While now mostly forgotten, one of the key early aims of Tony Blair’s leadership was to turn Labour into a genuine mass membership party. Yet despite a brief burst of success, the New Labour era ended with a grassroots moribund and disillusioned. Retracing this story can not only help us understand how Labour’s disconnect from its former heartlands came about, but how Keir Starmer’s current leadership risks making the party’s position even worse.
The idea of the mass party had been popular among the ‘soft left’ throughout the 1980s, and was frequently offered by later New Labour stalwarts like Gordon Brown and John Prescott as a solution to the party’s electoral woes. Complimenting the work of influential political scientists like Patrick Seyd and Paul Whitely (the former himself a soft left Labour activist in the early ’80s), the belief was that a higher party membership had a positive correlation to electoral performance. More members meant more activists at election time, and a greater connection to the community they were active in. In fact, so convinced was he of its potential to solve Labour’s problems that, by 1993, Tony Blair had embarked on a mass recruitment scheme in his own constituency of Sedgefield.
The later-nicknamed ‘Sedgefield model’ of recruitment was a profound success for the party at a local level, increasing membership to an astounding 2,000 at a time when the average size of a CLP was 470. By allowing members to pay whatever they could afford in subs, a key financial restraint was removed. Meanwhile, the party shifted away from off-putting CLP meetings to focus instead on social events within the wider community. The local party hosted barbeques, with Blair frequently spotted politely munching on a burger, and most famously opened the Trimdon Labour Club, a former working-men’s bar repurposed to encapsulate the community-orientated politics of early New Labour. It was also where Blair first announced his candidacy for leader in 1994.
Upon taking the leadership, Blair oversaw a sensational increase in the party’s membership nationally. From the low point of just over a quarter of a million in 1993, by 1997 the party membership was over 400,000. That same year, as Blair made his victory speech at Trimdon Labour Club on the night of Labour’s landslide victory, it could well be argued that Labour’s new mass membership had demonstrated its electoral power.
More Than Members
However, the early Blair did not see the mass membership’s role as simply that of activist foot soldiers. He saw in it a way of reshaping Labour’s entire ideology, and cementing his power. By attracting new members previously unattached to the party, he believed Labour would become more representative of the wider electorate, abandoning the supposed extremism of the past and shifting the party’s internal centre of gravity closer to that of the middle ground of politics.
Instead of believing the party ought to integrate into the community to better spread its message, he saw the Sedgefield model as a way of dissolving any distinction between the party’s ideology and his perception views of the views of the wider community – a combination of pro-market economics and socially conservative attitudes.
For a time, filling the party with new members also proved important to Blair’s personal support base. The symbolic abandonment of public ownership seen with the re-writing of Clause IV in 1994 was identified by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys as made possible by this new influx of members, while the decision to hold the vote as a party referendum rather than through the traditional procedures of party conference avoided opposition and consolidated Blair’s increasingly presidential authority.
After these first early victories, however, New Labour’s relationship with the membership quickly turned sour. While many of the new members were first attracted to the party by Blair’s new leadership, his continued shift to the right ideologically, and centralisation of party democracy, tested such loyalties.
From the heights of 1997, the party membership would suffer a continuous decline for 12 years due to a mix of growing membership costs (the ‘pay what you can’ strategy proving unsustainable) and political disillusionment. To a large extent, this was determined by New Labour’s culture of ‘control freakery’ in internal management and its concomitant impacts on party democracy.
Elections to the NEC in 1998 saw a concerted campaign by party staff loyal to Blair to block the democratic election of left-wing members of the Grassroots Alliance, involving vast election expenditure, the personal intervention of then General Secretary Tom Sawyer, and the last-minute change of voting procedure to allow voting by phone. This was widely interpreted by members as an attack on their position within the party, and could probably be said to be the beginning of the profound wave of demoralisation which soon swept the party.
The signs were there by 1999, when many party activists first sat out the campaigns for European Parliament elections and the elections to the new devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, leading to underwhelming returns. The activist ‘strike’ was interpreted by some as a protest against the leadership-imposed candidates selected to reward pro-Blair loyalists and punish left-leaning but often popular candidates, most famously the self-professed ‘classic Labour’ Welsh politician Rhodri Morgan.
The transparent fixing that saw Ken Livingstone denied the Labour nomination for Mayor of London, despite overwhelming popularity among the membership, would see activists decamp en masse to his independent campaign, many of whom would be expelled or formally leave the party as a result – even if they often eventually found their way back.
While Blair had once seen a large and empowered party membership as integral to Labour’s electoral success, upon taking office, a yawning disconnect between the New Labour government and the grassroots now made the membership a potential source of opposition rather than support. In response, far from trying to grow or strengthen the membership further, New Labour’s priority became greater control and marginalisation.
Disappointments with New Labour’s economic policies, its failure to renationalise the railways, its acceptance of even further privatisation in education and healthcare, its continued hostility to the trade unions and, eventually, the moral outrage at the disastrous invasion of Iraq would ensure that hundreds of thousands abandoned the party in the next ten years.
Some would go on to join other parties (the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, Lib Dems, various unsuccessful left-wing alternatives – and even, in some cases, the BNP and UKIP), while others would redirect their activism to trade unions or the single-issue campaigns against globalisation, war, and later, austerity. For many others, the alternative to Labour was total disillusionment and political disengagement. By 2009, the last time party membership was recorded while Labour was in government, the party membership had fallen to just over 150,000.
Despite a brief uptick after the 2010 general election, Labour’s membership remained tiny in comparison to the heights of the 1990s, concentrated largely in London. It was truly dismal not only in traditionally non-Labour areas in the South and West Midlands, but also in the former heartlands, not least in Scotland. The signs of Labour’s current existential crisis north of the border could be seen in membership figures before it was ever present in electoral politics.
In what we now call the ‘Red Wall’ this was also the case. Membership withered on the vine progressively since 1997 until most heartland seats could only count a few hundred in their ranks at most – and a far smaller active base. Symbolically, nine years before Blair’s own constituency of Sedgefield fell to the Tories in 2019, the Trimdon Labour Club was forced to close due to a huge decline in custom.
The insurgent leadership campaign of Jeremy Corbyn in the summer of 2015 saw a brief reversal of this decline. While the £3 supporters scheme rolled out by Harriet Harman was envisioned as a way of once again engaging a more centrist and ‘representative’ electorate, instead, hundreds of thousands of former members and activists from wider campaigns and social movements flocked to the party.
The party membership soared to over half a million throughout Corbyn’s leadership, and at its height was the largest social-democratic party in Europe – and that membership, enthusiastic and engaged, was integral to the 2017 election campaign which defied the odds in denying Theresa May a majority. Arguably, there is more in common between 1997 and 2017 than many in the party would be willing to admit.
Just as Alex Niven has argued that Blairism offers us no rewarding blueprint for future Labour success, its legacy of party management is a similar dead end. While early appeals to a mass membership were successful and admirable, the paranoia of the New Labour machine and its ideological commitment to soft neoliberalism saw hundreds of thousands leave the party and set in motion a process of political alienation that has already lost the party many of its heartlands.
Corbynism, it should be said, did too little to reverse this trend – but it was the first sign in the years since the early Blair leadership that mass membership might be a real possibility once again. Alas, although peak Corbyn years saw lofty talk of a million or more Labour Party members, 2019 saw the beginning of a decline and it now looks likely that 100,000 or more have left in the period since Keir Starmer’s election.
Under New Labour, the loss of party members was crippling both financially and organisationally, leaving local parties up and down the country crumbling and disconnected from the communities they aimed to represent. In today’s Labour Party, Keir Starmer’s continued decision to ride roughshod over the views of members on policy, party management and the selection of candidates risks repeating the same mistakes of Blair and New Labour after 1997.
By marginalising and demoralising Labour’s base, the party is wasting one of its most valuable resources. Starmer risks undoing the gains Corbyn made in revitalising the party as a political force beyond Westminster, one which at least aspired towards a tangible presence in British society.
If current poll numbers are accurate, and the local elections produce disappointing results, the question of Labour’s relationship with its members must be raised again. Without the activists inspired and willing to take Labour’s message to the wider community, the party has little hope of electoral success any time soon.