April 2, 2024 - 7:00am

At the most recent meeting of Labour’s National Executive Committee, General Secretary David Evans reported that the party has lost 23,000 members since January.

The proximate reason for this mass departure is widely believed to be Labour’s stance on the conflict in Gaza, but it reflects a trend which has been ongoing ever since Keir Starmer became party leader four years ago.

Over the course of Starmer’s leadership, Labour has lost nearly one third of its membership. At the time of his election, Labour had over 530,000 members; it now has under 370,000.

Most of those leaving hailed from the Left of the party, upset over a perceived Rightward trend in Labour’s policy programme. One of those who left in the last month was Guardian columnist Owen Jones. Yet if these former members think that by leaving the party they will advance Left-wing goals or damage Starmer, they are mistaken. Indeed, their departure only pushes Labour further to the Right, and consigns their beliefs to further irrelevancy.

In an immediate sense, resignation does strike a blow against the party leadership. When supporters quit, the party loses vital income from membership subscriptions. Jeremy Corbyn’s Director of Policy Andrew Fisher estimated back in September that declining membership will cost Labour £6 million per year.

Starmer’s Labour Party has been forced to adopt two strategies to compensate for the financial loss. The first is to squeeze remaining members for more cash. I am a party member, and in just the last two weeks I have received five different e-mails from Labour asking me for money with subject lines such as “£21”, “URGENT: More help needed”, and “Why we ask”.

The other strategy is seeking financial support from wealthy individual donors. They aren’t being asked to donate £21: multiply that by 100,000. At least that’s the amount one millionaire, Gary Lubner, has so far given to Labour since Starmer came into office.

If you’ve been involved with Labour for long enough, you will at some point experience frustration, upset, even disgust with the party. Disappointment is a perennial motif in Labour history. As I found in my new book (written with Gavin Hyman and Mark Garnett) on the party’s history in opposition since 1922, members have always accused the previous Labour government of being insufficiently radical. It’s not new to the Starmer era.

It has been the role of the Labour members to keep the leadership honest. As Barbara Castle put it, the membership exists to “keep the flame of socialist idealism alive”, even in the darkest of times. Internal dissent and pressure are a vital part of the political culture of the Labour Party.

When people leave the party because they disagree with the leader of the day or a particular set of policies, their departure inevitably weakens the position of those remaining who agree with them. They wave the white flag of defeat when they should be waving the red flag of socialism.

Ultimately, no one is obliged to be in a political party or pursue political activism. Sometimes people simply move on with their lives. But, if you want to stay involved in politics, the Owen Jones strategy, which will amount to electing a Green MP or two and helping a few Left-wing independents hold their deposit, is not going to have much impact. The history of British politics is littered with the carcasses of ultimately impotent small parties.

With 99% certainty, we will soon have (at least according to the party’s constitution) a democratic socialist majority in Parliament. There aren’t all that many countries where this is the case. As Nye Bevan once said, you might as well try to make something of it.


Richard Johnson is a Lecturer in US Politics and Policy at Queen Mary University of London.

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