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How middle class are Labour’s new members?

Are those who joined for Jeremy Corbyn more or less affluent than the party’s previous membership base?

Labour’s influx of new members is overwhelmingly middle-class, according to MPs and leaked party documents. But is this true? Does it matter? And what’s it got to do with Jeremy Corbyn?

The numbers

The Labour party currently has over 380,000 members. This is a substantial leap from its figure going into the general election, which was just under 200,000 full members. It now has more members than the Tories, Lib Dems and the SNP combined.

After the general election, but prior to the leadership election, Labour had around 270,000 members, according to an August 2015 House of Commons Library document. Following Corbyn’s election win in September, the figure surged to 352,000 (not including the 260,000 affiliated members and registered supporters who voted in the leadership election for a £3 fee).

In October last year, Labour said 183,658 people had joined the party since 5 May; membership had roughly doubled in the months since the party’s general election defeat.

So we’re dealing with about 183-184,000 new members, and we can assume that the vast majority of them joined because of the new party leader. But who are they, and are they chiefly middle-class?

What we know so far

As the party doesn’t publish the breakdown of new members for each constituency, it is difficult to get hard facts about who, and how many, have joined – and which local constituency party they are a member of.

However, some information about the new members has trickled through. Last week, the Guardian received internal party data revealing that a disproportionate number of Labour members who have joined since the 2015 general election are “high-status city dwellers”. The leaked document also showed the party gaining fewer members in rural areas, among the elderly, and from people who are less well-off.

A summary of the report – commissioned internally, analysing 80 per cent of the party’s membership – concluded:

“Groups which are over-represented as Labour party members tend to be long-term homeowners from urban areas (particularly inner city area) who have high levels of disposable income.

“Those who are under-represented tend to be either young singles/families who rent properties on a short-term basis and require financial assistance or those who live in rural communities.”

The report says the party has 36,646 members categorised as “city prosperity”, 19,917 of whom have joined since the general election.

Research carried out by the Financial Times at the end of the last year yielded similar results. Using information from party officials and local party representatives, it reported that, “Labour has attracted ten times as many new members in London than in Scotland since May’s general election”, with the party now deriving more than 20 per cent of its membership from the capital (nearly double the proportion in 1992).

And the vocal backbencher and MP for Bassetlaw – a safe Labour seat with former coalmining areas – John Mann has been doing his own digging around. From speaking to fellow MPs, parliamentary staff, party members and local constituency representatives, he backs up how London-centric the membership surge has been.

He recently wrote up some of his findings, revealing: “One street in Islington North, with owner-occupiers living in multi-million pound properties, had 40 people over a 12-week period join the party.”

In the same piece, Mann claimed, “membership [of the Labour party] is now higher in the average Tory heartland seat than in the average Labour heartland seat. Within heartland areas it is again overwhelmingly the middle classes who have joined”.

When I ask about his research, he gives examples from his own constituency:

“We've got some full-time artists as members, which is great,” he says. “But I’m not aware of any building workers joining. Whereas we’ve got very, very, very many times more building workers than artists in this area.

“I don't have many Tory wards in my constituency but the Tory wards have got many more new members than the safest Labour wards. Now, what you'd expect is the opposite. You’d expect where we’ve got most votes, that’s where you get more people joining.”

He compares his CLP to those in London: “9,000 members in Islington. 9,000. You can take a swathe of the North of England and there aren’t that many members. A whole swathe of it. We have about 600.”

Similar observations have been made by others across the country about the demographic of new members. For example, I hear that in Islington North, Corbyn’s constituency, there are more new members from owner-occupier housing than the council estates.

And Jack Scott, a Labour councillor in Sheffield and former Labour parliamentary candidate, recently made similar observations about the new party members:

“Talking to colleagues across the country, it certainly appears that the Party across England is becoming more like the Party in London. The vast majority of new members come from the middle classes, the public sector and BAME communities, all sharing a distinctly cosmopolitan outlook. This makes perfect sense, of course – polling suggests these groups are least likely to be concerned about immigration and most concerned by cuts to the public sector. So they’re much more likely to be attracted to Jeremy Corbyn’s clear policy approach in these areas.”

The Corbyn class?

So we can say, with patchy but corroborating evidence, that these new members are generally quite affluent people. And we know that the election of Jeremy Corbyn led to a huge surge in people joining, or re-joining, the Labour party.

But that doesn’t mean he is the cause of Labour becoming more middle-class. Party members always tend to be more middle-class; there are simply more middle-class people, and fewer working-class people, in modern Britain; and Labour’s narrowing appeal is nothing new.

The Commons Library document from August makes the point that party membership is usually, particularly nowadays, middle-class:

“Membership of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat parties is disproportionately high among men, the retired and those with professional or managerial status, compared to the electorate as a whole.”

And this has always been the case.

Then there’s the fact that Britain is becoming more middle-class. As the nature of work has changed over the decades, fewer people can be categorised as traditionally working-class. The “blue-collar” demographic Labour could once rely on no longer exists as a reliable voting bloc.

As it spooked purists in the New Labour era, and was a constant theme under Ed Miliband, we can’t say that Labour losing its grip on its dwindling traditional base is a Corbyn-inflicted problem. And there shouldn’t be any such thing as an unwanted voter, or an unwanted party member. It shouldn’t matter that Labour is gaining much of its new-found support from affluent people per se. It’s the lack of social and geographical balance that worries MPs the most.

As Mann tells me: “The danger is, under the current system, that Islington North will have ten times the influence that we have. And that's a recipe for disaster . . . if the party’s social make up is hugely unrepresentative of the people we need to vote for us, that is a major problem.

“It's not a new trend. However, the danger is that our decisions will be made by the London middle classes.”

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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