Most of the coverage of Labour’s leadership contest has focused on the candidates. But what about the people who will be choosing between Corbyn, Burnham, Cooper and Kendall? In May 2015, we surveyed 1,180 Labour Party members as part of a wider research project into party membership in the UK funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Here’s some of what we found.
1 They don’t necessarily live where Labour support is strongest
True, getting on for a fifth of Labour Party members live in its London stronghold, but nearly a third of them live in southern England outside the capital.
2 Men outnumber women – but not by much
The ratio – six men for every four women – is exactly the same as it is in the Parliamentary Labour Party.
3 There aren’t many horny-handed sons (or daughters) of toil among them
Just over two-thirds of Labour Party members can be categorised as ABC1, with just under a third being what marketers call C2DEs. Well over half of them (56%) are graduates. Some 44% of Labour members work in the public sector – over twice as many as in the electorate as a whole.
4 Ethnic minorities are slightly underrepresented at the grassroots
Around 13% of the UK population is from an ethnic minority – compared 9% of Labour Party members.
5 Younger people tend to support the Labour Party but its members are by no means all spring chickens
The average Labour Party member is 51 years old – only a little younger than the average Tory member, incidentally – with only 14% of the membership younger than thirty. The average member has been in the party for 18 years.
6 A sizable minority of members don’t do anything for the party other than pay their subs
Around a third of members fall into this category, and even during the five weeks of the election campaign around a quarter of Labour’s grassroots did nothing other than, presumably, cheer it on from the side-lines. Even those who did make the effort tended to prefer the less demanding stuff: just over half displayed posters or liked things on Facebook, whereas only a third claimed to have done any phone or face-to-face canvassing.
7 On balance, Labour’s grassroots are pretty positive about their experience of membership
True, around a third of members feel the leadership doesn’t pay them much attention and a quarter even go so far as to say that it doesn’t respect them. Around a third confess that doing stuff for the party can be pretty boring at times and over half worry about it taking time away from family. But nearly nine out of ten members think that working together with other party members can make a real difference, and two-thirds see membership as a good way of meeting interesting people. And three-quarters of members say that membership has lived up to their expectations.
8 Labour Party members are really pretty left wing
When we asked grassroots members to place themselves on a left-right spectrum running from zero (“very left wing”) to ten (“very right wing”), the average score was 2.39 – interestingly, slightly to the left of the average SNP member and only just to the right of the average member of the Greens; Lib Dem members placed themselves considerably closer towards the centre. On specific issues, just over 90% of Labour members think cuts to public spending have gone too far. About the same proportion want to see government redistributing income from the better-off to the less well-off. Just over 80% think that management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance. So, although only two out of our 1200 Labour Party members wrote down Jeremy Corbyn’s name when we asked them to tell us who should replace Ed Miliband, no-one should be too surprised if he attracts more support than some in the Party hoped would be the case.
9 Labour Party members are, by and large, liberal cosmopolitans
Only one in 10 would countenance the death penalty and only one in five think we need to censor films and magazines to preserve this country’s morals. On Europe, 85 per cent of Labour Party members intend to vote to stay in the EU irrespective of the package Cameron renegotiates with other member states prior to the referendum. Eight out of ten think that immigration is good for the economy, with the same number believing that it enriches Britain’s cultural life.
10 And finally…Labour isn’t the only organisation they belong to
Trade union leaders reckon they’ve persuaded lots of their members to join the Party since the election in the hope of influencing its choice of leader. When we surveyed Party members, however, only four out of ten of them belonged to a union. Still, that’s a higher proportion than in the UK as a whole, where just one in four employees now belongs to a union – 14% in the private sector and 55% in the public sector. And Labour Party members are much more likely to belong to unions than any other organisation. Just one in five said they belonged to the National Trust – and even that was twice as many as said they belonged to English Heritage and the RSPB respectively. Only one per cent of Labour members, incidentally, said they belonged to Weight Watchers – precisely the same proportion who are in the WI.
Tim Bale is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London and author of Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband. Paul Webb is Professor of Politics at the University of Sussex.
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