Who are the members of the Labour Party?

As the Labour leadership election heats up, we look at the divisions between Labour members and voters.

Remember Labour’s posters in the 2010 campaign – the ones with David Cameron as Gene Hunt from Ashes to Ashes? Remember the strapline – ‘don’t let him take Britain back to the 1980s’? Well, it looks as if Cameron has succeeded – at least in taking the Labour Party back to the 1980s. The leadership campaign took a sour turn following a YouGov poll for the Times last week, presaged by an article in the New Statesman advertising Jeremy Corbyn’s growing support among party members and registered supporters.  

The Islington North MP has captured the imagination of many, it seems, with his clarion calls against Conservative austerity, and his firm left-wing record, including continued support for nationalisations of major industries. The sense of panic given off by more moderate and right-wing members of the party has only encouraged commentators and pundits to search for where, when, how, and why Labour might split. The current speculation suggests it would an SDP-style split, with Labour modernisers hitting the road following a Corbyn-victory. But the split, in truth, is already there. It is a fundamental divide in the background, outlook, and philosophy between Labour members and Labour voters.

Where is the Party?

Tim Bale and Paul Webb have produced an excellent summary of a survey of Labour Party members conducted in May 2015 after the General Election. Taken with other information we have about Labour voters, it suggest that voters and members are badly mismatched across the country and disagree profoundly on major issues such as immigration and welfare.

London holds a fifth of the party’s members, but that is not really an issue. Labour has 45 MPs in London, almost exactly one-fifth of its 232 total. The problem is just outside. Nearly a third of members ‘live in Southern England outside the capital’.

Labour holds just 8 of 139 seats in this same area. This means a huge chunk of the membership represents areas where Labour has few voters and no MPs.  Other areas with much stronger Labour voters and many more seats to defend and target, particularly the West Midlands and Yorkshire, have much lower representation in the membership, and thus the leadership election.

Members without voters is a recipe for purity politics and losing touch with the concerns of the electorate. Voters without members is a recipe for rotting CLPs, underperforming councils, and a sense of disaffection and neglect. UKIP’s strong showing in South Yorkshire is the most emphatic, but by no means the only, demonstration of this trend.

Who is the Party?

Labour members and voters are also separated by a class divide. As Ipsos-Mori’s fascinating How Britain Voted 2015 displays, class divisions in voting between Labour and the Conservatives are very much alive. But they are also alive within Labour. Bale and Webb found that just over two-thirds of Labour members could be classified as ABC1s (and 56% were university graduates).

Ipsos-Mori founds that 26% of ABs and 29% of C1s voted Labour in May. Just under one-third of Labour members were C2s and DEs: 32% and 41% of these groups voted Labour respectively.

Again, the members who are choosing the leader are highly unrepresentative of the voters that leader will rely upon. It also suggests that they are more removed from the concerns of key Labour, and swing, demographics. The members are unlikely to feel as exposed to the effects of high immigration, or to understand the voters’ more nuanced views on welfare policy.

What does the Party think?

The numbers indicate that is the case. Bale and Webb’s article reveals that eight in ten members believe that immigration has been good for the British economy. A YouGov poll from October 2013 revealed that 74% of Labour voters believed the last Labour Government had let immigration get too high. Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy highlighted this tension, which has only intensified as immigration rises once again. The ‘controls on immigration’ mugs may have offended many party members and MPs, both left-wingers and modernisers, but the message was unlikely to offend Labour voters.

Similarly, the polls suggest members have responded to Corbyn’s denunciations of the Government’s welfare policies and want rigid opposition to the welfare bill. The Labour voters have perhaps a slightly different position. A 2013 YouGov poll suggested that while Labour voters have less stringent views overall on welfare, 71% supported the benefit cap (and 77% of C2DEs overall). A further 39% thought the benefits system overall was too generous. Interestingly, UKIP voters, who are most strongly represented in the C2 and DEs, have even more hardline views on welfare.

George Osborne and David Cameron know that Labour is not well positioned to respond to a message that emphasise the dignity of work over welfare dependence and limiting immigration. Even on austerity, the Times (p.8, 23 July 2015) reported that 60% of Labour members thought the failure ‘to provide a clear enough alternative to the austerity policies of the coalition’ was one of the biggest reasons Labour lost in May, while just 37% of Labour voters agreed.

The Challenge

In essence, Labour members seek a principled alternative to fight against an ideological attack on the welfare state. Labour voters want a Government that will give them security in a world moving ever faster.

The ultimate problem for Labour is this. Its members are mainly well-educated, reasonably well-off, comfortable with higher immigration and at ease with Britain as a multicultural, globalised society and economy. Its voters are less well-educated, less-well off, less at ease with the pace of immigration and cultural change in this country, and vulnerable in a global economy in which they have not been equipped with adequate skills. Increasingly, they represent two different faces of modern Britain, but co-exist within the same party.

It is the members who can pick the next Leader. It is the voters who can pick the next Government.