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6 July 2016

Labour membership surges by 100,000. What does it mean?

The membership boost is, inevitably, being seen through the prism of the ongoing power struggle. 

By Stephen Bush

100,000 people have applied to join the Labour party, reports Ned Simons over at the Huffington Post. As ever, the news is being framed through the prism of Labour’s running stand-off between loyalists and rebels. A couple of thoughts:

Both sides have been recruiting

At the last leadership election, Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign was the only one of the four campaigns to really put any effort into expanding the electorate, while the campaigns of Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall concentrated on winning over the existing electorate. (With, it has to be said, fairly limited success on the part of all three.)

This time, it’s different. Both Momentum, the continuation of Corbyn’s leadership campaign, and Saving Labour – a new grouping that is being funded by the party’s centre-left – are putting serious effort into signing-up new people.

The Labour left’s social media outreach is more advanced…

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There is a story – probably apocryphal but certainly relatively well-travelled among Labour staffers – that when Karim Palant, formerly Ed Balls’ head of policy but now at Facebook, was asked by the then-shadow chancellor if he should set up a Facebook page, told him it wasn’t worth the time.

Regardless of its provenance, it speaks to an undeniable truth – that the Labour left is streets ahead of the centre-left as far as social media – and Facebook in particular – is concerned.

There are a number of pro-Corbyn Facebook pages that are the result of years’ work. The reach of the loyalist camp is undeniably greater than that of the rebels, at least at present.

…but they may have hit “peak Corbyn”

That said, the left’s advantage is double-edged. Having already spent one summer recruiting, and much longer building a following on Facebook and Twitter, we may be nearing what one MP jokingly called “peak Trot” as far as the recruitment of Labour-sympathetic Corbyn-supporting voters is concerned.

The rebels, however, are just getting started.

Demographics favour Corbynism

That said, I doubt that we have hit “peak Corbyn” or anything like it.

There is a fairly arid debate about whether Labour has “become more middle-class” under Corbyn. Party membership has always been a fairly middle-class pastime in Britain, with a large trade union movement providing the link to Labour’s other core. The trade union movement is now rather smaller and the country has got more middle-class. It’s a bit like asking whether climate change has got worse under Corbyn.

That said, Corbyn does do best in the areas that trend Labour but have large proportions of middle-class socially-concerned graduates, as I’ve written before. Broadly, Corbyn is popular with the type of people who are most likely to join a leftwing political party so one assumes that more members, on the whole, are likely to benefit him.

It may have nothing to do with Corbyn or his rivals, but the European Union

The Liberal Democrats have also enjoyed a post-referendum surge in support, increasing their membership by around 30 per cent. Labour’s membership surge? Around 30 per cent.