The Labour Party is for Life, not just for Christmas

By Cllr Sam Stopp / @CllrStopp

Sam Stopp is a Labour councillor in the London Borough of Brent and the Chair of the Labour Campaign to End Homelessness

We live under neoliberalism. This is sad, but true. Indeed, neoliberalism is now so ubiquitous that it seems to have infected our Socialism. So much so, in fact, that some on the ‘left’ seem content to treat the Labour Party as a disposable item, a plaything, or even an amusement. And this presents a grave danger to the future of left politics in this country.

During the Labour leadership election last year, many new members and supporters openly and publicly stated that if the result did not go the way they hoped it would, they would walk away from the party. Indeed, since Jeremy’s election, several thousand people have left the party, although their number is of course dwarfed by the continually growing legions of new entrants.

I for one am confident that had Jeremy not won the Labour leadership, our party would not have seen the remarkable swelling in its ranks that it has in fact witnessed. I am confident, too, that had Jeremy fallen short, many who had signed up either as new members or as supporters would simply have melted away. And this points to a curious attitude among this country’s politically-interested which I believe is relatively new. And not just new, but fascinating.

Consider the facts of Labour Party membership. The 380,000 or so members Labour now has are dwarfed historically by the one million members the party had in 1952, when the UK population was much smaller and when the relative size of the party was therefore even more remarkable. This was in an age of mass parties when the Tory Party was also an enormous beast, far larger than the 130,000 or so mainly over 65’s it is now comprised of.

After a dramatic rise in membership over a number of years following the emergence of Tony Blair as Labour leader (around 270,000 when Blair became leader in 1994, up to just over 400,000 when New Labour swept to power in 1997), membership figures declined steadily and dramatically to roughly 150,000 just before Labour lost power in 2010. And this does not even begin to account for the steady erosion of the trade union movement, which has been decreasing steadily in size relative to the population ever since and even before Thatcher ‘won’ the battle between Socialism and Capitalism.

So it can be said that a once mass party had, by 2010, become a mere cadre party – controlled by a narrow elite at the top with extremely limited participation in decision-making by the party membership (at least by the historical standards of the Labour Party). But simply putting this down to the wastages of power and the leadership of Blair and Brown would ignore the relative decline in membership across all British political parties over the last five decades or so.

Indeed blaming the Labour Party itself for this decline in membership would not only be convenient, it would also be misleading. Instead it seems that the political culture of the country itself has changed dramatically in the last fifty or sixty years to an extent at which notions of tribal party loyalty now seem old-fashioned and have been replaced by an emphasis on individualism and personal beliefs.

It is not clear what the precise cause of this is, and it is likely there are several such causes. A supposedly less homogenous class system; greater access to information and news via the web; the advent of globalisation and its emphasis on consumerism; the apparent triumph of Capitalism over all other forces; and the growing disconnect between political parties and the people they purport to represent all appear to have contributed to a breakdown in deep-rooted party loyalty.

And in place of this, we are faced with a new reality: what we might call ‘the politics of consumerism’.

Perhaps this is healthy. Perhaps none of this matters Perhaps it is the expression of people’s democratic will being freed up by an emphasis on our individual beliefs. But what good exactly is individual will if it is expressed disparately at the ballot box? What good is it for people who want a progressive government in this country to vote for a diaspora of ‘anti-establishment’ parties – Labour, the Greens, the SNP, Ukip (maddeningly), the Lib Dems (don’t laugh), and others besides?

It should be added that the politics of consumerism is not confined to the left or the right of the Labour Party. For example, recently-resigned Dan Hodges’s fundamentalism about the direction Labour must take is as unhelpful as the extremism expressed by many on the hard left. Debate, discussion and democracy are to be cherished. But so too are solidarity, loyalty and the fundamental idea of a Labour movement moving together against the establishment.

It is a simple truth often to be repeated, but united we stand, divided we fall. I know from my long personal journey towards Labour politics some years ago what a pact of loyalty with our party means. A pact of loyalty with the greatest force for social justice in the history of our country, from which I could never walk away, and to which I have pledged my allegiance until my or the party’s extinction get in the way of that.

And so to those for whom membership of the Labour Party is a new, exciting and curious thing, I urge you to remember one thing: membership of the Labour Party is for life, not just for Christmas.


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