How many members does Labour really have?

The other day Richard Harman speculated (with good cause) that Labour’s membership database is somewhat diminished, perhaps even lower than the Greens.

POLITIK has learned that the party’s membership is now probably below that of the Greens, which would place it below 5000, possibly less than half that.

Well, that set off a shit storm with denials and counter-claims.

Chris Trotter was prompted to write:

HOW MANY MEMBERS does the Labour Party have in its centenary year? According to the veteran political journalist, Richard Harman, the answer is – not a lot.

Writing in his “Politik” blog on Monday, 23 May, Harman noted:

“Politik has learned that the party’s membership is now probably below that of the Greens, which would place it below 5000, possibly less than half that.”

If true, that is shocking news – and it’s only fair to point out that within 24 hours the Labour Party’s new General Secretary, Andrew Kirton, was assuring Harman that it was not true. “We are far, far higher than 5,000 and therefore well above the Greens.”

In spite of reassuring his readers that the contested information came from “a usually reliable source”, Harman was willing – as of Tuesday morning – to take Kirton at his word.

A more cynical person, upon being told by Labour’s General Secretary that the membership figure is “far, far higher than 5,000”, might offer, by way of response, the words of the infamous call-girl, Mandy Rice-Davies, who, when told that an Establishment big-wig had denied all knowledge of her, shot back the immortal line: “Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he?”

My understanding from my own Labour sources and insiders in Fraser House is that the real number of members is around 1500. Labour claims more than that by including affiliates in their count. This is something that is causing the Green party anguish because my Green sources tell me that they are constantly fielding complaints from union members that they have been signed up as members to the Labour party despite supporting and being a member of the Green party.

Perhaps it is time to entertain public audits of political party memberships. Labour’s would certainly be interesting as would Peter Dunne’s.

Certainly, it would be remarkable if a political party with fewer than 5,000 members entertained any serious hopes of becoming the Government. Though its current membership comes nowhere near the quarter-of-a-million figure bruited about in the 1970s, the National Party can still lay claim to being – by a wide margin – New Zealand’s largest political organisation. From its present muster of approximately 25,000, National’s goal is a paid-up membership of 35,000. It’s a measure of the party’s rude health that no one considers that figure to be beyond its reach.

I’m told that National is understating their membership like Labour overstates their internal polling. The real number is closer to 55,000.

Five thousand members, by contrast, is a perilously fragile base from which to launch a bid for state power. Divided by 64 (the number of General Electorates) 5,000 produces an average of just 78 members per electorate! Except that Labour in 2016, to a degree not seen since its formation in 1916, is a party of metropolitan New Zealand – meaning that in National’s provincial heartland its principal electoral opponent has next to no presence at all.

Taking over an electorate would be a simple task, now, inside Labour. Indeed I know of several plans afoot to do precisely that to shank incumbent MPs.

But the values of metropolitan New Zealand are not the values of provincial New Zealand – not by a long shot. And even in metropolitan New Zealand there is an important distinction to be made between the values of chic enclaves like Grey Lynn and Wadestown, and the vast suburban tracts that sprawl away from the centres of New Zealand’s largest cities. In the ‘‘burbs’, provincial values have a very familiar ring.

If Donald Trump wins the US Presidential Election in November it will be because the Democratic Party long ago lost all contact – and sympathy – with the ordinary voters of the suburbs and the “flyover” states. That “God and Guns” America to which Barack Obama condescended so loftily in 2008.

It is difficult to avoid making similar judgements about the New Zealand Labour Party. Too small, and too narrowly recruited, Labour’s membership hasn’t had to do battle with genuine conservatives for the best part of three decades. Progressivism is not improved by being unchallenged. Uncontested, its precepts all-too-easily harden into dogmatic certainties, against which no arguments are permitted to prevail. Lacking the ballast of conservative values, the organisation becomes increasingly vulnerable to erratic helmsmen.

Insiders tell me they simply can’t be bothered with the party any longer. It is turning 100 years old and is as decrepit as any pensioner that age.

Viewed from the outside, Labour offers less-and-less to anyone not already comfortable with the injunctions of political correctness. Lacking the “bullshit detectors” of ordinary men and women, progressive parties begin to mistake the technocratic prattle of “experts” for genuine political wisdom. The logical terminus of this trend is when party leaders start nodding approvingly at Lenin’s historic assertion that what the organisation needs are “fewer, but better” members.

Perhaps that is why Richard Harman was so willing to believe General Secretary Kirton’s assertion that Labour’s numbers are “far, far higher than 5,000”. Because to believe that 5,000 (let alone “less than half that”) is the true figure, is to more-or-less concede that New Zealand no longer possesses an Opposition worthy of the name.

Harman, like myself, is long enough in the tooth to remember what Labour looked like in the early 1980s, when it had 85,000 paid-up members. Unlike today’s shrunken entity, it looked like a Government-in-waiting.

The real number is 1500 members. Labour are actually on life support, waiting for a caring relative to turn the switch off.


– Bowalley Road


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  • Korau

    Now, that’s Whaleoil being unintentionally cruel. At least with this post the number should click over to one!

    • David

      Maybe we should try for more comments than members?.

  • Asian_driver

    Might be waiting a while for the caring relative, there is no inheritance to be had

  • Ruahine

    I am assuming most of their present members are also members of the Media Party.

  • Old Kiwi

    “Labour are actually on life support, waiting for a caring relative to turn the switch off.”

    I care. Where is this switch of which you speak?

  • shykiwibloke

    Signing up people without their consent is tantamount to electoral fraud is it not? Or would such an dodgy act come under the incorporated societies laws? I guess the Electoral commission will come down on this as severely as it does in other cases….

    • EpochNZ

      I think the term “Affiliate” counts those who pay Union dues when their Union is part of the Labour Party…..despite some (if not most) of those “Members” only being signed up for legal protection or to stop incessant bullying.

  • rexabus

    Until they start improving the quality of their bribes I won’t be voting or joining. They reckon we should all have a house but I’d like a small super yacht and a beach house with mine too please

    • Sailor Sam

      And a fancy 4WD in the garage.

      • rexabus

        Yep, now that would be a Budget. And if they could also throw in that magic never empty bottle of beer of grant robertsons I’d just about even wear the Labor t-shirt

  • Toby

    There is actually a real danger in this. The fewer members that labour has the more say the looney minority have and the more cray cray labour will become.

    We need a strong opposition and while it might seem a bit funny to watch the oppositions ship sink, it’s not good in the long run.

    • OneTrack

      Except it looks like they have already passed that point and the hard-left “minority” is now the majority.

      Their plans to usurp ownership rights and tell private citizens what they can or must do with their own property, is getting right off the western democratic reservation.

  • shykiwibloke

    Putting all history aside – what should a modern Labour Party look like? I’m thinking it should appeal to all the self employed tradesman. The plumbers, electricians, builders, painters, mowing contractors, florists, dairy owners etc. These are the modern equivalent of the hard working factory workers of old.
    Or to put it another way – if a ‘working-mans party’ has no appeal to this group, it cannot survive in the modern labour market.

    • Blue

      Labour have nothing to offer tradesmen, all I can see would be higher taxes and no reward for our hardwork.

      • David

        I’d say yes to both comments. If they want to appeal to the modern working class then small business owners, tradesmen and anyone who owns a small business/self employed is exactly who they should be appealing to, but as blue says, instead they offer nothing to these groups except to the beneficiaires and drop outs of society, or the politically correct brigade. National is at danger of doing the same with more handouts to them as well however…. here, take this 5000 from the small business taxpayer so you can move your car to another town and live in a state funded house and maybe, if you want to, find a job!.

      • shykiwibloke

        Blue, David – agree with both your comments. Until they do appeal to the modern ‘worker’ nothing much will change. If they truly did appeal to this group, I think you would see National change its stance abruptly also which is good. The whole point of a viable opposition is to keep the government honest. While labour is down for the count, the other lot can dance around the canvass doing whatever they like.

  • sandalwood789

    “…what Labour looked like in the early 1980s…”

    The Labour government of the ’80s was one of our best ever. They took much-needed and bold steps to fix the economy. If the current Nats had even *half* of their drive they would be a lot better off for it. Instead, it looks like MMP has doomed us to a series of “beige” governments, too timid to do much at all.

    There is still so much to be done. Local government spending hasn’t even been looked at, let alone cut.

  • Sailor Sam

    Remember when Peter Dunne’s United Future was deregistered as a party because he could not provide details of membership of more than 500 and he lost parliamentary funding because of this?
    Is that what would happen if Labour dropped below 500, the party would be deregistered and thus cease to exist?
    A little leader could no longer be leader and Wily Winnie would be leader of the opposition unless the green co-thingies share that job.
    edit – spelling

    • ridsel

      Interestingly, a party does not have to be registered in order to contest elections. I’m not sure what handicaps are applied though.

      • adam

        possibly one of the handicaps should be spelt hANDYcap?

  • hookerphil

    Our local garden club is on life support as members get older and younger people no longer join. The only question is whether to stutter along for 4 more years and reach 100 years and then stop or just close up now.

    • STAG

      Bite the bullet, close now and go out proud.

  • Crowgirl

    If the real number was “far, far higher” then they’d have no problem revealing what it is. The lack of that detail tells us all we need to know.

  • Time For Accountability

    The problem is that the unions already tap the wallets of their supporters so why would they be members of the Union political wing.

    It would be interesting to plot member numbers by year to see when the exodus happened.

    I suspect McCarten will have a chapter of the party obituary devoted entirely to him.

  • Chris

    I wonder if the supposed 5000 include all those members of unions that are party of the party?

    • shykiwibloke

      Probably also includes all of the media party, although that head count is reducing also!

  • Tony

    Every political party based on just ideology is destined to disappear. The world is moving too fast for a stagnant ideology such as Labour. The success of John Key’s Government has been the ability to to take policy from any part of the political spectrum. A party needs to sense what the people are concerned about and manage it for the benefit of all. The real problem is where does an opposition become relevant and balance the Government.

  • XCIA

    What is the name of the registered legal entity that the Labour Party operates under to provide audited accounts to the membership?

  • rua kenana

    Judging by the number of emails I get from John Key and other National bigwigs and from Andrew Little and other Labour smallwigs they seem to regard me as a member of both parties. Actually I’m not, and have no desire to be, a member of any.
    But it’s interesting that, despite Labour’s reputedly small membership now, it was only 14 years ago they got twice as many votes as did National in the 2002 election.
    Was it Clark’s failures and her nonentity successors, and/or Key’s successes in the interim that dropped Labour’s membership numbers to negligible, or is it just that membership numbers have little bearing on election outcomes?

    • OneTrack

      It’s their previous members who see them as a dead man walking and they are bailing out for NZF or the Greens.

  • Wheninrome

    Seriously, that many?

  • Effluent

    “Labour are actually on life support, waiting for a caring relative to turn the switch off”

    They might as well save themselves the trouble – Little Andy has the pillow tightly held over the patient’s face already. The soon-to-be a corpse is breathing its last.

  • 1dafool

    I joined up as a voting member to the National party just this Wednesday. My main reasons for this were.
    1. To get unfiltered policy information directly i.e not Paddy’s take on it.
    2. To be able to vote on/suggest policy iniatives.

    1 is the medias fault and 2 is due to a lack of credible opposition.

  • JohnO

    Part of Labour’s problem is their embedded use of political language that is not understood by the general population. For example their term “neo-liberal” is as widely understood as the philosophical term “existential” and carries little or no meaning to their general hearers. In short they are ppoor communicators but enjoy speaking in their own secret language to their own ever-decreasing ” in-crowd”.