How the Lib Dems tried to hide the fall in their membership

After membership rose in 2013, the party claims that it has "increased its membership while in power", ignoring the 34% decline since 2010.

The Lib Dems are busy trumpeting the news that their membership has risen in the last year describing themselves as "the first governing party in recent history to have increased its membership while in power". But probe a little and that claim turns out to be as misleading as one of their by-election graphs.

Party membership increased by more than 2,000 in the last quarter of the year, resulting in a net increase of 200 for 2013. The Independent describes this as "an achievement not matched by their Conservative coalition partners who have seen steep falls in paid membership since 2010." But what neither the paper nor the party mentions is that the 200 increase only comes after the Lib Dems suffered the biggest decline of all. As I've previously reported, membership fell from 65,038 in 2010 to 42,501 in 2012, a fall of 35% and the lowest annual figure in the party's 23-year history. An increase of 200 means that the rate of decline is now merely 34%.

One can hardly blame the Lib Dems for leaping on anything resembling good news, but the facts don't tell the story they want.

Update: In a response to me on Twitter, the Lib Dem press office says, "To be clear, we're up 7-800 in total in 2013, inc c2000 in Q4. And yes, 1st governing party to increase members over a year."

That's certainly clearer than the original tweet, which was ambiguous at best. Had I not known the figures, I (and many others) would have assumed membership had increased since 2010.

Nick Clegg speaks at the Liberal Democrat conference in Glasgow earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the shadow cabinet forced Jeremy Corbyn not to change Labour policy on Syria air strikes

Frontbenchers made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the leader backed down. 

Jeremy Corbyn had been forced to back down once before the start of today's shadow cabinet meeting on Syria, offering Labour MPs a free vote on air strikes against Isis. By the end of the two-hour gathering, he had backed down twice.

At the start of the meeting, Corbyn's office briefed the Guardian that while a free would be held, party policy would be changed to oppose military action - an attempt to claim partial victory. But shadow cabinet members, led by Andy Burnham, argued that this was "unacceptable" and an attempt to divide MPs from members. Burnham, who is not persuaded by the case for air strikes, warned that colleagues who voted against the party's proposed position would become targets for abuse, undermining the principle of a free vote.

Jon Ashworth, the shadow minister without portfolio and NEC member, said that Labour's policy remained the motion passed by this year's conference, which was open to competing interpretations (though most believe the tests it set for military action have been met). Party policy could not be changed without going through a similarly formal process, he argued. In advance of the meeting, Labour released a poll of members (based on an "initial sample" of 1,900) showing that 75 per cent opposed intervention. 

When Corbyn's team suggested that the issue be resolved after the meeting, those present made it clear that they "would not leave the room" until the Labour leader had backed down. By the end, only Corbyn allies Diane Abbott and Jon Trickett argued that party policy should be changed to oppose military action. John McDonnell, who has long argued for a free vote, took a more "conciliatory" approach, I'm told. It was when Hilary Benn said that he would be prepared to speak from the backbenches in the Syria debate, in order to avoid opposing party policy, that Corbyn realised he would have to give way. The Labour leader and the shadow foreign secretary will now advocate opposing positions from the frontbench when MPs meet, with Corbyn opening and Benn closing. 

The meeting had begun with members, including some who reject military action, complaining about the "discorteous" and "deplorable" manner in which the issue had been handled. As I reported last week, there was outrage when Corbyn wrote to MPs opposing air strikes without first informing the shadow cabinet (I'm told that my account of that meeting was also raised). There was anger today when, at 2:07pm, seven minutes after the meeting began, some members received an update on their phones from the Guardian revealing that a free vote would be held but that party policy would be changed to oppose military action. This "farcical moment", in the words of one present (Corbyn is said to have been unaware of the briefing), only hardened shadow cabinet members' resolve to force their leader to back down - and he did. 

In a statement released following the meeting, a Corbyn spokesperson confirmed that a free vote would be held but made no reference to party policy: 

"Today's Shadow Cabinet agreed to back Jeremy Corbyn's recommendation of a free vote on the Government's proposal to authorise UK bombing in Syria.   

"The Shadow Cabinet decided to support the call for David Cameron to step back from the rush to war and hold a full two day debate in the House of Commons on such a crucial national decision.  

"Shadow Cabinet members agreed to call David Cameron to account on the unanswered questions raised by his case for bombing: including how it would accelerate a negotiated settlement of the Syrian civil war; what ground troops would take territory evacuated by ISIS; military co-ordination and strategy; the refugee crisis and the imperative to cut-off of supplies to ISIS."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.