that ‘dominated’ Party meetings and structures but were unrepresentative of the wider public and indeed the Party membership. The assumption was that ‘the public’ and the rank and file membership would always be to the right of these lefties and thus the more members you got the further to the right the Party would go.
Even the £3 Supporters scheme for the 2015 leadership election was accepted by the PLP because it was assumed opening up the Party to the wider public would ensure the victory of a ‘moderate’ (read right wing) candidate.
Imagine their baffled horror at the events of the last 12 months!!!
In the early 90’s Tony Blair himself was a vigorous advocate of ‘mass membership’ of the Party. For Blair, “An increased membership, one that was in some generalised sense different to past memberships, was a fundamental way of revitalising Labour. For Blair, getting people to join was not just a statistical exercise, it was a means of recasting the party altogether.”*
In a 1999 pamphlet for Progress, Phil Wilson outlined the Sedgefield model in detail emphasising a focus on ‘traditional hard working communities.’ ‘Tony Blair believed that the party had to become less introspective and more community focused, with a mass membership making it more representative,’ he wrote. *
For Blair, having a mass membership was a way of locating the party in the community and avoiding the extremism of the past, which could be blamed, in part at any rate, on supposedly unrepresentative activists taking control. He concluded, ‘We have to represent communities and have roots in them.’*
Gordon Brown even got in on the act writing a pamphlet, Making Mass Membership Work, in 1993, and telling John Humphreys, ‘in my constituency the membership’s trebled. If you go out and talk to people, if you get out and visit people, if you knock on doors and explain your message, people will join.’ Even as late as 2007 Brown wrote in a Progress pamphlet: ‘every local party should involve local organisations and individuals with our shared values in our debates.’ * (Exactly one of the things Momentum is berated for because it is claimed it facilitates entryism).
Suddenly for the Labour Party ‘political debate, socials and even barbecues were the order of the day!’ and it was all about ‘the members’; ‘one member, one vote’ was the defining Blairite slogan in the early days.
As a result, between 1994 and 1997 Party membership had increased spectacularly, reaching just over four hundred thousand.
But this increase in membership was part of deliberate campaign to transform the ‘character’ of the Labour Party and to shift it to the right. And by the time New Labour were elected in 1997, the Party had indeed been transformed; no longer a party of the working class, ‘New’ Labour was now a party of the liberal, metropolitan, middle-class.
There had been a sort of ‘ideological cleansing’ of the membership, as many long-time, working class members associated with the so-called hard left, were expelled or resigned from the Party, and were replaced with new, almost exclusively middle-class, soft-left members.
To me this begs the question of who actually ‘infiltrated’ the Party, the left or the right? Who were the ‘entryists’? The Militant Tendency or the Blairite metropolitan, liberal, elite who took over the Party and remade it in their own image?
But hilariously it turned out that eventually Blairism shifted too far to the right for even these soft-left, metropolitan, liberals, especially after the Iraq War, and between May 1997 when Tony Blair’s ‘New’ Labour Party was elected to office and 2009 when Blair stood down, Labour Party membership had declined again by 40%.
As Blair drifted further and further to the right and even the new members failed to support him, the Blairites reimagined the Party as a ‘partyless democracy’; a Party without any active members. The National Policy Forum replaced Conference as the seat of policy making and a sort of Soviet style ‘democratic centralism’ replaced Party democracy. Party members could not be trusted to ‘make the correct decisions’ and it was regarded as dangerous to allow them to even discuss, let alone determine, policy; the only function of Party members was as foot soldiers at election time.
This shift to the right was presented as an issue of ‘electability’, the implication being that of course secretly everyone in the Labour Party wants to see increased spending on schools, the NHS and care for the elderly, and that everyone would like to see nuclear disarmament and equality for all, but that these policies are simply not ‘sellable’ to the electorate and thus we need to enact a sort of deceit whereby we ‘pretend’ to be right wing but really we’re all ‘true’ Labour really.
Apart from the fact that if it were true this would be a disgracefully anti-democratic way to carry on, it’s also manifestly nonsense. The reason the Blairites wanted to push Labour to the right was that they themselves are of the right; they accept the basic premises of neoliberal capitalism and the TINA narrative, and believe like most modern professional politicians of all parties, and most of the media, that the function of modern governments, democratic or otherwise, is to ‘manage’ the decline of the public sector and to get out of the way of big business, who are the real wealth creators and who actually rule the world. Sure these professional politicians convince themselves that they are motivated by the desire to ‘serve’ or to ‘make a difference’, but in reality they have accepted the rules of the game as defined by the existing elite, and that politics is only ‘the art of the possible,’ and that therefore politics is really no different from any other professional middle-class career, and thus it is perfectly reasonable for professional politicians to concern themselves primarily with their own personal quest for status, power and wealth, which are entirely dependent upon maintaining the status quo with regard to existing power structures and wealth distribution.
And then along comes Corbyn and cocks it all up by appealing to hundreds of thousands of people who are willing to join the Labour Party not because he is a nice, moderate, professional, right-wing candidate but because he is genuinely and unapologetically of the left! The professional politicians and the commentariat didn’t even know so many of us existed and have been entirely wrong-footed by our emergence. ‘This isn’t how its meant to be.’ they cry! We had ‘calculated’ and ‘triangulated’ all this and you people shouldn’t exist… And yet we do.
The only response from the entire political elite, including the press, has been to insult us. According to them we are all stupid, easily manipulated, anti-Semitic, violent, foul-mouthed, loony Trots; the Nazi storm-troopers of a disgraceful, illegitimate take-over of the lovely, civilised, rational, professional, middle-class institution that is the ‘New’ Labour Party.
There has been almost no attempt in the press to examine why so many of us are so committed to this cause. No attempt to examine what the appeal of Corbyn is, nor why his policies are so attractive to so many. There has been no attempt to actually find out who these ‘new’ Labour Party members are; simply a rhetorical assumption that they must all be raving loonies from ‘the bad old days’ or naive youthful idiots manipulated by Soviet style propoganda.
It is clear that the entire political class is completely baffled by the Corbyn phenomenon and has no conceptual framework through which to view it rationally. And almost all the calculations and assumptions the PLP and Labour Party bureaucracy have made about how the Labour Party could move forward successfully after Blair, have turned out to be miscalculations, and in their shock their only response is to seek to demonise and insult their own membership and corruptly suspend and expel as many of us as they can.
I personally can’t see how this is going to pan out and to be honest I’m not hopeful, at least in the mid-term, what I do know is that these months and years will define the Labour Party for at least a generation and marks a sea change in British politics that the political class have not yet even begun to come to terms with.
* See Pemberton, H. R., & Wickham-Jones, M. (2013). Labour’s lost grassroots: The rise and fall of party membership. British Politics, 8(2), 181-206. 10.1057/bp.2012.27