Why I'm on the Outside: Membership of the Labour Party Is, Improbably, Once More Increasing. but the Party Must Change If It Is to Win Back Most of Its Lost Members

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Something very odd is happening. People have started joining the Labour Party again. It's a trickle rather than a torrent, but around 1,000 people a month are now being recruited. Although the trend in membership is still down, party officials are delighted that the rate of decline appears to be slowing. Many are lapsed members returning to the faith. There has been a decided upturn since the Labour party conference in Manchester, I am told. Thanks to the internet (most now join Labour online) the party has also been able to gauge why people are signing up by asking them a series of simple questions before they submit their application forms.

According to this straw poll, the two main reasons for joining are, one, that they are impressed by Gordon Brown's handling of the economy and, two, that they believe there is a real danger of the Tories getting into government. I suspect the second reason is the more pressing. Despite Labour's recent recovery in the polls, the most likely outcome of the next election is a Tory victory. This is a chilling prospect not because they are necessarily a less progressive party (in many areas of criminal justice policy, for instance, they are distinctly more liberal than the government), but because they are so evidently unprepared for power. As their reaction to the recent economic downturn has shown, the Tories still do not look like a fully formed party of government.

At the same time, the Labour Party has begun to look like a fighting force again. Its media operation has a clear message about the choice the British electorate faces at the next election. On one side stands a Labour government with a ten-year record of investing in public services, which has already shown itself prepared to intervene to protect people against the recession. On the other is a Conservative Party pledging a [pounds sterling]1m tax cut to the wealthiest and offering no serious economic alternative. In a statement to the New Statesman, a Labour Party spokesman said: "Many people say this is why they are joining Labour now. They may have an issue with one aspect or another of Labour government policy, but when push comes to shove they see the potential election more as a choice [between Labour and the Tories], not a referendum [on the government] and want to lend their support. Anyone who believes in social justice can see the risk of letting Cameron's Tories slip into Downing Street is too dangerous to go unchallenged."

There is something in this. But the politics of the lesser evil will not be enough to win the Labour Party the next election. This was the mistake the party made in the strategy it adopted to fight the recent London mayoral elections. It must not repeat this error by standing on the platform: "You may think Gordon Brown is bad, but wait till you see what the other guy has planned for you." The experience of seeing Ken Living stone losing to Boris Johnson should show that it is not sufficient to raise the spectre of Tories in power.

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There is another, still more compelling argument for joining the Labour Party. For the first time in more than a decade, the party is absolutely desperate for activists and might actually listen to what they have to say. The paradox is that the Labour Party didn't need a mass membership when it had one. Three elections were won with relative ease against an opposition that had lost the appetite for the fight. In 1997, the 400,000 people who carried their Labour Party membership cards with pride were an irrelevance. This was something the Blair leadership repeatedly made clear as it bypassed Labour conference and constituency parties by the use of an increasingly centralised model of policymaking. The same dismissive attitude applied to backbenchers and, latterly, the cabinet itself. By the end of 2007, Labour Party membership had more than halved to 176,891. Nearly 5,500 people left the party in 2007 alone, even though there was a deputy leadership election held in that year. …