As my avid readers know, I don't shirk from asking awkward questions. With 4 days to go to Labour's Annual Conference I had a look at my own constituency labour party (CLP)'s latest membership data. There are some worrying features to report - I'll call the current data end Q3, and compare it with end-2010 which is used for various purposes both locally and nationally.
The end year date 31 December is significant as it is the cut off date for national membership figures reported to the Electoral Commission. These are published usually seven months later in July, sometimes before even the National Executive Committee itself sees the data along with the Annual Accounts.
But enough of this about the Labour Party's obsessions with keeping membership data under wraps. What's up now? Over the last nine months, my CLP has had a net drop of 2% or 10 members. In itself not particularly worrying as there is always churn with members moving in and out. But members who have not renewed their subscriptions and are therefore in arrears has shot up from around 2% if I remember correctly nine months ago to 11% or 60 currently.
Of those 37 joined since May 2010. If you remember that was when Labour lost the General Election and there was a spontaneous renewal of interest in joining the Labour Party. Spontaneous? People decided to do the right thing and sign up, before the Party decided to encourage the trend by lifting the minimum six-month membership period for entitlement to vote in the Labour leadership election.
It is, of course, inappropriate to extrapolate from a sample of one. But I will. If what appears to be happening to my CLP's membership were transposed on to national data, then currently the Party would have just over 190,000 members compared with 193,961 reported to the EC as at 31 December 2010. But there may be over 20,000 in arrears, of whom as many as 11,000 could have joined as recently as May last year. So that 12-year decline in membership from 1997 (407,000) through to end 2009 (156,205) might be starting again.
Under the Party rules failure to pay for six months after the due date results in lapsed membership ie you are no longer a member. so a joiner in May 2010 failing to renew after 12-month will be lapsed in November 2011. That process could continue through the first half of 2012.
In the absence of regular and detailed membership data analysis to the NEC, other CLP officers might want to have a quick look at their latest data and see what it shows.
You will, of course, want to know what I'm going to do about it. Well, hit the telephone for a start. But it would be heartening to know that our dear Leader, Ed Miliband and/or his advisers would take any notice of the feedback provided. Some professional rigor could be added with representative sampling.
This leads me on to scepticism about the fiddling around with membership rates proposed in the mislabeled Refounding Labour package destined for Conference in four days time. In recent years there have been a number of membership promotions - two focussed on Leadership elections one in 2007- Join Us, Join In coined by former general secretary, Peter Watt after former Leader Tony Blair resigned, and then one last year. In addition, reduced rates of £1 and 1p have been offered. It would be interesting to know if any detailed analysis of these initiatives was considered prior to the new membership rates being agreed by the NEC. Were the administrative costs of this now complex membership rate array reported to the NEC?
As I blogged here the Tories appear to have a much simpler system from a prospective joiners point-of-view, which I drew attention to for illustrative purposes only here.
One of the obstacles to Labour Party membership, I hear often, is that £41/year is too much. I would have liked to see how many CLP submissions to Refounding Labour made that point. In the context of seeking mass membership what would a more attractive rate be?
While the Labour Party remains in the thrall of its creditors we will probably never know. Which leaves the question: where's the strategy to encourage mass membership and increase returns from membership and small donations, while reducing dependency on rich donors and the affiliated trades unions. And we must forget, that old bogey of state-funding, which continues to cloud thinking in the upper echelons. I think the public would welcome a statement from the Labour Party committing not to seek increased state-funding when the Committee on Standards in Public Life is expected to report on the funding of political parties after the party conferences.