As the last general election showed, when it comes to campaigning, boots on the ground can sometimes beat cash in the bank. Labour’s huge advantage over the Tories in terms of membership must surely have counted for something in close races – as long, that is, as a decent proportion of those members are actually active. These are the sort of people who will volunteer for phone banks, deliver leaflets, and canvass door-to-door in the run-up to the election, and then remind people to vote and help them get to the polling stations on polling day itself.
Yet if you talk to anyone about the surge of members into the party since 2015, it won’t be long until you come across grumbles (admittedly more frequently from veterans on the right rather than on the left of the party) about people who, having joined, don’t actually do very much – apart, maybe, from sounding off at meetings and flying the flag on Facebook and Twitter.
Whether that’s really the case, we’re not sure. But what we now know more about are the differences between online and offline activism. As part of the ESRC-funded Party Membership Project run out of Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, we’ve conducted detailed surveys of the members of six British parties. What’s interesting, and not just for us but perhaps for the party as well, is that there seem to be some things that enhance one of them more than they do the other.
Stats-fans can find the detailed modelling in this academic article. But the findings are fairly easy to summarise here. Across all six parties (Labour, Tory, Lib Dem, SNP, UKIP and the Greens), you’re more likely to campaign ‘in real life’ – in other words, to do things like canvassing and leafletting – for your party if you were recruited into it locally and feel both positive about, and ideologically close to, your local party. Seeing yourself as a bit more radical than the party as a whole also makes it more likely you’ll campaign for it, as does – more self-evidently, perhaps – living in a competitive constituency.
Some of those things also drive online activism: most obviously seeing yourself as something of a radical and feeling positive about the local party. But you’re more likely to be active online if your route into the party was national rather than local and if you’re a fan of your party’s leader – something that doesn’t seem to significantly encourage offline activism.
This is something that Labour should think about carefully. Understandably, the trend these days is towards recruiting members nationally, often digitally. That makes a lot of sense, especially in terms of cost-saving. But it may be storing up longer-term problems.
True, social media seems to be becoming an increasingly important campaign tool. The fact, then, that Jeremy Corbyn is worshipped by so many Labour members, and that so many of them feel, even now, that they’re located some way to the left of the party, would seem to bode well for its capacity to wage war in this virtual domain.
Yet the party still needs people willing to get out of the house and go leafletting and canvassing. Our research strongly suggests that members’ willingness to do that depends in part on recruiting them, and then making them feel part of something, at a local level.
Anecdotal reports that CLP meetings are becoming increasingly fraught (and sometimes downright bloody) affairs are therefore a cause for concern. Wherever you stand ideologically, if you want to ensure that Labour’s massive membership really does give it that all-important electoral edge in marginal seats, you should be working to ensure that your local party provides a welcoming (and, indeed, safe) space for all those who might want to play their part, regardless of where they’re coming from.
Tim Bale is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London.