By Paul Canning
Reproduced by kind permission from the author’s original posting on his blog.
It is one of those little things that illustrates something bigger. For some time I have seen Twitter posts on Labour’s membership numbers claiming it is now the biggest political party in Europe.
The oldest tweet saying this which I could find came from a nasty antisemitic account in January:
Some of these tweets, most notably from Momentum’s James Schnider, have described it as ‘biggest left of centre party’. Others have described it as ‘biggest party in Western Europe. But now this has progressed to a meme and I’ve had enough.
This is not true, on several levels.
Wrong, spin, ignorant
The biggest political party in Europe is United Russia**, the ruling party in the Russian Federation, set up by Vladimir Putin in 2001. It’s membership (2013 figures) is over two million.
It is spin because in a first past the post (FPTP) system almost all left members of political parties are in one party, rather than in several. In the rest of Europe, the spectrum of views represented in UK Labour are covered by more than one party because they have various forms of proportional representation. So the Social Democratic Party of Germany has around 450k members and Die Linke 60k and Alliance ’90/The Greens another 60k. Plus there are other smaller left parties.
I am not suggesting that all those members of other parties than Germany’s Social Democrats would join them under FPTP but that those numbers point to another problem with the ‘Europe’s largest party’ claim: the UK is coming off a very low base; proportionally most other European countries have higher memberships in general of political parties.
These are the most recent figures I could find (from 2013)*. As you can see, even with Labour’s membership growth the UK still has much lower numbers than most other countries.
I could not find membership numbers for parties such as Greece’s Syriza but this graph suggests it would be high. Parties of the left in Italy have a membership total over half a million. Spain’s Podemos has around 450k members in a country 70% the size of the UK. Proportionally Podemos is as big as UK Labour and there are another 190,000 Social Democrats.
The election for UK’s Labour’s Leader also has a paltry participation rate compared to elsewhere. In the 2011 French Socialist Party presidential primary around 2,700,000 voters participated in the first round, and 2,900,000 voters in the second – a fact which beggars the question what the outcome would be if a similar democratic event were to happen in UK Labour.
Wake up call
What these facts highlight the most – and this is how a little thing can illustrate something bigger – is the con job behind this spin from Corbyn supporters, led by Momentum. Namely that even if you are ‘Europe’s biggest party’ it does not matter how many members your party has, what matters is how many people will vote for you. The experience of other European parties tells us this. As they dare cite Europe they simultaneously ignore Europe.
One could add (because rally size is often cited alongside membership by Corbyn supporters) that it does not matter how many people you get to your rallies either – have you seen the scale of some of the rallies for European left wing parties?
This is a rally of tens of thousands for Spain’s Podemos two months ago. They went on to lose the election to Spain’s conservatives and got 21% of the vote.
*Another paper showing figures up to 2008 from across Europe.
** It has been pointed out to me (cheers Roger McCarthy) that Turkey is also in Europe, including a huge amount of its largest city, Istanbul. As of May 2008, the Justice and Development Party (AKP) reportedly had 3,688,761 members.
Editor’s postscript: Since Paul published his article Jeremy Corbyn seems to have stopped making his false claim. Let us know if you know otherwise.
SYRIZA’s membership is roughly ~30,000.
I don’t think most Brits consider the strongman autocracies of Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey to be in Europe-proper, do you? Anyway, I’m happy with Labour being the biggest democratic party in Europe, and I think everyone understands that that’s what’s meant.
I also note that you emphasise relative proportion for smaller Spain, but only use absolute numbers for larger Germany. Why not point out that Labour’s size is even more impressive relative to the SDP when you remember how many more people Germany has? And if you’re going to aggregate leftist party membership abroad, including outright communists in Die Linke, why not include the Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, SDLP, Sinn Fein, Respect, TUSC, SWP, SP, etc for the UK? In fact, as the Lib Dems are one of the most left-wing parties in ALDE, you could include them and the Alliance as well.
It’s almost as though you have some kind of irrational bias against Corbyn and against the left. Perish the thought!
Labour already boasts the largest number of members of any political party in western Europe, with 551,000, up from 388,407 on 10 January.
They are still passing this “biggest party in Europe” myth around the Facebook chat pages
Richard Burgon claims Labour have now reached 800,000 members: https://twitter.com/RichardBurgon/status/873650441124548608
So Russia and Turkey, counting separate parties as single parties to make some point. Nope, not impressed. If we get a couple of million someone will say “yes but the BJP in India is bigger”. All a matter of defining parameters.