How the red rose bloomed

New Labour's Grassroots
September 26, 2003

It can be seriously argued that modern political parties do not really need party members and might, indeed, be better off without them.

Money can be raised from "fat cats"; focus groups and polling provide the information needed for devising campaign strategies; casual workers can be employed in call centres to contact voters by telephone. Moreover, members can be awkward trouble-makers, best kept at arm's length as far as policy-making is concerned and liable to be an embarrassment to the leadership and professional staff.

Such views would be anathema to Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley.

They believe that mass memberships are vital for finance and for effective campaigning on the ground. Parties that do not pay attention to their members will atrophy; leaderships not accountable to members lose touch with reality. Party members, in short, are the lifeblood of democracy, and for that reason it is important to know about them - who they are, what they think and what they do. To this end, beginning in 1990, Seyd and Whiteley have conducted a series of surveys of members of the major parties, providing a valuable source of evidence on a topic previously characterised by anecdote and stereotyping.

This book is concerned with Labour Party members, and Seyd and Whiteley seek to track changes among them during a tempestuous period (the 1990s) in which their party was transformed (from the top) into "new" Labour. In terms of social characteristics, Labour members have become somewhat older and more middle class. Seyd and Whiteley suggest that the continuing decline in the proportions who are working class and have trade-union affiliations may help explain the decline in Labour's "core" vote in 2001.

But even in 1990 Labour was dominated by white male public-sector professionals and this did not prevent the party from winning a landslide victory in 1997.

In terms of political attitudes and opinions, none of the evidence presented justifies the reference to a "transformation" in the book's subtitle. There has been no "new Labour takeover" and there are few signs of widespread disillusion (contrary to the impression sometimes given in the letters page of The Guardian ). Nonetheless, Seyd and Whiteley make much of the fact that there has been a decline in activism among Labour members - fewer attend branch meetings, make donations or help in campaigns. They see in this the seeds of potential future problems for the party and conclude with an impassioned plea - curiously at odds with their normal cool and detached style - for the leaders of New Labour to pay more attention to their grassroots.

Much of the evidence presented by Seyd and Whiteley is quantitative - there are lots of tables and charts - but they consciously try to write and present the material in an accessible way. There is refreshingly little political science "babble". Although the book will probably be most eagerly read in new Labour circles, anyone interested in British politics should enjoy it and learn from it.

David Denver is professor of politics, Lancaster University.

New Labour's Grassroots: The Transformation of the Labour Party Membership

Author - Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley
ISBN - 0 333 77778 6
Publisher - Palgrave Macmillan
Price - £50.00
Pages - 206

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