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Editorial: Labour's collapsing membership shows up Britain's yawning democratic deficit

LABOUR shrugs off the steep decline in its membership as an irrelevance, or even an asset.

But the dramatic shrink in the party’s size, ahead of what polls suggest could be a landslide election victory, points to a deepening democratic deficit, one which should concern anyone hoping a Labour government will deliver the reforms we need.

Challenged by stats showing Labour has lost 200,000 members since the last election and over 20,000 since the start of this year, shadow Treasury minister Darren Jones pleads two excuses.

The first — that “membership numbers of parties go up and down all the time” — is not really true. 

The second — that “there was … a huge surge in membership of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn and many Jeremy Corbyn supporters preferred a party of protest” to one that could actually govern — makes elitist assumptions. That activists are somehow alien to the mass of the population; that politics is a professionals’ game and grassroots mobilisation is a distraction from that.

These assumptions have dangerous consequences. To cite just one, they have been used to attack the huge movement for peace in Palestine as a threat to democracy rather than the expression of democracy that it is. 

Parliamentary procedure has been upended to deny MPs a clear vote on a ceasefire motion, on the baseless assertion that the motion might place MPs in physical danger. The government has announced a new definition of “extremism,” which allows it and future governments to blacklist organisations on the vaguest grounds with no right of appeal.

If the unelected special adviser on political violence has his way, we will also see protests banned outside Parliament, MPs’ offices and council chambers — all on the absurd basis that public demonstrations impede the democratic process when they should be a core part of it.

The concerted effort to shut ordinary people out of politics follows decades in which political participation has declined.

Jones’s claim about numbers going up and down belies the reality that membership of political parties has declined almost consistently since the 1950s, when both the Conservatives and Labour counted membership in the millions. Between 1983 and 2005 it shrunk from 4 per cent of the total electorate to 1.3 per cent. Voter participation at elections has tended to decline too.

In that light the surge in Labour membership under Corbyn looks very different. Corbyn’s Labour bucked the trend because its “straight-talking, honest politics” appealed and because it offered policies polls show a majority of people wanted (and still want): redistribution of wealth after decades of rising inequality, greater public investment funded through higher taxes on the rich and business, and a return to public ownership of water, energy, transport and Royal Mail.

Declining party membership never reflected a lazily satisfied public but the gulf between what parties offered and what the public want. And now, with trust in politicians at all-time lows and Parliament’s Speaker himself admitting trust in our political system has seriously eroded, the parties are shrinking again.

Labour may or may not get its landslide. By-election results have shown a collapsing Tory vote, but tiny rises in the actual number of votes cast for Labour. 

But even if it does, its overweening parliamentary dominance would rest on a smaller base of actual public enthusiasm than any elected post-war government. And its distaste for activist politics will close its ears to all but professional lobbyists — meaning action on the multiple serious crises we face, from child poverty to poisoned rivers, from a groaning NHS to a warming planet, will only take place on terms set by the very rich people who benefit from the status quo.

Jones says a 40 per cent drop in Labour membership in four years is nothing to worry about. But if you’re concerned for the future of democracy in Britain, he’s wrong.

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