Home Politics Political Analysis The Scottish Labour Party and its mysterious expanding membership

The Scottish Labour Party and its mysterious expanding membership

I-am-a-memberFor years, party bosses have been throwing around their membership figures like political status symbols.

Remember when Alex Salmond unveiled the SNP’s 10,000th member at a party conference a few years ago? Or in June this year when Scottish Labour leaders trumpeted the addition of any extra 2,000 members since the election?

These things may not matter to normal members of the public, but they matter to our political leaders – big time.
No party wants to admit its membership is going down – that suggests failure. Likewise, all parties want to give the impression that they are popular and on the way up.

That is why the latest spat between Labour and the SNP got so nasty so quickly.

This is what happened. After last weekend’s Labour leadership election, Labour published the voting breakdown, showing which parts of the Labour Party had voted for each candidate.

This breakdown included a list of all the constituency parties, showing how the members in each one had voted.
It was then that the Nationalists spotted something unusual. In Scotland, 13,135 ballot papers were sent out to party members across all the Scottish constituencies.

This was the same Scottish Labour Party which had claimed, in June this year, that it had more than 20,000 members – 20,133 to be precise.

What was going on? Either 7,000 Labour members had been disenfranchised and had not been sent ballot papers or that 20,000 figure was a serious exaggeration and the Scottish Labour Party does not have that number of members at all.
Either way, the SNP sniffed a story: lying or disenfranchisement, the Nationalists thought.

It was then that Scottish Labour fought back. We do have 20,000 members, they said, but 7,000 of them are not eligible to vote in the leadership election.

This was certainly a shock and it begged the question: who can possibly be a Labour Party member yet not be eligible to vote in the leadership election?

The answer lies in Scotland’s network of Labour clubs or, more specifically, Labour Social Clubs which exist in some parts of Scotland still, mostly in the former industrial and mining areas of Ayrshire, the Lothians and Fife.

It seems that there are 7,000 members of Labour social clubs around the country. They pay a subscription to join the club and part of that goes to the Scottish Labour Party.

Those clubs are then affiliated to the Scottish Labour Party but not – and here is the rub – to the UK Labour Party. As a result, they have no right to vote in the leadership election.

This is distinctly murky, to say the least. Are they proper members or are they not?
These are people who have joined a social club. They do so because they want to join the club, not because they want to join a political party. If they wanted to be that active in politics they would join their local constituency party.

They join the social club and then find they are contributing to the Scottish Labour Party. Yet, despite this, they don’t get a say in the election of the Labour leader.

The world of party membership figures has always been a bit suspect but this Labour approach takes it to new extremes.
There has to be clarity and openness about this, otherwise it is meaningless.

Political parties should have to declare their membership figures. That should include all those who have joined up, signed up and paid up consciously and willingly to be members of that party: not those who joined by default because they fancied a game of darts and a couple of cheap pints on a Friday night.

Those figures would then be clear and available to all to see and scrutinise. That way we could see which parties were going up, which were going down and which were trying to fudge the issue by including those who weren’t really members at all.

If all those social club members were real, proper bona fide members of the Labour Party then surely they would have been given a vote in the leadership election?

But they weren’t, which suggests that even Labour bosses agreed that they weren’t real members at all.
There is also anecdotal evidence to suggest that a sizeable number of these social club members may be proper Labour Party members as well. If that is the case, then they have been counted twice, once as Labour Party members and once as social club members.

That means that the Scottish Labour Party’s membership total is some way below the 20,000 that its leaders claim, and possibly way, way below it.

If all membership figures were compiled, collated and published openly and properly, there would be no room for double counting and no reason for political opponents to question the figures.

This may not seem like a big point in the scale of things but, by doing this sort of double counting and including members who are not really members at all, Labour is doing politics a disservice.

It is simple adding to the impression that politicians fudge, mislead and are never wholly accurate or truthful – which just puts everybody off.

There is also the small matter of which party is the biggest in Scotland. Labour has claimed for some time that it is clearly the biggest in Scotland. Look, Labour leaders say, we have 20,000 members, far more than the SNP.
The SNP membership is 15,945 (at least that seems to be clear, open and unarguable). If those social club members are stripped away from the Labour figure, Labour’s Scottish membership falls to around 13,000.
Suddenly it is no longer the biggest party in Scotland, and that matters.

So let’s get this right. Let’s stop fudging the figures, because that is what is being done. Let’s stop the double counting and let’s publish all the membership figures (including the Tories who never reveal how many members they have in Scotland) and let’s have a bit of clarity into this argument.

Does it matter? Yes it does. If politicians can’t be open and honest about as simple a thing as this, then what can they be honest about?

  • http://www.betternation.org Malc

    This story has been about since Saturday night and we wrote about it on Sunday. How come it has taken “proper” media until Wednesday to catch up?

  • http://www.betternation.org Malc

    Apologies – the tone of that last comment wasn’t meant to sound as snide!

    What I meant to say was, we’ve been talking about it already and had already worked out why Labour’s numbers were so contradictory. And it was through Labour’s honesty (well, Kez predominantly) that we were able to work out where the 7,000 or so members went.

    I still agree though – are they ACTUAL members? I’d say unless they get to vote for leader, then they are not. But that’s just me.

  • Soosider

    This is just so funny, yes we have 20000 members but when pressed we discover they actually have 13000 members and 7000 members of affiliated social clubs, unbeliveable. It is blindingly obvious to anyone that a member of a political party is entitled to vote in their leadership contest, if they are not then they are not real members.
    Labour caught red handed (sorry) being economical with the truth, they lied and have been caught lying (again)

  • Sid the sceptic

    afternoon , only one problem with this article . the “Scottish” Labour party is not registered as a political party in Scotland the Labour party is.SO the “Scottish Labour party” is but a figment of peoples imagination. they are all but brothers and sisters in the one party.
    so we have 7,000 that are not eligible that we now know of .Can we move on to how many got to vote more than once ,how many union members that should of been allowed to vote and weren’t and how many that should not have been allowed were allowed?
    complete farce as usual
    we know from the past few years labour cannot run elections but this takes the biscuit!
    Sid

    • Angus Jura

      Quite right Sid, they should back to being honest (?) as in the days of New Labour when the Scotland appeared in very small ‘thin’ letters under the bold NEW LABOUR. So, now that the ‘NEW’ has gone out of Labour (or is it now NEW GENERATION LAbour?) then they should ba called LABOUR (Scotland), unless of course, they have the courage to declare independence (oops, sorry, ‘separation’) from the the UK Labour party.
      Their membership is purely academic. I remember when Robin Cook published his last book befre his untimely death, one of my friends, who had long ceased to be a member, received a complimentary constituency member’s copy. So, as for any party, how up-to-date are their lists? And who cares?!!

  • writeitdown

    A party leader would get respect from the public declare their membership and propose the others do so as well. This could be an opportunity for a leader to pressurise opponents, not a one-week story that’ll be forgotten before the next election.

  • gallus

    Dear Sir,
    On the boat to Rothesay I met the late Jimmy Reid.We had both been in the labour party,I was a chairman at branch level and so on up in many other guises as an activist.

    On the first sight of that skelly wee nyaff Blair I was out.

    I have an unusual second name, and Jimmy told me he had seen my name as well as his as still active mmebers of the labour party long after both of us had left in disgust in the London Times on am article on members and other shenanigans.
    I assume that Jimmy and I will still both be paper members even long after we are both dead.
    It is jsut a pity the labour party died first.

  • JPJ2

    The Labour Party in Scotland have been a fraud on the Scottish electorate for a generation or more-kept standing only by a fawning media (congratulations to Hamish for not shying away from the topic which took wings at the “Better Nation” blog, as Malc points out).

    The Labour emperor has no body never mind no clothes.

  • CWH

    Labour record keeping and in particular that of the unions is abysmal.

    My husband was a union member and paid his dues straight from his salary. He retired three years ago and informed the union accordingly and of course once he stopped work – no salary so no deductions. But still they kept sending him literature AND ballot papers for union elections and he contacted them again and again but they still have him as a member.

    With the unions threatening industrial action I am sure many large employers have taken note of BA’s successful court case against the unions because they polled people who had no right to vote in the strike ballot such was the state of the union’s record-keeping. Based on my husband’s experience it seems the unions have not got their house inorder and would be vulnerable to challenges such as BA’s.

    • Helena Brown

      I have to say that I almost feel sorry for those “Labour Party Members” who have no right to vote. My Other Half has tried of an on for years to stop paying the political levy, but has given up now as he is due to retire, received a ballot paper for the leadership election. He did not vote, he in clear conscience supports the SNP and would not. I expect he will be in a similar situation to CWH’s Husband in time.

  • Teria

    It lookis to me that they are not members of the Labour Party but of a Social Club in their town or village. As you have said many are in mining villages and probably the only available Social Club in the area. I’ll stick with 13,135 as worked out on ‘Better Nation’ at the weekend.

  • Soosider

    I have been taking a look at the data available on Labours website, it is well worth the effort. This link takes you straight to the data http://tinyurl.com/32nen5r

    Doing a wee bit of analysis is very revealing, I had always thought that Scotland was Labours heartland, but judging by the size of membership this is just not true. The number of ballot papers issued to Labour Members in Scotland was 13135 which accounts for only 7.4% of all papers issued, this is significantly below even a proportion based on population, and given that I expected to find Labour in Scotland over represented, came as a bit of a surprise to me.
    The turn out is also rather revealing across the Uk the proportion of ballots returned was 72.9% in Scotland it was 66.9%. So not only is Scotland under-represented numerically but it does appear as if members are a wee bit more apathetic than elsewhere in the UK.
    The average size of a CLP across the UK is 285 in Scotland it is 218, so on average a Uk CLP is 30% bigger than a Scottish one.

    The voting pattern is also interesting, the data only shows what the votes were for the first choice candidate, of the 8790 votes cast Scottish CLP David Milliband got 3565 and Ed got 3052, Ed won with only 35% of the first choice votes in Scotland. Across the UK Ed got only 30% of the first vote choices from party members wheras David got 44%.
    So in amongst the spin and brave new generation stuff, there does seem as if there will be a lot of disgruntled party members as overwhelmingly the membership chose David but got Ed due to the Labour Parties complicated and strange Election Processes. As for Scotland, based on the analysis of this data, then perhaps Labour are not the big beast they like to make themselves out to be and seem more reliant on the party elsewhere in the Uk than perhaps they would be comfortable to admit.

  • Wee Willie Bee

    It would appear that there is only one real legal Scottish political party, namely the Scottish National Party. All the others are therefore imposters, using a false title to bolster their votes within Scotland.

    • http://theirnjuq.wordpress.com/ The Irn Juq

      The Scottish Greens, SSP and Solidarity are all official parties, established in Scotland with no control from London.

  • http://finitebreaths.com/ Russell Cavanagh

    Lord forbid I give any support to Labour, Scottish or otherwise, but I seem to remember a rule that new members have to be registered for a certain length of time before being able to participate in party decision=making via ballots, etc. Might that be a factor?

  • snecked

    Of the 13,000 members Labour say theu have I suspect the majority of them are Trade Union affiliates most of whom have no serious inteerst in the politcal process whatsover. I know that in my area the Labour Branch collapsed and many of them went into the SSP. Some of them have now joined the SNP.

    My wife has been in the SNP since the mid sixties. Until recently when she retired she got to vote in Labour leadership elections because she was in the Trade Union. Many of the supposed Scottish Labour members are just exactly like this.

    At least when you join the SNP you actually know you are joining a political party for a political aim. The LibDems are even worse. I think the’ve got about 20 members in this constiuencvy and probably even fewer in others.

  • baglady

    well blow me,the labour party telling porkies [never]but its good at last

    someone is taking an interest in lies,spin, and inactetudes,no OTHER news

    have bothered for many years to even look into the GUFFwe are fed on a regular

    bassis,i’ve heard all the excuses for all the lies,nothe discrepancyw we KNOW, and that gene

    will never go back in the bottle, i’m sure this descrepancy is nothing to do

    with difference between quality,and quantity,,,,,,or could it…….

  • Dave Coull

    Lived in Axminster, Devon, for 8 years. One day having a drink with pals from work I lamented there was nowhere in Axminster we could play snooker. “Yes there is” says a mate. “The Conservative Club”. We can’t go there, I said. “Yes we can, I’m a member” was the answer; “but only because they’ve got cheap beer and a snooker table”. When we went to the Con Club, the local Tory Party boss took one look at me and said “You can’t sign HIM in here! – he’s a LIBERAL!” Since my real views were a very long way left of the LibDems, I denied being anything of the kind. We got in and drank cheap beer and played snooker. I wonder how many other folk were members of the Conservative Club for the same reason?

    • Philip

      Dave, I used to play cards in my local Conservative club with a few guys from work who wouldn’t have voted Conservative in a million years. When asked why I was told straight out, ‘cheapest beer in town’

      I was certainly never asked my own political affiliation either…

    • James Kirk

      Yes but did that make you a “member” of the Conservative Party which seems to be the point here ?

  • Jeff Duncan

    Pretty much sums up Labour – rely on the working classes to pay their dues and vote but actually working class people continually get shafted by Labour.

    Labour never were and never will be a party of the people – it’s all smoke and mirrors and it seems Glasgow and a few other Labour heartlands are going to have to die off before that source of blinkered and unconditional misguided loyalty evaporates.

  • J. R. Tomlin

    Hamish, you might want to remember that there is NO SUCH THING as a Scottish Labour Party. It doesn’t exist.

    • vespa

      It used to! Ask Alex Neil or Jim Sillars !

  • http://www.Twitter.com/johnmcdonaldish JohnMcDonald

    SNP supporters, like me, have always held a deep antipathy towards the Labour party but, and here is the rub, we also share a lot of views and historical baggage with Labour supporters.

    So, I don’t think we will ever win them over to our side by attacking them for being stupid or suggesting they have to “die out” because, primarily, I don’t believe they are stupid nor do I think they should “die off”. If I did, it would be me that was being stupid.

    Whatever we do to win support from Labour supporters, it has to involve appealing to our shared values and desire to improve our community.

    Oh, and we can always take the odd well aimed kick at the Labour party structure!

    • David Alexander

      Good comment John.

      Like you, I don’t believe that attacking Labour supporters personally will do anyone any good at all but I’m always amazed by how righteous some of the ‘brothers’ are while tolerating the most corrupt practises and supporting the party which took us into the most awful ‘war’ in Iraq.

    • Soosider

      John
      Could not agree with you more, ridicule and abuse does not encourage people to change it has the opposite effect and merely entrenches them in the strongly held behaviours.

    • Hugo

      Well said John.

      I hope it makes posters think twice before making vitriolic comments.

  • http://the-universality-of-cheese.blogspot.com Mark MacLachlan

    Hamish many thanks for answering my question from Tuesday morning…This is the fair crack of the whip readers have been asking for.

    http://politics.caledonianmercury.com/2010/09/28/dozen-snp-msps-face-losing-seats-after-regional-list-shake-up/

    As Dave Coull, above says when you’re out on the tiles and all other pubs are closed, the friendly Labour Social Club always had a late license, where people bonded by their love of cheap booze, a quick spot of rhythmic pelvic thrusting and a rushed bus stop knee trembler could always sign in at the door as a member…

    Oddly enough Dumfries and Galloway Council have just swallowed a the £48,000 rates bill owed to them by the Labour Social Club which recently went belly up.

    I suppose an inquisitive cove might look at those suppliers of fund raising marquees, the Haddington Labour Party Social Club, and enquire as to how many members double up as bona fide members versus late night revellers?

  • Mikey

    Is there not any way that Labour can be disbarred from using the title “Scottish” LAbour and the said organisation does not exist?

    • Soosider

      Mikey
      No there is no way as it is a registered description with the Election Commission, exactly the same status as Alex Salmond for First Minister, remember the furore over that . The registered Political Party is Labour, other registered party description include Scottish Labour Party Candidate. It is exactly the same for the Conservatives and the LibDems both of which add Scottish to their title, I have tended to see it as a variation on putting a kilt on a story, same principle and same effect.
      Link is to Electoral Commission Site http://tinyurl.com/2w5mxw4

    • http://theirnjuq.wordpress.com/ The Irn Juq

      The only way to stop them would be for a new party to be established called “The Scottish Labour Party” Jim Sillars-style

    • Kobi

      Yeah, in exactly the same way that the SNP can be disbarred from using the title “Scottish Governmet”, as the said organisation does not exist.

  • Sir James Douglas

    There are also no such things as the ‘Scottish’ liberal democracts or ‘Scottish’ conservatives.

    Unless these parties restructure themselves, thne the Scottish Electoral Commission should ban the use of these titles – it’s odd that it chooses to do nothing.

    • oldmack

      Ach! now Sir James, could it be that the Electoral Commission in Scotland just like the Electoral Commission for the “United Kingdom” is a depositary for political placemen and place woman.
      A quick perusal through the membership of those a gust bodies does show a distinct leaning toward the party in power at Westminster, with the token opposition victim in place as per the required dictate.
      Just like every other quango and board a wee bit here and a wee bit there, and don’t talk about nor that big lump below the carpet where the truth has been swept.

  • Edward

    Something interesting was reported on the early morning news today, that the Tory peer (or is that peeress?) Baroness Warsi has claimed that there was electoral fraud conducted by Labour at the last election, where they won 3 seats from the Tories. She may have something or nothing, but very curious none the less if she has been able to pin point what happened. It may have nothing to do with results in Scotland, going back to the rather curious Glenrothes result, but it may be but a short hop skip and jump, to explain why Labour did win Glenrothes and went against the grain to retain the seats in Scotland.
    The fact is there is a bit of an open door when it comes to postal voting, one that a journalist with integrity would find it interesting to investigate.
    The thing with postal voting is , that once its set up, it cant easily be changed, so the postal ballots will continually go to the address requested, ergardless if the person lives their or in fact passed away. The system is hopeless and is open to fraud

  • Georgie Kent

    I think this is interesting as it points to an inflexion. When you consider that 60 years ago Labour and Conservative polled 96% of all Scottish votes, things have changed. If we are now at the point when the SNP and Labour are level pegging in membership and the SNP are still growing then we may not see the results of that next year but certainly by 2015, if the ConDems hang on in, then we could have a real shocker in that years elections results.

  • Soosider

    I see Kezia Dugdale has responded over at Better Nation to the original story if I may Quote her
    “Hi Malc, I promised on twitter to look into this and try and come up with some sort of explanatoin. I’m no official spokesperson, but what strikes me frm the numbers you’ve posted is that they do not reflect the numbers i know to be true in edinburgh east – so i asked about – the answer is that labour students don’t appear in the clp figures – that’s because they are an affiliated society and therefore counted separately.

    These figures also don’t include Labour clubs – that’s the old school ayrshire and east lothian clubs – these people are members of the party and the clubs are affiliated to Scottish Labour Party but not UK so don’t get a vote on UK leader.

    Together that will account for a few 1000 people but i can’t claim to know that it’s 7!”
    Subsequently she posted further
    “Well I might struggle to defend it because I didn’t write the rules but will try and answer your points.

    The Labour clubs are affiliated to the Scottish Labour Party – they are members and did get to vote for Iain Gray. They bay a levy fee to affiliate and I’d imagine they could affiliate to the national party but have chosen not to – I don’t know why that’s the case.

    As for Labour students. I was never a Labour student. I didn’t join the party till I was 22/23 years old.

    I know a number of people who are labour students but not members of their local CLP – therefore they are counted separately… Some people are both and get two votes… Internal democracy indeed ;)”

    Yes she is stating that Social CLub members get to vote for the leader at Holyrood but not at Westminster. Go figure that one?

  • Nautilus

    It’s all very well that the Labour Party has exaggerated their membership figures, but they must have been at this level for years and yet they always seem to turn out the voters on polling day. Let’s not get too complacent about the membership raising our hopes for the Scottish Parliament elections. Remember, they have the BBC and the whole British press working for them. Fortunately, the anti-SNP drip, drip propaganda is becoming so blatant now that the Scottish people see right through it.

    Unfortunately, many of the poor in the West of Scotland see the Labour Party as the saviour that will get them out of the mire. Labour, in power again, uses this and keeps them poor to keep them voting. And so they vote Labour again………….. Catch 22. They’ve been doing this for 80 years! See that brick wall. Stop nutting it.

  • Jeff Duncan

    Yes – I think many people in Glasgow and surround areas revel in voting Labour as they clearly believe that it benefits them or gives them a unique sense of identity/status.

    If only they could grasp the idea that Labour actually do not mean better or safer – aspiration is not something Labour truly ‘get’.

  • http://torryburnlad@aol.com bob kingdom of fife.

    Got to agree with Edward’s post and he is ‘ DEAD ‘ right on these mysterious labour voters who appear on the electoral roll and come an election ‘ arise ‘ to cast their vote by her majesty’s postal service.Time for a journalist worth their salt to investigate this anomaly or pardon the pun ‘ dig deeper into this affair ‘

  • Roll_On_2010

    Hamish if you think the NuLabour party membership numbers are murky, you should investigate the system that selects their leader.

    The vote of one MP was worth the votes of 608 party members.

    Real democracy at work!

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