NEW LABOUR VERSUS OLD LABOUR: Blair's vision of change boosted by new r ecruits

Concluding our series on Labour's internal struggles, Nicholas Timmins looks at membership trends, while a former member reveals his disillusionment
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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's Labour Party is currently defying gravity. While the Conservatives haemorrhage an estimated 60,000 members a year and the Liberal Democrats are proud to have held their membership steady at just over 100,000, Labour's has been rising - up 40,000 or 15 per cent since John Smith's death and the Labour leadership campaign to 305,000 in December.

It stands at its highest for a decade. John Prescott has set an ambitious target of 500,000 members by the general election. New Labour - Tony Blair's vision of a mass membership party consulted by ballot on key issues and more closely reflecting Labour voters' views than those of the old-time activists is on its way. Or is it?

The idea began with Neil Kinnock who saw it as a long-term solution to diluting the power of the unions and breaking the grip of the hard left who in the mid-1980s dominated the general management committees of many local Labour parties. In 1989, a target of a million members was set. It failed miserably, adding perhaps 20,000 in a year. The conventional wisdom seemed right - that political parties were in decline, losing out to single-issue pressure groups such as Greenpeace and campaigns over the homeless, child poverty or roads.

Blair believed otherwise, not least because in his Sedgefield constituency much leg-work, experiments with lower joining fees and an open, socially active approach had doubled party membership in three years to 1,200.

This time round, the membership drive is far better organised. The present surge has ridden on the wave of sympathy Labour enjoyed after John Smith's death, through the leadership campaign and into Tony Blair's own spectacular and extended honeymoon withthe electorate. To maintain it, Labour will continue to have to defy gravity.

What no one yet knows is who these new members are, how far the Blair leadership can trust them and how active they will be. The party is certainly changing. The rise in membership hides a much greater turnover. Last year the increase was made up of 40,000 leaving and 80,000 joining and since October 1993 100,000 new members have joined. In other words, compared to 15 months ago, one-third of the membership is new.

In Dulwich, south London, John McTernan, the constituency secretary, said three groups were joining an already large and active party with more than 1,000 members: returners - "older, more middle-aged people who we lost so disastrously in the early 1980sand who are now coming back"; political virgins - "a younger, more idealistic group, who want Britain to be reformed and now see Labour, because of what we are saying, as the vehicle for achieving that"; and "new Labour - what our enemies would call SDPMark II - people interested in centre-left politics, have become involved in local campaigns we have run and have now decided to join".

What is not in evidence, he said, was, any resurgence of the old far left.

This may indeed, then, be the makings of New Labour. But not everyone is convinced they will provide an active party. In the more moribund West Midlands seat of Walsall North, where David Winnick, the passionately pro-Clause IV MP has seen membership rise by just 22 to 252 over the year, Dave Church, the constituency secretary said many new members "seem almost non-political. Some are very surprised when they are invited to meetings, or asked to deliver leaflets or participate in fund raising."

Will they stay on and pay up, he asks, when the Blair honeymoon is over and, in Government, the going gets tough?

Those leaving - 53 members went last year and 31 joined - are chiefly the traditional left, "the ones with a philosophical base"; what Mr Church calls "the socialists", who don't believe in the Blair project.

That might suit Tony Blair. But it is clear the Labour leadership is still uncertain how far the members can be trusted. Sixty per cent voted for Blair to be leader. But in the first one-member-one-vote ballot for the national executive in October, the members voted on leftwingers Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott as well as five Blair allies. Not all New Labour there.

Suggestions the next day that the New Labour way to rewrite Clause IV would be to hold a rapid, advisory ballot of the members was quickly pushed aside and not just on grounds of cost. Also, in the current tense state of Labour's relations with the unions, no one at present is reviving an original part of the mass membership plan - that the 70 per cent trade union vote at party conference should come down by 1 per cent for every 10,000 extra members above 300,000, a measure that would give the constituencies half the vote should membership reach 500,000.

In terms of both numbers and organisation - a national one-member-one-vote ballot costs Labour about £80,000 - there is still a long way to go to the new model party of which the modernisers dream, if it is ever achievable. To forge New Labour - and particularly over Clause IV - Mr Blair has still to work with Old Labour.