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Britain’s Labour Party is seeing a flood of new members. That’s why it’s in such trouble.

- May 10, 2017
Jeremy Corbyn is the leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. (Reuters/Darren Staples)

Whether you look at the opinion polls or at the beating it’s just taken in a slew of local elections, Britain’s Labour Party is in a lot of trouble. Theresa May, the country’s Conservative prime minister, called for an early general election next month. Her opponent, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, looks set to lead his party to a historic defeat. Labour might be thrashed so badly that, in order to find a parallel, we might have to look beyond the 1980s, when Labour was regularly trounced by Margaret Thatcher, to the 1930s, when it was reduced to an impotent rump.

[interstitial_link url=”https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/europe/after-hard-left-turn-under-jeremy-corbyn-britains-labour-party-on-course-for-historic-defeat/2017/04/30/a4efcc68-29dd-11e7-9081-f5405f56d3e4_story.html?utm_term=.6a253799609e”]After hard-left turn under Jeremy Corbyn, Britain’s Labour Party on course for historic defeat[/interstitial_link]

Here’s the puzzle. The same Labour Party that is careening toward electoral disaster on June 8 has enjoyed amazing success in bringing in new members. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined the party since 2015, five years after it was voted out of office after 13 years in government. This is all the more extraordinary given a general trend of declining membership among European political parties.

So how can a party that is doing so well in adding to its membership be doing so badly in the polls? The answer is that attracting more members may be a curse rather than a blessing.

Here’s how Labour has grown

Last summer, Labour boasted around 550,000 members. It has lost some since but is around half a million strong. Many people joined to support Corbyn, the veteran leftist who caught everyone by surprise in the 2015 leadership contest and, with the support of even more new members, beat off a leadership challenge in 2016.

This is a big contrast with the Conservatives. Last time they provided us with a figure of their membership — something British parties aren’t obliged to do and prefer not to do unless their membership seems to be growing — they had around 140,000.

Political scientists aren’t sure that having more members helps parties win elections. The “ground game” – party activities on the ground, which often rely on party volunteers — might make a difference in districts where parties are evenly matched. But money may matter as much, if not more than members, especially as parties seem to be relying more and more on carefully targeted direct mail and digital advertising. Moreover, as we have recently shown, parties don’t always need to rely on members, as large numbers of people who aren’t paid-up members may often lend a hand come election time.

There may be another possibility — under some circumstances members, rather than being an asset to their party, may actually be a liability. Could membership growth and electoral decline have something to do with each other? This may help explain Labour’s current dilemma.

Labour party members look very different to average British voters

Labour Party members have probably always been further to the liberal left than the average British voter. Our research suggests that this is even more the case for those who joined the party after the 2015 general election. This matters because Labour, like many left-of-center parties, believes in intraparty democracy. Policy is set through a complex process involving a whole host of stakeholders (including the parliamentary party and affiliated trade unions). But ordinary party members have a much bigger say in deciding who will represent the party as general election candidates vying to become members of parliament (MPs).

This means that over time, Labour’s grass-roots activists can select candidates in their own image, potentially altering the composition of the parliamentary party (the PLP). That’s important, not just because it determines who gets to sell Labour’s policies to the public at election time but because, under the party’s rules, anyone who wants to stand for its leadership has to be nominated by a certain proportion of MPs to become a candidate that people can vote for.

But it’s once the list of candidates for Labour leader is finalized that the party’s ordinary members really do exercise power. Following changes put in place by Labour’s previous leader, Ed Miliband, it operates a full-blown “one-member-one-vote system,” which also, incidentally, gives a vote to “registered supporters” who pay a reduced fee.

How Jeremy Corbyn became Labour’s leader

It was this system which, to the horror of the bulk of Labour MPs, led to Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader back in 2015. When a bunch of them (some of whom later cursed themselves for what they did) agreed to nominate him to “widen the debate” in a nod to the party’s left-wing membership, they failed to foresee the risk they were running. By telling that membership what it wanted to hear, and by attracting new members into the party, Corbyn won the contest. The majority of MPs proceeded to vote no confidence in his leadership.  But, because he was the incumbent and therefore didn’t require their nominations, they could not exclude him from a second contest which took place in 2016 — a contest he won with an even bigger majority from an even bigger membership.

Corbyn’s views and demeanor have made him the least popular politician to have led the Labour Party since opinion polls begun. Even in a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, people look to leaders when they decide whom to vote for, creating big problems for the Labour Party’s electoral appeal.

Corbyn’s leadership is not the only problem

Labour’s problems are go much deeper than a leader who is adored by many party members but derided by many voters. As a superb new book discusses, they also face a seemingly inexorable decline in working class support.

Even so, Labour is in the kind of trouble it’s in at least partly because of the members it’s got. These members are middle class and well-educated, largely unworried about immigration, in favor of high taxes and big government, and still seemingly supportive of a leader who shares their values.

Corbyn unsurprisingly sees Labour’s large membership as a solution not a problem.  Grass roots left-wingers responded to Labour’s disastrous performance in last week’s local elections by claiming their sheer numbers and sheer enthusiasm would help turn things around and deliver victory for Labour on June 8. Their theory, then, will be tested very soon — and possibly to destruction.

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, co-directs an ESRC-funded project on UK party membership.  He tweets @proftimbale.