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?