How Many Members Does The Labour Party Have?

Jim Anderton, in his short response to Corbyn’s election as UK Labour leader, talked about the 100,000 members the Labour Party had back in the late 70’s and early 80’s. I have my doubts about the veracity of that figure, I will be honest.

But it got me thinking: how many members does the Labour Party have at present? This is a more complicated question than it seems at first sight, because there are different ways to be “a member”, both formally and informally. Formally, every member of an affiliated union is a member of the party, which (depending on how reliable you think the public membership figures of the unions are) gives you an affiliated membership in the range of 70-80,000.

However, putting the affiliates aside, various officials will give figures somewhat north of 10,000 for the current membership. Apparently around 6,000 people voted in the leadership election in 2013 which is consistent with a membership then of 8,000 and some solid growth since then. So I think we can say reasonably safely that the party has around 10,000 direct members on paper.

Of course, the party’s membership figures are always going to be an approximation, because the internal databases are archaic and slow-moving (membership processing times are measured in weeks if not months) and are dependent on the data fed to them by constituent organisations. This data is likely to have errors, be they unintentional (duplicating a member’s application under a slightly different name) or intentional (fabricating members in order to increase voting allocations), and the party doesn’t have the resources to rigorously check for irregularities.

Further, people will move into and out of the formal membership without, perhaps, changing their view of the party as such. Rather, at some points being a member will be more important: they wish to vote in a leadership election, a preselection, or a branch needs more members to boost their voting allocation. Under Clark, these formal membership-based processes tended to be less important, and they have monotonically become more important since then. Therefore, even if people’s views on and enthusiasm for the party haven’t changed, we should expect to see an increase in the membership.

There are some other figures we can work out more roughly. No one will hold this information centrally, because the party doesn’t have the reporting structures to allow it to do so.

There are, supposedly, some 300-500 constituent organisations (branches, electorates, sectors, regions, local government committees, etc etc) within the party. In my experience, it is difficult to find someone to chair every organisation that exists on paper. There is, I suspect, about one person willing to take organisational responsibility for any given constituent body. (On average, and across the party: there will be much local variation.) This means that I think we can say there are at most some 500 people actively involved in the administration of the party. This aligns with the supposed size of Fraser House’s office-holder mail outs.

Another figure that is perhaps interesting to think about is the number of people who will volunteer for the party. This is a much more fluid category, which people will move into and out of rapidly, and there is no paperwork associated, or any effort made at centrally tracking this figure. So a lot of this calculation is supposition, and should be thought of as a rough estimate.

We’ll use election day volunteer numbers as a rough guide, as they represent a peak effort. We’ll break it down by electorate. First, let’s assume that electorates with a Labour MP involved have somewhere in the vicinity of 150-250 people available on election day. This figure is based on my experience across several electorates on several election days. Then let’s think about non-Labour electorates. I would suggest that such an electorate will be doing well to have 50 people involved on election day, and many would have far fewer — perhaps as low as 20. If we take a rough average on those figures, and say that a seat with a Labour MP associated will have 200 volunteers, and a seat without 30, and we then say there’s 30 seats with a Labour MP associated, and 40 without, we have (30 * 200) + (40 * 30) = 7,200. Somewhere around 7,000 sounds like a plausible figure for peak mobilisation of volunteers, although it should be taken with extreme caution.

Must Labour Lose?

The Labour Party is in a bad way: it has lost three general elections in a row, it lacks unity at the top, its traditional support base is eroding under the pressure of rapid societal transformations, and it is seen as a party for the poor and old that does not provide space for aspiration.

The year is 1960 and we are in Britain.

Must Labour Lose? is an analysis of the British Labour Party in the late fifties, based on a detailed social survey carried out in the aftermath of the 1959 election. The loss in the 1959 election was the third straight loss for the party, following defeats in ’51 and ’55. Must Labour Lose? is in three parts: the first – by Mark Abrams, a market researcher – discusses the survey data, the second – by Richard Rose, a social scientist – discusses voter behaviour in more general terms, while the third part is a brief commentary by Rita Hinden, a Fabian and then-editor of Socialist Commentary.

Large chunks of the book are eerily familiar, both in detail and in overall thrust. It is interesting to note that the debates about the use of empirical analysis of voter attitudes do not appear to have moved on in the half-century since 1960. The oppositions of poll-driven cynicism against unworldly quixotism remain the terms of our own debates.

The details are sometimes painful in their similarities: ‘The Party concentrated upon an expensive policy document […] The producers of this pamphlet apparently assumed that all their potential supporters were utilitarian or ideological thinkers, carefully checking up on dozens of Labour policies to make sure that they were suitable. Transport House could hardly have reflected upon how many Labour voters would understand a pledge such as: “the next Labour Government will help to stabilise commodity prices which determine the livelihood of many undeveloped peoples, by negotiating long-term bulk purchase agreements”.’ Only 18% of Labour supporters thought it had a “united team of top leaders”. “Often the Labour party has followed the difficult task of hewing the stones to fit a preconceived plan, a task further complicated because some of the masons are inclined to use their mallets on each other instead of on the stones”. A Labour Party effort to win the votes of “non-voters” has failed to show great success.

But merely trawling the book for obvious echoes is superficial. There is a more profound similarity. Abrams argues that the Labour party is identified with values that are not the values of contemporary Britain. Previous assumptions about the working classes’ identification with the Party are breaking down as society changes. Within this changing social system, the party is unable to formulate and articulate a compelling set of values that align with the values of voters. The Conservatives, on the other hand, have marked out a space as an aspirational party aligned with British values.

Looking forward, Hinden answers the question “Must Labour Lose?” with a curt “Yes, it must – at least in the near future”. We now know, of course, that the 1964 general election brought a victory for Harold Wilson’s Labour—in some measure due to Wilson’s adoption of a progressive focus, arguing for the need to look at the future of work, particularly automation, and the Party’s need to adapt to the society that – famously – would be “forged in the white heat of the technological revolution”. This is a useful caution against the tendency to histrionic pronouncements of the “death of Labour”.

But against this optimism, Abrams’ Part I finishes with a worrying suggestion: “there is among young people today a complex of barely conscious Conservative sympathies which still have not fully expressed themselves in overt party affiliations.” One aspect of this is that young people felt that if Labour was the party of the working class, the Conservatives were the party of scientists. In the 1959 election, a young middle class research chemist was elected to Parliament. If the British public saw the Conservatives as the party of those who got ahead, of scientists, and of British traditions, Thatcher would be the leader that welded those Conservative sympathies into two decades of Conservative hegemony, as that cohort aged through the population.

Must Labour Lose?, Mark Abrams and Richard Rose with commentary by Rita Hinden, 1960, Penguin, Harmondsworth. Quotations from, in order, pages 92, 17, 67, 96, 119, 58.

The decline of traditional TV

Netflix has launched with a roar in Australia and New Zealand, and research is starting to come in showing that the take-up has been huge.

Analysts predict that if Netflix were measured as a 24-hour station by Nielsen, it would have more viewers than ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox within the year.

This is yet another piece of evidence that very significant numbers of people are abandoning traditional media (TV, radio, newspapers and magazines).

While I have no doubt that a very good (and expensive) TV ad campaign might have previously been able to win elections, there are more and more reasons why this is no longer the case.

If you were to sink the vast bulk of your campaign budget into TV ads, you should really stop and think about how many people would actually see them (and that is assuming they have any effect at all, of which there is limited evidence).


Apparently Phil Quin, Josie Pagani, Stuart Nash, Nick Legget, and some others want to start a think tank called “Progress”, which might, supposedly, endorse candidates. (Yes, yes, there will be inevitable jokes about think tanks containing Stuart Nash) Predictably, and with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Greg Presland at the Standard has compared this to the Douglas-ite Backbone Club.

I can’t see why the supposed think tank is at all controversial. Quin, Pagani and co share a certain vision for the party. They want to advance this vision by advocacy; in order to advocate more effectively, they’ve decided it would be best if they formed a collective to amplify their voices. Those are all good left-wing principles.

Now, obviously Nash has to be careful. Unlike in the UK, where Progress, Compass, Socialist Campaign, and the Tribune Group are able to operate with MPs taking a significant role, New Zealand’s stricter expectations of caucus discipline probably constrain Nash from heavy involvement in a group that might disagree with official party lines. But individual rank and file members of the party shouldn’t have to worry about maintaining strict adherence to the party line, as long as they make it clear that they aren’t speaking on behalf of Labour, and avoid simply running the party down.

In the long run, of course, the Labour Party is a democratic(-ish) institution. If the membership disagree with the ideas “Progress” advocates, then they can vote them down. This might require left-wing members of the party to articulate ideas of their own and organise to get them into policy, and to support and develop candidates of their own. This would also be a good thing, particularly from the point of view of the left of the party.

The Labour Party under Clark was almost entirely devoid of ideological disputes, as a way of repressing the unresolved issues of the 1984-1993 era. Internal party elections were fought purely on personalities and factional allegiance in the worst sense of the word. This lack of internal ideological structuring meant that when, in the post-Clark era, the party was forced to develop novel political strategies, it lacked the intellectual armoury to do so. Internal decision-making still avoided any fundamental ideological component, and devolved into crude factional struggles based on patronage networks. The routes to advancement within the party did not reward the development and articulation of political theory or policy, but were instead dependent on patronage and personality.

Particularly frustratingly from a left-wing member’s point of view these patronage networks, which generally maintained lip service to the notion of “left-wing Labour” or a “true-red Labour”, allowed centrist, or even right-wing, careerist politicians to position themselves on the “left” of the party without in fact making any commitment to left-wing principles or policies.

An internal debate between left and right offers an opportunity for the party to move away from a purely patronage based model of internal organisation. This can only be good for the party as a whole. In particular, it offers an opportunity for the left of the party – which, after all, maintains that it is the largest grouping – to organise, proffer coherent and attractive ideas, and support strong candidates.

Reviewing the review

The envelope on which NZ Labour’s campaign review was written on the back of has unsurprisingly been leaked. Expect a witch hunt to distract from just how sub-standard the review is.

The content of the review, and lack-thereof, offer a fascinating insight into a party in turmoil. The actual 2014 general election campaign is skimmed over – most of the focus of the review instead seems to be the party’s organisational structures.

I’m going to go through the review and offer some thoughts. Starting with part 1 – General Election 2014.

Part 1 – General Election 2014

1A Campaign organisation

The late start under a changed leadership team left too little time to allow Labour to prepare and implement an effective campaign. In general, Labour’s campaign preparation was inadequate.

The new leadership team should make an immediate start on developing and implementing a coordinated strategic plan for contesting the 2017 election. A small and properly constituted Campaign Committee should be established at least a year out from the election and should be charged with preparing and implementing a campaign strategy which achieves buy-in from everyone, from the leader down.

While I don’t really disagree with the sentiment here, I find it an odd thing to open the review with (defensively stating “we didn’t have enough time”). David Cunliffe had a year between taking over as leader and the general election – which oddly is the lead time the review recommends for the setup of a campaign committee. I actually thought that the campaign committee was a standing committee, and if it isn’t, it should be. With three year terms no political party can afford to take two years off from campaigning.

1B Candidate selection

Candidate selection on the whole worked well and produced some excellent candidates. Late candidate selection hampered some 2014 electorate campaigns.

There should be a strategy developed for early selections and electorates with limited potential to generate a significant candidate pool. Attention should be paid to the transparency and fairness of the process for drawing up the list and to the structure of the list.

Oh candidate selection worked well, did it? The late selection bit is rubbish too – it is one area where Labour actually did really well. Six months out from the election Labour had selected all but seven electorate candidates, well ahead of Nats, Greens and NZ First.

Yes there should be a strategy developed for early selections, but this was done following the 2012 Coatsworth/Shearer review. What this review needed to do was ask *why* didn’t it happen – or is it simply misinformed.

1D Fundraising

The campaign was undoubtedly hindered by a shortage of financial resources. The finance available was less than in earlier campaigns, though only a little less by comparison with 2011. Labour must do better in this respect in 2017. Labour must build greater confidence in its ability to win and to form a successful government, and – in addition to building its database of online donors – it must use high – level business and other contacts, supported by a strengthened group of professional fundraisers on the staff team, in approaching the corporate sector and other potential sources of funding for donations.

We need more money. This could pretty much be the title of the review. Let’s see if any action is actually taken.

1E Leadership

Perceptions of tension around the leadership and disunity within caucus seriously undermined Labour’s credibility with voters and frustrated any attempt to present a Party that was ready for government.

It is imperative that Labour acts – and is seen to act – as a disciplined and coherent team that is ready for government if it is to win the trust of voters in 2017. As a key element of this process, the senior leadership team within Caucus should be given greater prominence and responsibility throughout the three years.

Yes, leadership was a problem. However the review conveniently ignores the harsh reality that the party was facing an election with a deeply unpopular leader. I’d be interested to know if this review panel has actually seen the research the party did on leadership? Yes, caucus disunity was a problem for David Cunliffe, but only in so far as it had been for every single Labour leader before him. Though I don’t have any hard stats to back this up, I actually think the party and caucus seemed pretty united during the campaign, and I certainly don’t recall any leaks against the leader (as had happened previously).

Sadly, the recommendation the review provides (giving the senior leadership team in caucus more prominence and responsibility) doesn’t really seem to be a solution to any problem, real or imagined.

So, we’re at the end of the General Election 2014 section of the review, and we have the following recommendations:

1. Form a campaign committee a year out from the election.

2. There should be a strategy for early selections. The list selection process should be “transparent and fair”.

3. More resources are needed for training candidates, campaign managers and volunteers (this was 1C, which I haven’t covered because it’s totally uncontroversial)

4. We need more money, and to do that we need more professional fundraisers in head office.

5. Giving the senior leadership team in caucus more prominence and responsibility.

I challenge any member of the Labour Party to take a look at that list and tell me that it adequately addresses the problems Labour’s campaign in 2014 faced.

Part 2 – Policy and Positioning

This section has a list of policy and positioning recommendations which it tells us are not actually recommendations, because they first need to be passed to the Policy Council and then the Media and Communications Unit in the Leader’s Office. I’m going to ignore it, as the party almost certainly will (after Patrick Gower has finished mocking 2G).

Part 3 – Party Governance and Organisation

This truly is the strangest part of the review. It goes from making recommendations based on problems Labour faced in 2014, to just making stuff up. I’ll try and summarise, but forgive me if I end up rambling, due to the nature of the subject matter.

3A – Party legal status

This is an issue I’ve heard about before, and still to this day don’t really understand (the review doesn’t go into much detail). I don’t know why it was a problem, or what the review is recommending, so hopefully the new general secretary will be able to finally resolve this.

3B – National level organistational structure 

This section a series of recommendations. Sadly the review doesn’t mention what problem they are trying to address. Here is what they suggest:

1. A new sub-committee of NZ Council, the Executive, which would include the Leader, President, two senior Vice Presidents, General Secretary, and three Party members elected directly by the membership. Tasked with developing and implementing campaign strategy as well as selection criteria.

2. Maintaining and expanding the NZ Council to include an ethnic representative.

3. A Campaign Committee to be appointed by NZ Council.

4. Sector groups to be reviewed (yes, this review recommends more reviewing).

5. Te Kaunihera Māori, the Māori section of the Party , should also undertake a review (are we seeing a pattern here?).

As I said earlier, I don’t really know what the problem is the review is trying to address here. I would actually assume that the new Executive and Campaign Committees would conflict and potentially hinder each other’s work.

3C – Local organising

The recommendations in this section are a mess. They recommend cementing the LEC (electorate committee) as the main unit of power, not abolishing branches but removing any power they have. It also recommends finally abolishing regional councils, which should have happened when Hubs were implemented. However it still leaves in place the regional reps on NZ Council (which will never be allowed to get smaller) and regional conferences will never die. Sadly review doesn’t touch on how the “Hub” organisational model worked or didn’t in the general election.

3D – Affiliates 

Precis: the affiliation model is broken (also, we get no money from them).

The main recommendation that there should be a working group to “examine the most effective way for affiliates to be integrated into a campaign strategy.” And it also handily points out that the money gained from unions is small, but doesn’t have any recommendations on what to do about that.

3E – Candidates

I’m going to quote the first line of this section: “The real question appears to be how the Party identifies candidates and then prepares and supports its candidates before, during and after the election.”

I’m sorry, does it?

It also then goes on to say:

“One of the most criticised aspects of the last election was the process for selection of list candidates”

Really? Not the fact that you got 25% of the Party Vote?

It then goes on to make the following recommendations to change this ‘problem’:

1. Any member with 10 signatures should be able to nominate for the list (this is raising the current threshold, but it’s still so low it doesn’t matter).

2. All nominations should be vetted (and presumably vetoed) by a three-person “Vetting Committee”.

3. Moderating Committee should change to being composed of the NZ Council + 4 members of caucus (does that include the members that already sit on NZ Council).

These three recommendations are the most incredible thing in the review. They’re proposing to centralise power in a way that would make Muldoon blush. While they complain about a lack of democracy and transparency, their recommendations propose the opposite. Amazing.

3F – Fundraising

The main recommendation here is to put in place a capital fund to pay for campaigns. And to do that they want to “unlock the significant resources held by local entities of the Party”. Good luck with that.


At the end of the day this review is a mess. However the biggest problem will be if the party focusses on the guff in it (I can already imagine the fights that changes to LEC and regional council rules will cause) and continues to ignore the very real political problems it faces – which remain largely unaddressed.

Given this review is a waste of the envelope it was written on, it will be interesting to see how the new leader and president react (I can’t imagine the current General Secretary doing much to improve the situation).

Digital campaigning in New Zealand

There are few people who would doubt that digital is becoming an increasingly important component of political campaigns. Sadly I can no longer find the source for this graph, but it’s one that I’ve shown a few times recently to convey that both sides of politics are embracing digital as an increasingly large chunk of their campaign expenditure (in the US at least).

Screen Shot 2015-02-27 at 2.37.14 pm

One of the quaint things about election campaigns in New Zealand is the disclosure of electoral expenses, in order to enforce their spending caps. This allows us to very accurately examine what political parties are spending, and what they are spending it on.

Now that the 2014 election expenses have been released I’ve been able to compile what the various parties spent online, and there are some interesting numbers… (data here if you can’t see the full table)

Social Media Websites Display Ads Misc Digital Total Digital Spend Total Spend % Digital
National $38,214.39 $27,791.44 $393,772.70 $459,778.53 $2,558,211.53 18.0%
Labour $22,353.13  $1,236.30  $85,445.91 $109,033.34 $1,269,298.91 8.6%
Greens $33,099.63 $33,804.42 $52,433.96 $119,338.01 $1,291,419.81 9.2%
NZ First $1,518.00 $1,518.00 $268,530.23 0.6%
Maori $6,621.70 $6,621.70 $202,562.12 3.3%
ACT $30,704.66 $30,704.66 $294,406.09 10.4%
Conservative $5,292.00 $5,292.00 $1,914,072.38 0.3%
Internet Mana $230.00 $40,966.58 $19,237.20 $310.50 $60,744.28 $660,574.07 9.2%

While I wasn’t surprised to see that both the Greens and Internet Mana spent a large proportion of their budget online (at 9.2% it’s a higher proportion than the 2012 Obama campaign) – to be honest I was surprised the Internet Mana party didn’t spend more. The only other minor party that made a substantial investment was ACT – presumably getting David Seymour’s video far and wide.

What is surprising is both the huge proportion of their budget that National spent online (18% is much higher than I’ve seen in any other political campaign). As well as investing reasonably heavily in social media and a rather good looking website, they totally saturated online display advertising. It looks like they totally dominated in this space.

By contrast not only did Labour spend a tiny amount of money, but even the proportion of their total spend on digital was small.

This led me to wonder what this looked like compared to the 2011 election. So I dug out those numbers and compared…

Total Digital Spend 2011 Total Spend 2011 % Digital 2011 Change between 2014 and 2011
National $118,078.73 $2,321,216.06 5.1% +12.9%
Labour $98,790.34 $1,789,151.95 5.5% +3.1%
Greens $95,596.93 $779,618.38 12.3% -3.0%
NZ First $558.90 $155,902.86 0.4% +0.2%
Maori $- $72,172.56 0.0% +3.3%
ACT $41,347.10 $617,035.18 6.7% +3.7%
Conservative $5,300.55 $1,878,337.22 0.3% 0%
Internet Mana $500.00 $60,082.91 0.8% +8.4%

Surprisingly the Greens dropped their digital spend as a proportion of their total campaign budget, but I imagine this is probably because their total campaign budget was so much larger this time, and much of their additional resource was allocated to TV. They still spent almost three times as much online in 2014 as they did in 2011.

While National outspent Labour and the Greens on digital in 2011, they dramatically increased their spend in 2014. To be honest, I’m really taken back by it. You don’t think of the Nats as being on the cutting edge of campaigning, but I’ve never seen a political party invest so heavily in digital media before. Let’s hope the new look Labour team decide to do things a bit differently.


This data has been hand coded from the election expense results. There will be data entry errors on my part.

I’ve broken the 2014 data down into three sub-categories of digital spend: social media, websites and digital display advertising. Apologies for not doing this with the 2011 data.

I’ve compared the 2014 Internet Mana party with the 2011 Mana Party – very different beasts.

If you have trouble viewing this data on my blog, you can see the spreadsheet.


I’ve been contacted by Labour to point out some of the digital spending in their expense that I missed, I have updated accordingly and removed a paragraph from my post that is now inaccurate with the new figures. If anyone else spots mistakes or omissions I’m more than happy to make corrections.


Why Labour Did Not Did Not Win

There’s a lot of analysis about “why Labour did not win”. (Short answer: it was heavily overdetermined.) But this is about just one reason that is not why Labour did not win, one thing that almost certainly made no difference to the result: hoardings.

There’s various theories about Labour’s hoardings, ranging from the true – Vote Positive was a weird choice for a message – to the somewhat kooky – apparently we should have plastered David Cunliffe’s face over everything, as if voters might have somehow forgotten he was leader – to the utterly crazy – the claim that Auckland MPs were hiding party vote hoardings on back streets. These theories, of course, are always delivered with complete certainty.

But there’s a fundamental problem with these arguments: hoardings have very little effect on the outcome of elections. Hardboiled American political hacks have a stock phrase for this: “signs don’t vote”. It’s not quite fair to say they don’t do anything – seeing a neighbour’s fence with a candidate’s face on it does matter, because it’s an endorsement from someone in your community, someone who’s part of your broader social milieu. But a large billboard at the roadside? It just doesn’t make much difference. As an Auckland friend of mine sarcastically puts it, “I always make voting decisions based on what corflute on the street tells me”.

There’s some academic research to back this up*, and smart American practice is shifting this way. So, overall, if your theory of Labour’s loss relies on poor hoarding design or display, it is not a load bearing structure.

* Which I’m too lazy to look up right now, sorry.



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