About halfway through Our Friends in the North, the epic BBC drama set over 31 years in the lives of a group of friends from Newcastle, there is an illuminating exchange between Nicky, a disillusioned leftie played by Christopher Eccleston, and Geordie, a guileless bruiser played by Daniel Craig. Reunited in Soho, their conversation turns to Mary, Nicky’s childhood sweetheart. Geordie – a close friend of Tosker, Mary’s boneheaded husband – reveals she has joined the Labour Party. “You mean she’s doing party work or something? Has she stood for election?” asks Nicky. “I dunno,” says Geordie. “It drives Tosker round the bend, whatever it is.”
The scene reflects an enduring ignorance. Who would join a political party? What exactly is it that their members do? And what drives them to spend drizzly Saturday mornings doing it? Footsoldiers, a timely and revealing new study by the academics Tim Bale, Paul Webb and Monica Poletti, seeks to provide answers.
In recent decades, those questions became relevant to fewer and fewer people. From a high of about four million in the early 1950s, the combined membership of Labour and the Conservatives had dwindled to around 350,000 in 2014. The decline looked inexorable, as it was elsewhere in Europe. Class identity, traditionally the defining force of British politics, had waned. Five years ago, party membership looked to be going the same way as Morris dancing or bridge: a hobbyist pursuit understood only by a dedicated (and dying) demographic.
Times have changed. Membership has spiked since 2014, and the small but growing minority who pay subs to a party now enjoy an outsized prominence in British politics. In July, Boris Johnson became the first prime minister to be elected by party members – 139,318 of them, a few dozen shy of the population of Bolton. Jeremy Corbyn owes everything to the Labour grass-roots, who elected him leader twice and may yet change his party for ever. And whatever decisions MPs end up taking on Brexit will be influenced by how their members – without whose approval they cannot stand for parliament in the first place – might react.
Yet often politicians and the media seem only to engage with these important questions in bad faith. Members exist as caricatures: Labour’s are millennial Marxists, Tories are blue-rinsed geriatrics who long for the return of the death penalty.
Webb, Bale and Poletti reveal that neither bears much resemblance to the truth. Theirs is the first in-depth look at the memberships of Britain’s six biggest parties: Labour, the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats, the Scottish National Party, the Greens and Ukip. It is slim but rich in detail, and its results confound stereotype – or, in some cases, ground prejudices in reality. For instance, we learn, unsurprisingly, that Tories tend to live in the south and that Labour members are more likely to work in the public sector. Unfortunately, exactly what the authors are trying to tell us is occasionally hard to discern. The prose can be chewy and the tide of jargon overwhelms: one subheading warns that we are about to “locate party members in one- and two-dimensional attitudinal space”. The interested laymen to whom this book is pitched might struggle as much as the scholar.
Ukip’s inclusion – coming as it does after the departure of Nigel Farage and most of its voters – also feels anachronistic, though this is no fault of the authors (and the party does still boast tens of thousands of members). Although they avoid the sins of the assumption-heavy and research-light reportage to which their book is such a refreshing corrective, sometime it is hard to escape the feeling one gets from pulpy political biography – that some of the conclusions have already been undermined by events. To their credit, the authors do acknowledge this truth. “The trouble with writing about politics,” they note, “is that things can change so fast.”
Arguably, we learn most from the things that do not change from party to party. Members have plenty in common with each other. As a whole, they are older and richer than those who do not join. They are socially liberal and not especially ideological. The vast majority join not because they want to become MPs, but because they believe in their party, its leader and their ability to change things: hence the surge in SNP membership after the 2014 referendum on Scottish independence, or the hundreds of thousands of sign-ups to Labour under Corbyn (a rare similarity with Tony Blair). Others might be motivated to oppose a particular candidate in a leadership election they sense is coming, as was the case for the Conservatives this year. In the case of Labour members – who are over-represented in southern seats they have no hope of winning – it is often because they want to oppose the Tories. They quit, by and large, when they stop believing, as shown by the steady stream of resignations over Corbyn’s Brexit policy and alleged anti-Semitism. And often they come back.
Members also have the means to make good on their idealistic ambitions. Their education tends to be better than voters’ – nearly twice as many (51 per cent) are graduates – and they are seven times less likely to read the Sun. As some on the left are wont to complain, they are also much whiter than the country at large: only 4 per cent are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to a fifth of voters. Most strikingly, around a quarter of them are also members of the National Trust. It is hard to escape the conclusion that British politics is a middle-class voluntocracy: a politics run by “a bunch of people who like joining things”, regardless of their party allegiance. They show that ours is still a politics of class – albeit largely just one class.
Is the surge good news for parties? Though members provide a campaign infrastructure, cash and free labour, relatively few become activists – and the percentage who put in serious hours for their parties has fallen since 2015. As their grass-roots become maler, paler, older and richer, parties are looking less and less like their voters, and, indeed, the country they aspire to govern. We do not yet know whether young people will join as they get older.
Footsoldiers should give those who prescribe more power for members as a cure for political ills pause for thought. In the past, such moves have seldom had the effects desired. Just ask Ed Miliband, who rewrote Labour’s leadership election rules to give grass-roots members and registered supporters more power than left-wing unions – a decision that accidentally delivered Jeremy Corbyn. But it would be particularly unwise to do so at a time when the priorities of members are diverging from those of their leaders and the electorate, particularly on Brexit. Representative democracies founder when their parties cease to be representative. What the grassroots have given to Corbyn and Johnson, they may yet take away.
Footsoldiers: Political Party Membership in the 21st Century
Tim Bale, Paul Webb, Monica Poletti
Routledge, 216pp, £19.99
This article appears in the 11 Sep 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron’s legacy of chaos