I usually like Jim Pickard’s work for the FT, so I was a bit disappointed by this piece. We certainly do need some data journalism on the surge of Labour Party membership, an underreported fact of British politics and one that has been going on for some time. This mobilisation predates Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign – my own CLP started growing dramatically during 2014 and kept going through the election, until the point where my ward has more Labour members than Conservative voters.
But I’m afraid this won’t do. The FT says:
Take Burnley, for example, which Labour seized back from the Lib Dems in May with a narrow majority. There the membership has risen from 319 to just 484 full members. Or the Rhondda, a deprived constituency in the Welsh valleys, where full membership has risen from 355 to 485.
To put it another way, Burnley CLP’s membership has grown by a puny 45% and Rhondda’s by a miniscule 36%.
Sure, it’s not as dramatic as Holborn & St Pancras, which tripled. But your local Tory membership secretary would fuck pigs for 45% more members…whoops, they do that for fun. I’d rather not think what they might do for 45% more members. The “average” Scottish CLP is up 26% – quite a lot less, but nonetheless it’s substantial growth, given how many of the potential pool of members have gone to the SNP.
A tell in the piece, by the way, is that there are no percentages, nor tables, nor charts, nor links to the data set they used. Another tell is that it quotes Simon Danczuk:
“We have probably had about 100 new members on a total of 600,” says Simon Danczuk, MP for Rochdale and a fierce critic of Mr Corbyn. “I wouldn’t say it’s a massive change.”
That’s an increase of 16%, if you believe Danczuk’s suspiciously round numbers. (Also, what does “probably” mean – doesn’t Rochdale CLP count them?) The interesting bit here, though, is that we can compare two very similar Lancashire mill town constituencies, Burnley and Rochdale. It’s a natural experiment. Burnley CLP has grown by 45%, Rochdale by 16%. One of these numbers is big. The other is small. Also, Burnley is much more marginal than Rochdale, with a Labour majority of 3,244 compared to 12,442. One of these numbers is small. The other is big.
Maybe Burnley’s become a hipster ghetto, a Kreuzberg of the north-west since I was last there…or perhaps it’s just that Simon Danczuk is nobody’s idea of an inspiring leader.
Also, there’s this quote from Hugh Pemberton of Bristol University:
Scottish constituencies were already withering. “It was dire in Scotland; it was clear they had a major problem back then,” said Mr Pemberton.
OK, so the collapse in membership in Scotland was predictive of the election disasters and the rise of the SNP. It follows that increasing membership is probably good, especially in places like Burnley. Right? But somehow that’s not the conclusion. Apparently there aren’t any new members in marginal seats, but the only marginal actually quoted is Burnley, and as we have seen, it’s up by 45%.
Call me a cynic, but I wonder if there actually was a link to the data in an earlier version, but it got spiked? After all, there’s this quote:
The FT has collated data from eight Labour seats that are among the richest 50 constituencies in the country, and eight Labour seats in the poorest 50.
But where are they? The comparison, like the data set, is missing. In the end, the impression I get is that there are two articles here that have been edited into one.
The first one was an honest effort to quantify the mobilisation of Labour members, probably written by Jim Pickard. It concluded that there has been a surge of membership across the board, which was strongest by far in London, but very substantial in Burnley or the Rhondda and far from negligible in Scotland. The second was a hit piece briefed out to Michael Lindsay by one of the “senior party sources” mentioned or possibly Simon Danczuk himself, aiming to deny that there are any new members.
In theory, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get synthesis. In journalism, you line up thesis and antithesis, and get fired.