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.