Members - Party Conference Season

  • Joe Preston

On the 12th of December this year, the country will go to the ballot box. Strangely, in this election, neither leader of the main two parties has ever been elected by the country. Whoever you think you are voting for this election, the small group of party members has already made half that decision for you. For they, the small, silent, anonymous membership, are the ones who gave us Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson. Two leaders, completely at odds with most of their own MP’s, and arguably with the entire country. In this project I wanted to know what this anonymous group of powerful, ordinary people look like. I wanted to examine how political devotion and fanaticism looks in the 21st Century. There are no images of recognisable politicians, no placards and slogans. These images are looking at people who care enough about their party that they will travel to the other side of the country to sit in a hall and listen to days of speeches, so driven are they by what they believe. For the past sixty years political party membership in this country has been in steady decline from it’s peak in the 1950’s. Then there were around 2.8 million Conservative Party members and a million Labour Party members, with the addition of Trade Union members bringing it up to almost 4 million. Gradually over the second half of the century membership has slipped and become an outdated irrelevance to the political machine. Though crucially the party’s internal framework that accommodates this massive if empty broad church has remained. The voting systems that were set up decades ago to hear the voices of a huge membership are still there. In the time before social media, it was harder to have a say so people joined parties to be heard. Now it’s easy to have an opinion heard without leaving your bedroom and as apathy creeped in so members flooded out. Though both parties have more members than ever they are tiny compared to what the parties internal election system is designed for. Those that are left are almost by definition not going to hold the same views as what the ordinary voter thinks. Right now for the first time in several generations political membership is relevant again. In 2015 due in part to a massive surge in membership, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party despite being at odds with his party, it’s MP’s and the electorate. The members had spoken. Then in 2019, the votes of 180,000 disproportionally white, wealthy Conservative Party Members elected Boris Johnson both leader of the Conservative Party and the Prime Minister of Great Britain. A man who is widely unpopular with both his own MP’s and the electorate. These leaders, who stand a good chance of both losing the election are what have to choose from, and it is the people in these photos that gave us that choice.

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