'People Are Just Not Turning Up' – Why Labour's New Members Aren't Engaging With The Party
Whether out of apathy or intimidation, Corbynistas aren't transforming Labour's grassroots.
PLP, CLP, NEC, NPF: the Labour Party has a tendency to talk in acronyms. For years now, local party meetings have involved a mix of elderly people propped up with walking sticks and younger activists with clipboards sitting in half empty halls, listening to others bemoan about boundary changes and how to tackle the issue of dog shit on street corners. Abbreviations and jargon rule.
Six months ago with he leadership election, that was all supposed to have changed. Whole assembly rooms were packed full of enthusiastic newcomers, mostly under 30 and nearly all there to pledge their support for Jeremy Corbyn. He proudly declared: "Our campaign has awakened a real appetite for democratic engagement."
In some ways, that support for Corbyn seems as vehement as ever. The newly formed Labour movement Momentum, which claims to have between 90,000-100,000 supporters, is adamant that it will fend off any challenge to the leadership results in the May elections go badly for Corbyn. The group also swept the board at the party's youth elections, albeit on a very poor turnout.
But behind the scenes at constituency parties, new supporters seem reluctant to get involved with the new era they've created. The drudgery of monthly branch meetings has set in and most of these new members have stopped showing up, if they ever did.
"To be honest with you, when it comes to canvassing I haven't seen much of a change. There's a huge pool of young people out there and the party has doubled in size, but people are just not turning up," says Maryam Eslamdoust, a councillor for the Kilburn ward in Camden, who campaigns across North London. "Perhaps the new membership have been attending Momentum meetings. Maybe that's sucking them away from helping us out."
One party member who stood for election as an MP in a northern constituency and spent more than ten years in various voluntary positions in the party said he sometimes gets abusive emails when he contacts new members. They're generally along the lines of: "I just joined to vote for Jeremy Corbyn, stop f**king emailing me."
That said, the antipathy travels in both directions. Existing cliques at local party level are also said to be putting new members off. One North London councillor, who did not want to be named, explains, "There are a lot of hostile comments in meetings about new members all being useless. I don't think there would have been an absolute flood of new active members anyway, but I have seen local party officers being less than welcoming."
Branch members have cosy arrangements. They don't want that upset by newcomers.
This is partly factional, as some local branch members may be less into Corbyn than their new friends. There's also power at play, with members keen to keep hold of whatever influence they've built up for themselves. "Branch members have cosy arrangements. They know all the people who turn up for meeting and they are guaranteed to keep their position year after year. They don't want that upset by newcomers," says the councillor. "Some local branch officers have been completely stonewalling, others have been making it difficult for new members to get involved."
Eslamdoust agrees: "It's hard to navigate around party structures if you haven't been a party member for a long time. Constituency Labour Party meetings are structured in quite a hostile way, some with lists on the door for instance. Some people are even being denied attendance."
Others believe the media played up the archetype of the young Corbynista too much, while the return of ageing lefties is now making its mark. "Young people are one half of those that liked him, but the other half are sleeping Labour Party members or those who have been out for 20 years and are coming back now. They are more likely to come to meetings," says the councillor.
"In our meetings, there's been one or two that turn up at different times and then you never see them again," says one party member in Hackney South. "Often they'll say, 'oh, I just joined to vote for Jeremy', which is fine, but they don't seem to want to win council seats or the mayoral election. They're just concerned about Jeremy, it's all about him really."
He adds: "It's quite frustrating, really. These people are more interested in philosophical debates rather than what we can actually do. They don't even seem to like the party. They've made everything a bit more awkward. I think they get frustrated that no one wants to have a massive row with them, I think that's what they're looking for."
I don't think the Labour leadership elections has created a new paradigm in British politics... the culture of campaigning has not changed, it just hasn't.
Wes Streeting, the new Labour MP for Ilford North, has a more positive view on the new members, but says it's hard to turn their enthusiasm into action. "Our new member events have had good turnout, but it's hard to get them out knocking on doors and delivering leaflets and there are lots we haven't been able to mobilise at all," he says.
"I don't think the Labour leadership elections has created a new paradigm in British politics with young people all of a sudden wanting to be involved. We still face the same challenges. The winning candidate might have been able to pack assembly halls, but the culture of campaigning has not changed, it just hasn't. The overwhelming majority aren't involved."
It doesn't help that no one knows what the party message is. The lack of clear message around the EU campaign from Jeremy Corbyn has made it difficult for party activists on the doorstep. And the silence around other issues such as the junior doctors' strike is taking its toll on young supporters. "The party needs to agree a position and go on that and really cause the government some problems. We don't do that at the moment and we're missing easy shots. There's no kind of plan on individual issues, never mind on overarching issues," says one new party member.
Blairites who were only just holding on to their membership during the Ed Miliband years are also fed up. They're now beginning to walk away. Simon Evans, who has been a member since 2006 and regularly campaigning since 2011 says: "Some new members are turning up to meetings, but these 'Trots' don't understand the concept of door-knocking or phone-banking. To be honest i'm getting quite despondent about the party."
The member who stood for election as an MP in a northern constituency agrees: "It's a shame for people who've done their time and now it's not really going anywhere. Even I'm saying, is this where I want to spend the next five years, watching a leadership that is totally incompetent? Should I concentrate on other things, perhaps volunteering for a charity?"
Perhaps the new politics was never going to take off. Idealism is one thing, but the practicalities and real-politik of local parties are another. Lots of people want the Labour Party to change, but fewer, it seems, will put the work in to change the Labour Party.