Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Labour members must muck in

Labour’s ‘mass membership’ must be more than a shield for Jeremy Corbyn to hide behind when criticised, writes Progress strategy board member Sheila Gilmore

Dissension in the Labour party is often portrayed as ‘members v the parliamentary Labour party’.

However ‘the members’ are by no means all of one view. There is a real and deep despair among many party members about the current leadership and the party’s performance. Here in Scotland we have all-out council elections in May. One keen new candidate phoned members, who had previously volunteered regularly, to offer to drop off leaflets for delivery. She was dismayed to find herself having to spend time persuading them to stay with the party, let alone be active. Out doorknocking we always make a special point of trying to touch base with members, and encourage them to get a bit more involved. In recent sessions we have spoken to several members who say they are only just ‘hanging on in’ by a thread. In a strongly Remain membership, the failure of the leadership to take a strong line during the European Union referendum and its aftermath has been one factor. We are seeing a number of resignations specifically stated to be ‘because of Jeremy Corbyn’.

We are also encountering members who appear to have little intention of voting for us, let alone getting more involved. We have an STV system for our council elections, but it is more than a bit disconcerting to have someone listed as a member saying they are going to first preference the Greens and second preference the Scottish National party and not vote Labour at all. Another couple of members said they were definitely voting Green and ‘might’ give us a second vote, but were perfectly open that they had only joined to vote for Corbyn. This is just in the last two weeks. It is frustrating for those who are out talking to voters, trying to persuade them to vote for us in a period where it is very hard for us in Scottish politics, to feel that those casual ‘joiners’ who are not even planning to vote for the party let alone work for us, had as much say in the leadership election as they did. This is not a recipe for a motivated membership. Closing our eyes to this is not helping.

As a constituency Labour party we keep all members informed (to the degree that some people complain of email fatigue)’ , we hold social events knowing that ‘meetings’ can be daunting if you have not been before, we have members phoning other members to talk about what we can do together. I know very well that there has never been a time when more than a small proportion of those joining the party got involved in meetings and campaigns. But the proportion getting involved seems to shrink as the overall membership rises.

Corbyn uses the ‘mass membership’ as a shield when criticised. Jeremy – please can you motivate this mass membership to help us reach out to those who will be voting in May and help us win their support. If we do not win council seats and end up in opposition everywhere we will not be able to protect the services which are of the greatest importance to the least well off members of society.


Sheila Gilmore is a member of the Progress strategy board. She tweets @SheilaGilmore49



Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Sheila Gilmore

is the former member of parliament for Edinburgh East


  • I’m in England, but virtually every word of that applies in my constituency too.

    Sometimes I just want to throw up my hands and walk away from it all 🙁

  • In our CLP we have 700 new members apparently overwhelmingly Jeremy supporters.

    Where are they?

    Not on the doorstep or at branch or CLP meetings.

    I won`t walk away but continue to canvas, raise money, campaign, and attend meetings.

    It just does not feel like a mass membership party here.

  • Doesn’t look like Jim Murphy left Scottish Labour in a good state. Of course he continued the policies that allowed the SNP and Greens to outflank Labour on the left – and the work in ‘Better Together’ allowed the Tories to use Labour as a human shield. Seems to me the uninspiring leader in Scotland has a hard job to do in even maintaining Labour’s position. Perhaps she should stop making her opposition to Corbyn so blatant and try and break out of the small ideological space she has let herself be backed into.
    Murphy and his predecessors in Scotland over the last 40 years have left a hollowed out party without the ability to mobilise support, preferring to depend on technocrats and right wing union officials with few links to the party’s base. I remember the story used to be told that new members would be discouraged from joining if they might undermine the sitting MP and his/her family’s control.
    In our constituency in England we face a similar problem to John. One of the problems is that the new members are not just new to Labour but new to political operations. And we old hands have not come up with new ways on helping them become active. We continue to operate as though the internet has not been invented, that standing orders and report back from councillors are the most interesting things in the world and that the new members are not to be trusted. Too often we fail to understand where the new currents are taking us and want to continue to nurture the rancour of defeat rather than attempting to change course and find better ways forward. Again progress is a good example of this seeking to tar the new members as hard left, Trotskyists who need to be kept under surveillance lest they challenge an MPs divine right to continue as representative until they decide to go and work at the V&A or Sellafield.

  • I think the point was made that the new members being referred too aren’t hard left entryists, because that implies a commitment to a political project. It’s that they just aren’t engaged. In many cases the job of motivating them and cajoling them into activity falls with the people who are in exec positions of a local CLP. This is where a clash of priorities kicks in. First and foremost Labour is a party of representative democracy, but there is a challenge of winning that consent through hard work in communities alongside the other traditional means of doing that like door knocking and leafleting. A local activist of the left complained at a LCF meeting that door knocking is a waste of time because it’s so demoralising.
    The basis of the Corbyn project was that a new, fresh, mobilised mass membership would change things. We’re still to hear anything to back that up.

  • My attempt at improving this problem of lack of engagement is to set up a political discussion group.

    We get about 6 or so members to come and it is early days yet but at least we are discussing politics rather than door knocking, jam making, or the location of the christmas party.

    I really do believe that the new members do want to discuss issues rather than simply pro or anti Jeremy.

    Some are probably “entryists” whatever that means. Some are genuinely interested in being in a democratic socialist party.

Sign up to our daily roundup email