‘A Labour party that couldn’t even smash the local elections should be seriously worried’, CityAM, 8 May 2018.

At first glance, Thursday’s local elections seemed to offer something for everyone (except for Ukip, of course).

But Labour should be worried – really, really worried.

First, the upside – at least for self-styled progressives. The referendum has clearly removed Ukip’s main raison d’etre, and a series of soap-opera-style leadership contests has rendered it a laughing stock. Purple is now officially as unfashionable as the Black Death – until, perhaps, it finally dawns on former Farage fans that post-Brexit Britain is going to look pretty much like pre-Brexit Britain, only poorer.

The main beneficiaries of that collapse appear to have been the Tories. Not only did they hold on in London, but they seem to have won over erstwhile Ukip voters in places – most obviously in towns like Dudley in the West Midlands – which could deliver them a bunch of gains at the next election.

The loss of one or two true-blue councils elsewhere – Plymouth, for instance – will sting, but these really aren’t that serious, although they will worry a few sitting Conservative MPs.

That said, the Lib Dems’ impressive performance in Richmond should give the Tories some genuine cause for concern – particularly because (along with results in other parts of South West London and, indeed, the South West more generally) it suggests that Vince Cable’s party is finally out of intensive care and, if not quite fit for discharge, at least sitting up and talking.

It’s all too easy to forget that one of the main reasons why David Cameron was able to win a surprise overall majority in 2015 was because Britain’s traditional third party came a very distant fourth that year.

Any signs that the Lib Dems might be capable of snatching back a handful of seats next time need to be taken very, very seriously by Brandon Lewis and James Cleverley and their team at CCHQ – not least because any return to form by the “yellow peril” opens up the possibility of Vince and his colleagues becoming king-makers once again.

At a deeper level, the results are also a reminder to Tory strategists that the party will continue to struggle to put together a convincing parliamentary majority unless it can somehow find a way to appeal to urban, ethnically-diverse, and pro-European Britain – the Britain of the future, not the past.

Still, that’s for the long term. For the moment, a combination of Ukip’s collapse and the public’s evident lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn and his colleagues could well see the Tories emerge once again as at least the biggest party in the next election. Indeed, if they finally start spending some serious money on the NHS and schools, and, of course, start building some houses, even an overall majority can’t be completely ruled out.

For Labour, however, the locals were a washout – and not simply because campaigners allowed the bar to be set too high beforehand, or because the party’s performance three years ago made big gains less likely.

Any opposition facing a government that has been in office as long as this one and that is so clearly struggling to deliver in so many ways should have absolutely smashed it last Thursday. But Labour didn’t. Fact.

Forget about London for a moment, and look at places like Swindon and Nuneaton. Without winning towns like them, there is no way back to power for Labour – even as the largest party in a hung parliament where the Lib Dems hold the balance of power.

Corbyn and co. can over-promise and virtue-signal their way to stunning victories in big cities and university towns. But if Thursday’s results are anything to go by, that won’t be enough in the end to get them into government.

Originally published at http://www.cityam.com/285399/labour-party-couldnt-even-smash-local-elections-should

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‘Same difference? Female (and male) members of Britain’s political parties’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), Democratic Audit, 22 March 2018.

Six out of ten people who belong to political parties in the UK are men, although there are some pretty big differences between parties. There are also some smaller, but nonetheless significant differences between parties’ male and female members – differences we recently explored by bringing together four prominent women parliamentarians (Nicky MorganKirsty BlackmanJess Phillips, and Jo Swinson) to discuss findings from the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University. Those findings were presented on 5 March at the London headquarters of the Social Market Foundation (SMF) think tank, with the cross-party panel of MPs invited to reflect on them in the light of their own experience as activists and elected politicians.

The PMP membership surveys (the most recent of which took place just after the 2017 general election and are summarized here) found that, although there were more male than female party members, both were more likely than not to be middle aged and middle class. When it came to ideology and policy, female members tended on balance to be more favourable to redistribution and more concerned about austerity than their male counterparts – although there are of course some notable differences between parties on this and other matters. Except when it came to the need for censorship, women tended to be more socially liberal. Women members were also keener on a softer Brexit and on the idea of a second referendum. As for campaigning, women tend more than men toward the more expressive activities, like using Facebook, rather than knocking on doors.

The PMP found that men and women joined parties for very similar reasons, although leaders appeared to be a slightly bigger draw for women, whereas more men than women saw membership as leading to a political career. That said, there was no difference in how male and female members got round to joining parties. Having joined, though, women tended to be more satisfied with what they got out of membership even if they were less likely to stand for election for and in the party. And when it came to reasons for leaving – something the PMP can explore because its survey research not only covers party members but people who’ve given up their membership – men were more likely than women to call it a day when they disagreed with the direction their party was taking; women, on the other hand, were more likely than men to do so for financial reasons.

All this seemed to strike a chord with the MPs. Women, Nicky Morgan felt, only tended to get involved if they thought their doing so would make a real difference – something which could be hard to persuade them of if a party limited members’ role in choosing leaders and helping to formulate policy. It wasn’t unusual, she added, for men to join with higher expectations about the prospects for rapid advancement and so to leave if those expectations were dashed; women on the other hand, were often prepared to play behind-the-scenes roles if they felt those roles were practically important to the running of the party.

Kirsty Blackman echoed some of these points, noting that she felt the SNP should be at an advantage in this respect because it was relatively easy for members to play a part in candidate selection and policy-making. She would, however, like more women to get involved in campaigning and suggested the key might be to better explain why some of the activities that women appeared to be less keen on were actually important – not least because activities like canvassing and leafletting were often the way people who wanted to become candidates proved their commitment. Getting more women involved in carrying out those activities, then, would probably lead to more women standing for (and winning) selection contests in the long run.

While agreeing with all this, Jess Phillips was adamant that parties needed to make a particular appeal to women members, running, for example, women-only campaign sessions to overcome some of the initial concerns some women had about such activities. She also noted that women, often because of family responsibilities, found that the traditional times canvassing and leafletting were carried out (early evenings and Saturday mornings) didn’t suit them. Partly (but only partly) because of this, women were often rather more reluctant than their male counterparts to sign up – something she navigates, when asking members if they’d be willing to volunteer, by including a ‘Maybe’ box which, she finds, women are more willing to tick (after which they get a follow-up phone call that almost always results in them saying ‘Yes’). She also made the point, though, that there were other inequalities that fed into lower participation by women at the grassroots, in particular class, especially now that fewer working-class women seem to be organised by unions than was the case in days gone by.

Jo Swinson concurred that parties simply had to do something about all this, particularly if they were concerned – as they ought to be – about female representation both in local authorities and in parliament: since grassroots members were the talent pool and the start of the pipeline, then more women needed recruiting. That means being more pro-active than they have been before: structural and cultural inequalities often meant that women were less likely than men to take the first step unless they were explicitly invited to do so. Existing female MPs and councillors had a part to play as role models but parties had to be careful, too, to bill things like introductory meet-ups in ways that didn’t unconsciously appeal more to men than women – the ‘Lib Dem pint’ evenings in a local pub being an obvious example.

In the Q&A with the audience of journalists, party officials and the odd academic, there was widespread agreement that parties might also need to re-think the definition of what being a good, hard-working activist meant, since this was in itself clearly gendered. The live issue of sexual harassment was also discussed: while it was vital to talk openly about it, people felt, it mustn’t be allowed to discourage women from joining and getting active in parties – or in other political and campaigning activity which, at least initially, doesn’t necessarily involve joining a party but might be a gateway to doing so down the line. Finally, everyone agreed that, although there was clearly a greater reluctance among women than men to become party members, we need to be careful not to implicitly blame women for not coming forward: in the end, there was a lot more parties on all sides could and should be doing to encourage their involvement.

Originally published at http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/22/same-difference-female-and-male-members-of-britains-political-parties/

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‘Where have all the women gone? The Tories have a serious gender problem’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), The Conversation, 15 March 2018.

The latest findings on the gender imbalance among the rank and file memberships of Britain’s biggest political parties make for worrying reading – particularly for the Conservatives.

Over-time comparison suggests that there are now fewer women belonging to the Conservative party than there were nearly a quarter of a century ago. The Tories have, in recent years, increased the number of women representing them in the House of Commons to 21% – an achievement that owes something to David Cameron’s modernisation project and to the sterling work of Ann Jenkin’s Women to Wincampaign, but perhaps even more to the unexpectedly strong result that the party chalked up at the 2015 general election. However, no such progress is being made in the grassroots.

The findings come from the latest surveys by the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) run from Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University, carried out just after the last general election in June 2017.

The lack of women among the Tory rank and file could well turn out to be a serious problem for those interested in getting the party to look more like the country it wants to govern. As the recently-published comparative study by the Swedish political scientist, Drude Dahlerup, makes clear, anyone who is truly serious about getting more women elected to parliament is going to have to consider the introduction of quotas. But they will also need to pay attention to the pool and pipeline of potential candidates available to political parties since, if there aren’t enough women at the grassroots, then achieving anything like equality of representation will prove an uphill struggle.

What happened to Tory women? Party Members ProjectAuthor provided

Overall, far more men than women join Britain’s political parties, although the 61:39 ratio our 2017 surveys reveal means that the UK isn’t that unusual (or even that terrible) in comparative terms. Data suggests the gender imbalance in Germany is considerably worse and only a little bit better in the famously more egalitarian Nordic countries. And, in large part because more women than men have joined the British Labour Party in the last two-and-half years, things are more equal in the UK than they used to be. But, sadly, that’s far from true for the Tories. Right now, fewer than one in three grassroots Conservative members is a woman.

Change over the years. Whiteley P, Seyd P & Richardson J, Bale, Poletti and WebbAuthor provided

The situation might not be so worrying if the Tories could somehow tell themselves (and the rest of us) that the direction of travel was positive.

But all the surveys ever done on Britain’s three biggest parties clearly show that it’s anything but.

In marked contrast to Theresa May’s, Jeremy Corbyn’s grassroots membership is (like the Greens’) not that far off achieving gender balance. The SNP doesn’t do too badly either, relatively speaking at least.

UKIP – assuming for the sake of argument that it still exists – lies at the other end of the spectrum. Men make up three quarters of its members.

The gender imbalance in the Lib Dems is nowhere near that bad. That said, the party, which has never done particularly well when it comes to electing women MPs (even though it now has a female deputy leader in Jo Swinson), will be keen to improve on a situation where getting on for two-thirds of its rank-and-file members are men.

More women needed

For the Conservatives, a failure to expand the pool and the pipeline by attracting more female members will make it more difficult to build on whatever has been achieved so far at the parliamentary level. And with this long-term goal in mind, there is another statistic which should surely give the Conservatives serious cause for concern.

Corbyn: the future looks gender balanced. PA

The flood of new members into the Labour party since 2015 might not represent as much of a youthquake as the now familiar footage of photogenic teens and twenty-somethings mobbing Mr Corbyn suggests: after all, plenty of middle-aged and older folk have rallied to his (more or less red) flag, too. But, by our calculation, out of every 100 Labour members aged between 18 and 24, some 57 are women compared to 43 who are men. That should bode well for the party’s gender balance in years to come.

But the equivalent figure (and therefore the future) for the Conservative Party is truly frightening. By our reckoning, only five per cent of rank and file Tories are aged 18-24 but, shockingly, as many as 85% of those young adults the Tories have persuaded to join them are male rather than female.

Brandon Lewis and James Cleverly were recently appointed to the top jobs at Conservative Campaign Headquarters (CCHQ) in order to up the party’s membership game. Our research suggests they’ve got their work cut out. Doubtless they’re the best men for the job – but they may be part of the problem.

Originally published at https://theconversation.com/where-have-all-the-women-gone-the-tories-have-a-serious-gender-problem-93398

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‘Why women leave political parties’ (with Monica Poletti and Paul Webb), New Statesman, 7 March 2018.

More men than women join political parties. And new research from the ESRC-funded Party Members Project (PMP) conducted by the Queen Mary University of London, and Sussex University suggests that even when women do join, they think and act a little differently from their male counterparts. Even when it comes to why people leave parties – something that’s not at all uncommon – there are interesting gender differences.

Not all parties are the same, of course. Anyone familiar with the PMP’s recent Grassroots report will have noticed that while around six out of ten UK party members are male, there are big differences between, say, Labour, where the gender balance is 53:47 and the Tories, where it’s 71:29.

The differences between men and women who join the nation’s six biggest parties – Labour, the Scottish National Party, the Lib Dems, the Tories, Greens and Ukip – might not be so glaring (and when it comes to age and class, incidentally, they are virtually invisible) but they may well be significant.

Female party members tend to lean a little to the left of their male counterparts. They are also, in general, more socially liberal and keen to see a more diverse bunch of people elected to parliament – although this is less the case in the Conservative party, possibly because of age differences.

Probably because they’re under greater time-pressure, female party members, when compared to male members anyway, tend to prefer online to offline campaign activities. They’re Facebookers rather than door-knockers.

That might end up being more significant than it appears at first glance. After all, would-be candidates use their door-knocking tallies to prove their commitment and campaign skills to selection committees. Women may therefore be at a disadvantage, even if they do see party membership as the first step to a career in politics.

Interestingly, but perhaps depressingly, the project’s research suggests that those career expectations and aspirations are in any case more common among the men who join parties than they are among the women. Generally, though, both men and women join parties primarily because they want to promote their policies and ideas (and resist those put forward by their opponents).

Given the role principles pay in recruitment, it’s interesting in terms of retention that the research shows that female party members seem better able than men to tolerate conflict and disagreement with the direction their party is taking. When we look at the reasons given by members who leave, men are more likely to storm (or should that be flounce?) out on that score. Women, though, are more cost-conscious than men. Only one in ten men cited the need to save money as a reason for leaving, whereas it was a factor for a quarter of women.

What all this says about gender differences and how parties can best navigate and overcome them, we’ll leave to readers – and the parties themselves – to ponder.


Originally published at https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/staggers/2018/03/why-women-leave-political-parties

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‘The Numbers That Show It’s Wrong To Suggest Labour Disaffiliate From The Unions’, Huffington Post, 7 March 2018.

“Nothing”, wrote Momentum director and member of Labour’s NEC, Christine Shawcroft, in declaring her support for Jon Lansman’s bid to be the party’s next General Secretary, “would induce me to support a candidate from a major trade union, they stick it to the rank and file members time after time after time. It’s also time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour party. The party belongs to us, the members”.

She’s since deleted the post.  Nevertheless, the reaction has been understandably furious.  Not only was organized labour instrumental in founding the party in the first place but many affiliated unions have, very much more recently, provided invaluable moral and financial support for its current left-wing leadership. Arguably, then, the party belongs just as much to them as it does to the members.

But even pointing this out is effectively to acquiesce in what is a false distinction between ‘rank and file members’ – including, ironically, members of Momentum itself – and the unions.  That’s because many of those self-same members also belong to those self-same unions.  In fact, research by the ESRC-funded Party Membership Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University reveals that around a third of grassroots Labour Party members are union members too – a far bigger proportion than is the case for any other political party in the UK.

It is worth noting that the proportion of Labour members who belong to unions seems to have dropped as the party’s membership has ballooned in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn standing for the leadership – but not by that much.  When my colleagues Paul Webb, Monica Poletti and I surveyed Labour’s membership just after the 2015 general election, some 39% of party members belonged to a union.  When we returned to survey the party just after the 2017 election, the figure was 32% – still way over the 5% of Tories, 11% of Lib Dems, 7% of Kippers, 21% of Greens, and 15% of Scots Nats, but admittedly down on two years before.

If we look in more detail at those people who joined Labour during and after the leadership election of 2015 then it becomes apparent that they are less likely to be union members than those who were members before Jeremy Corbyn declared his candidacy and then won the contest.  Probably around a quarter of these new joiners are union members.

Now, what we can say for certain about those Labour Party members who also see themselves as members of Momentum is limited, because, on our figures anyway, ‘only’ one in ten Labour members reckon they belong to the organization, thus giving us only small sample size.  However, inasmuch as we can tell from our respondents, nearly half of them are trade unionists.

Those figures don’t necessarily send a ‘delete your account’ message to Ms Shawcroft, but they do suggest that her belated discretion may have been the better part of valour.

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‘Why Labour’s Brexit strategy may be in trouble – and why Theresa May has reason to worry too’ (with Alan Wager), New Statesman, 5 February 2018.

In spite of the fact that it accords with common wisdom – or maybe because of it – aside from the odd (sometimes very odd) political scientist, not many people will have heard of ‘May’s special law of curvilinear disparity’. Essentially, it argues that those holding the most radical views in any political party will be its members and, in particular, those members who hold positions within their parties – branch secretaries, association chairs, delegates to various national bodies, etc.

According to May (John, not Theresa; perhaps we should have mentioned that earlier), if you draw a diagram showing the distribution of views in, say, a centre-left party, with its voters at the bottom, its activists half-way up and then its parliamentary elite at the top, the line will bulge out to the left as you go from voters to activists, and then return toward the centre as you go from those activists to MPs. If you do the same for a right wing party, then that same line will bulge out to the right and then come back in again

If, then, you were to put Labour and the Conservatives on the same diagram, then you’d get a diamond shape looking something like this:

This fits with what most casual observers of British politics often assume, namely that grassroots members are the real zealots while MPs, who after all have to get elected, are, like most voters, slightly more pragmatic. This is the dominant narrative surrounding Labour in the Corbyn-era and is a trope traditionally trundled out whenever the audience at Tory party conferences has demanded a harder line on anything from trade unions, to tax and spend, and, in particular, law n’ order. ‘Trots to the left of them, blue-rinse dragons to the right’, as it were.

In fact, plenty of research suggests May’s law doesn’t actually hold up very well, not least because it tends to overstate the realism/centrism of a party’s MPs, who are rather more inclined to be true-believers than the unprincipled sell-outs they are routinely portrayed as by their critics. May’s law (not sure why we still call it a law, but we do) also underplays the extent to which members (including active members) like winning elections, even if that means moderating their opinions. And it forgets that, on some issues anyway, voters can be pretty radical, too.

If we return to our diagram, then, rather than a diamond, we might imagine a fan shape.

So, is Brexit a case in point?  Very possibly.

When it comes to the Conservative Party’s voters, some 69 per cent appear to have voted Leave in the 2016 Referendum.  The figure for members, according to research conducted for the ESRC-funded Party Members Project, is 70 per cent.  But for Tory MPs, research just released by UK in a Changing Europe and Queen Mary University of London’s Mile End Institute, puts it (excluding any MP who wouldn’t say or didn’t vote) at just 55 per cent.

As for Labour, the equivalent figures – this time for Remain – are 65 per cent (Labour voters), 89 per cent (Labour members) and 94 per cent (Labour MPs).

Which leaves us with a diagram looking something like this:

If we go into more detail and look at what members and MPs think about whether we should stay in the single market, then party members and MPs on both sides of the party divide seem to be singing pretty much from the same hymn sheet.

While the questions asked of each group differ, we can reasonably infer that on the Conservative side around three-quarters of MPs want out of the single market, while the proportion of members who want the same is comfortably over two-thirds.  On the Labour side, meanwhile, there’s even greater congruence: only around one in ten MPs and party members think we should leave, with the other nine, in both groups, thinking we should stay.

All of which is lucky for Theresa (if not John) May, although not so much, maybe, when one recalls that polling suggests – perhaps because, unlike MPs and members, they still believe we can have our cake and eat it too – that only around a fifth of Tory voters want out of the single market.

But if this mismatch between their MPs and members, on the one hand, and their voters, on the other, poses a potential problem for the Tories, things could get just as tricky for Labour. Of those members of the public currently saying they’d vote Labour, around two-thirds want the UK to stay in the single market, with just one in ten wanting out of it.

This suggests that Jeremy Corbyn’s (how best to put it?) ‘equivocal’ position on the issue is out of line not just with the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs and Labour members but with the overwhelming majority of Labour voters, too. Sitting on the fence, then, might not be quite as clever as some people seem to think – and it could turn out to be very painful indeed.

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‘Party members hold dear their privileges in candidate selection’, Times Red Box, 10 January, 2018.

Sarah Wollaston, chairwoman of the Commons health select committee, is everyone’s favourite Conservative backbencher. Well, maybe not everyone’s.

With her forthright, often outrageously non-partisan, views, she’s not always as appreciated by party managers as she is by those of us who appreciate common sense and respect for the facts.

But Dr Wollaston, you may recall, was the result of an experiment gone wrong – at least in the eyes of the Tory leadership and the whips’ office.

Back in the day, when David Cameron was desperate to give his party a makeover, the Conservatives thought it might be a good idea to pull some fresh faces into politics (and into the Tory fold) by holding open primaries.

In 2009 the Tory MP for Totnes, Anthony “I’ve got a very, very large house. Some people say it looks like Balmoral” Steen was one of the stars (and not in a good way) of the parliamentary expenses scandal.

He had to go, after which all the voters in the constituency were sent a ballot paper by the Conservative Party and invited to say who they would like to see stand as the party’s candidate at the forthcoming general election.

Perhaps surprisingly, over 16,000 of them took part and Dr Wollaston romped home with 48 per cent of the vote, winning election to parliament nine months later.

But instead of it marking the beginning of a revolution in the way the Tories went about picking their PPC’s, Totnes proved a flash in the pan. It didn’t take long for the party’s leadership to work out that the system was not only expensive but likely to produce candidates with way too much independence of mind.

But there was another drawback. Open primaries, it was claimed, also removed one of the main reasons why people bother belonging to the Conservative Party – an organisation that, aside from granting members the exclusive right to pick candidates for local and national office, offers them no formal say on its direction.

If you take away that privilege, it was argued, you only risk accelerating what, for the Tories at least, seems to be an inevitable long-term decline in membership.

It turns out, though, that Tory members are not alone in wanting to preserve their privileges in candidate selection.


As the chart (taken from Grassroots, the recent report by the Party Members Project based at Queen Mary University of London and Sussex University) shows, support for closed (i.e. members-only) methods of deciding who should stand as a candidate is overwhelmingly high in all four of Britain’s biggest political parties.

Where there are bigger differences between the members of those parties, however, is in what sort of people they would like to see more of sitting on the green benches at Westminster.

There is fairly widespread agreement that local MPs are a good thing, although it is interesting to note that the party differences are reflected in figures compiled by Demos on the proportion of parties’ MPs who were born, educated or live within 20km of their constituency, namely 74 per cent for the SNP, 64 per cent for Labour and only 33 per cent for the Conservatives.

When it comes to the other categories, however, the differences between the members of different parties – and particularly between the Conservatives and the other three – are very pronounced.


Apart from being more doubtful about the virtues of electing more working class MPs to parliament, the Lib Dems line up pretty near exactly with members of the Labour and Scottish National parties, with the Conservatives super-suspicious of anything that looks like political correctness or affirmative action.

LGBT MPs may be a little disappointed to see that their cause doesn’t seem to be as popular as those of other under-represented groups (particularly among the Tory grassroots), although this might perhaps reflect an awareness among party members that the UK parliament is already one of the most LGBT (or at LGBT-friendly) in the world.

Originally published at https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/party-members-hold-dear-their-privileges-in-candidate-selection-t6rbj8gnb

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