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Last Updated: Saturday, 29 March 2008, 12:28 GMT

Labour foot soldiers fall away

By Stephen Low
BBC Scotland reporter

One thing that will not escape Wendy Alexander's notice as she addresses Scottish Labour's conference on Saturday is that the party she leads is substantially smaller than that led by her predecessors.

Labour rosette
Labour membership has fallen since 1997

In the decade since 1997, Scottish Labour has lost getting on for half of its membership. From a peak of 30,000 in 1997 the party reported 17,000 last year.

More than half of all Constituency Labour parties (CLPs) now have less than 300 members, with 14 having less than 200 members.

The figures are published in the annual report presented to the Scottish conference.

The party no longer gives a total membership figure but instead the levels for each CLP - those wanting an overall figure have to calculate it themselves.

The other big difference between this year and previous gatherings of the party faithful is that this time they meet - for the first time in the lives of most delegates - as a party that has been defeated.

Mexican politics

Labour's loss in May last year wasn't simply a third term of government in Holyrood - it was the end of a winning streak in general elections in Scotland that had seen Labour come out on top in the last 13 general elections north of the border.

It's a level of success that's virtually unparalleled in the democratic world. [You have to go as far away as Mexico's PRI to find a party that has emulated Scottish Labour's success.]

And the Holyrood poll wasn't Labour's only setback in 2007.

labour membership card
2005 - 18,409
2004 - 19,061
2003 - no figures published
2002 - 22,153
1999 - 27,417
1998 - 30,770
1997 - 30,083

The introduction of proportional representation cut deeply into the party's base in local government - Labour lost 138 council seats, taking its total down to 348.

There are now only two majority Labour councils in Scotland - Glasgow and North Lanarkshire - and although the party is in coalition in a number of councils, it's the SNP which is the largest party in Scottish local government.

This has an impact on Labour well beyond the council chamber. With the councillors gone - so is a key part of the party's presence in many communities.

Although difficult to gauge, the decline in activism within the party appears to have fallen also.

Reports from a number of constituencies talk of poorly attended meetings and a participant membership of a couple of dozen out of a paper membership of several hundred.

This weekend will see the launch of a number of initiatives, which are largely IT based, in order to sharpen the party's campaigning focus.

In the past half century Scottish Labour has been one of the most successful electoral machines in the world - but is it now a machine running on empty?


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