Fifteen months of Keir Starmer as Labour leader has led to much speculation about a fall in the party’s membership. We won’t know whether this is true until the comprehensive figures are published. But what can be revealed today is how the Labour membership has changed since Starmer’s victory. Who’s joined? Who’s left? And which faction now dominates?
In a party in which personalities often define the politics of its activists (read: Blairite, Brownite, Bennite, Corbynite), one indicator of an evolving membership could be in who its rank and file have an appreciation for. For example, in June, a YouGov poll found Labour members were just as favourable towards Tony Blair (55 per cent) as they were to Jeremy Corbyn (53 per cent). Favourability of Starmer, stood at 67 per cent, while those unfavourable in contrast was 31 per cent.
The figures for Blair and Corbyn represent a sharp departure from a similar poll in January 2020. At that time, 71 per cent of Labour members had a positive view of Corbyn, compared to only 37 per cent in the case of Blair.
But these data points can't tell you the whole story. Opinions change, after all. Curiously, though, Labour activists have told me of a significant turn in their local party’s membership as Corbyn supporters are replaced with Starmer ones. And according to the same YouGov poll of Labour members, these reports appear to be borne out by the data.
YouGov has a good record of projecting party leadership elections, so we can approach their sampling of Labour’s membership with confidence. At least 36 per cent of the Labour membership as of June 2021 told the pollster that they did not vote or were not eligible to vote in the party’s 2016 leadership election of 2016 (meaning 64 per cent recall having a vote). Only 8 per cent said the same of the 2020 leadership contest (meaning 92 per cent had a vote).
Of those that did vote, 65 per cent of the membership of June 2021 voted for Starmer in 2020, 21 per cent for Rebecca Long-Bailey and 14 per cent for Lisa Nandy. This is notably more favourable to Starmer than the actual leadership election last year, when he won 56 per cent of the vote and Long-Bailey won 28 per cent.
But in the case of the 2016 leadership election, 70 per cent of party members say they backed Corbyn while 30 per cent backed his rival Owen Smith. This is notably more pro-Corbyn than the actual result when 62 per cent backed the incumbent.
Now, before we draw conclusions, here’s the all-important health warning. When surveying a group of people, there’s a risk of recall bias as respondents either can’t fully remember how they voted or lie, so as to be seen to have supported the winner. Parties or candidates that win elections often appear to have won by a larger margin when voters are asked who they previously supported.
But false recall is proven to do little more than shift vote shares by a few percentage points, and here we see it shift, among a very logged-on electorate, by significantly more. As such, what we can conclude from these figures is that those who supported Starmer last year play a larger role today in Labour’s membership than they did in April 2020. The membership of today may still lean left but it is less shaped by the defining battles of the Corbyn years simply, in a significant number of cases, by virtue of not being there.