Fabians: Our survey of Labour member experiences shows there is much to do

Andrew Harrop

Membership of the Labour Party matters. At its best, it brings activists identity, community, fulfilment and friendship. But negative experiences of membership are too common.

New Fabian Society research, conducted with LabourList’s assistance, shows that many party activists find some fellow members unfriendly, meetings unenjoyable and local parties unfair. And critically, members from disadvantaged and unrepresented backgrounds are more likely to say this. Experiences of local parties are unequal.

The survey findings are a rear-view mirror for the Labour Party, capturing members’ experiences in recent years up to summer 2021. Reforms newly introduced by the party came after the survey was carried out so won’t be reflected in the results. Nevertheless, it is important evidence for Labour in taking forward its commitment to equality and inclusion within the membership.

This is the second time the Fabian Society has run a comprehensive survey on how active members of the Labour Party feel about their local parties and their experiences of seeking leadership and candidate positions. When it came to inequality, there has been little progress since the last survey in 2015.

Across almost every question in this survey, we reveal a gradient among Labour members, with people in disadvantaged or under-represented groups more likely to report negative experiences of local parties than members without the same barriers.

Members of disadvantaged groups were more likely to find other members unfriendly and unwelcoming; less likely to enjoy attending meetings; less likely to believe people are treated fairly in the local party; and less likely to believe that local members reflect and understand people living in the area in all their diversity.

The groups affected include women, minority ethnic members, disabled members, lesbian, gay and bisexual members, and under-35s. Across a number of questions, Jewish members reported the worst experiences. Muslim members and trans and non-binary members also reported less positive experiences than members on average, but the sample sizes for these groups were very small.

Disabled members are among those most likely to report negative experiences and have specific concerns when it comes to accessibility. For example, around a quarter of disabled members who put themselves forward for a council or parliamentary selection said their accessibility needs were not met.

More widely, the survey indicated that unequal experiences within the party translated into barriers when seeking election for leadership or representative positions. A significant minority of respondents with protected characteristics who had taken part in an internal election believed they had experienced disadvantage as a result of features of their identity or background. Members who had stood for selection to be an MP, MEP or member of a devolved body were most likely to report this problem.

When we compared our 2015 and 2021 surveys, it was clear that the increase in factional arguments within the Labour Party have sharpened unhappiness – people from all identities and backgrounds were less positive about their local party than six years ago. But this general decline was not associated with any convergence in the experiences of members with different identities: people from disadvantaged groups who took part in 2021 reported worse experiences than other party activists today, as well as worse experiences than their predecessors with the same characteristics six years ago.

Factionalism was experienced by activists from all backgrounds, however the negative impacts of factionalism were felt most keenly by members from disadvantaged and minority groups. For example, only a quarter of respondents said people in their local party put aside political differences to work together, but this number was even lower among disadvantaged groups.

These findings don’t make great reading for Labour. But they are a snapshot, at a time when the party is making big efforts to address equality between members and improve party culture. Our respondents proposed lots of solutions to help Labour redouble its efforts. They wanted more mentoring opportunities, better information about getting involved and standing for office, more diversity in senior party ranks and stronger action against discrimination and harassment. There is much to do, but the journey has begun.

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