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Where does the power lie? That seems to be the question on the lips of too many people at the centre  of the Labour Party at the moment. Is it in the new Executive Board? With the General Secretary? With the Leader?

The appointment of the six – no actually seven – Executive Directors could not have been handled worse if it were deliberately designed to torpedo our electoral hopes and the ability of the machinery to deliver them.

There’s been leaking, complaints about leaking and leaking of the complaints. We have a team at the top made up of people who – while am sure are all talented individuals – are hardly the new, fresh start the Party so desperately needs to break out of its divisive rut of the Blair/Brown battles and into delivering the kind of 21st century Party so tantalisingly promised in the Refounding Labour process.

Instead we have had a glut of internal appointments; a seventh appointment announced without advertising, job role, or any transparency of process; a team as unrepresentative of the makeup of our membership and our country as it is possible to be; a demoralised staff, a diminished General Secretary and a Leader who is either deliberately allowing this to happen or is unable to stop it.

These aren’t the moves of a Party that is striding confidently towards electoral victory, but the obvious machinations of two inept machines fighting each other for their own ends. This dispute is threatening to paralyse a Party that was just starting to move beyond the crippling internal battles of our past.

The process has exposed rich seams of division between the Leaders office and the Party Headquarters, but instead of a decisive understanding, there’s been a mess of a fudge of a compromise. As I speak to activists around the country, no one is happy that a single person involved in this tawdry process understands that they should not be competing for personal power, but accepting collective responsibility for empowering a newly fired up membership.

Like aged, tired and starved coyotes the characters involved circle the picked-clean remains of their last good meal as they miss the point completely. The cadaver they are fighting over may look alive, but the monster of centralised command and control has died. This is merely a fight to the death over its zombie corpse.

Politics has changed. It didn’t change because of the coalition; it didn’t change because Blair and Brown left the stage handing the baton reluctantly to a new generation; Politics has changed because the world has changed. The ways we behave have changed and with that they ways we can influence behaviour, and the ways we can and can’t be influenced, have changed.

The politics game and the way it is played is changing because ordinary members find themselves with more voice than ever before. We have new ways of communicating with each other and of communicating with the world. If our Party aren’t talking to us, that no longer stops us publically and loudly talking about them. Apparently it doesn’t stop them publically and loudly talking about each other either.

On Saturday I was delighted to go and talk to an active Fabian Society group in Leeds. When talking about what had brought me into blogging, I told them of my despair at how poorly our last election campaign was run.

I knew that I had better a better understanding of campaigning, of strategy and of political communications than what I saw and heard of coming from the Party. I also had long and bitter experience of trying to help behind the scenes: Writing letters and emails; offering advice where I thought I could help; simply trying to find our basics of where campaigning events were taking place and how to get involved. I’d found more coordination between a bunch of enthused volunteers with mobile phones than I had from Party HQ.

But unlike my parents generation who bear the battle scars of years of trying to make people who never canvass understand what members need, I had the answer at my fingertips. I didn’t need the Party to tell me how to be a member. I didn’t need a Party structure to offer my advice on strategy, comms and campaigning. So I set up my blog, got fired up and the expertise I offer the Party today as then poured out of me.

And that’s the real future of Labour.

Not me. Not any individual member. But a thousand flowers blooming in communities around the country: online and offline. Some of them will burn brighter than others, none will ever agree wholehearted on every issue and never should they, but each of them will feel their own way towards contributing the expertise they have. The prize for the Party is working out how to grab this with both hands.

In this world, can you imagine the kind of tight control the Party wielded over its members and MPs in the 90s (widely understood as tyranny by pager) working ever again?

A few weeks ago I published on these pages an exchange with Mark Thompson, a Lib Dem blogger about the relative merits of our internal Party democracies. Events this week have proved me devastatingly right about the weakness of their prized internal democracy which had so long been untested by power and failed spectacularly under pressure over the NHS.

During that exchange I ended with the phrase:

“Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.”

I’ve been proved right about the direction Mark’s Party are going in. But they’re going in that direction because of their weakness, not their strength. Their new found delight in poorly staged Party management and ignoring the will of their members publically and humiliatingly is hardly a model we should mourn with envy or wish to recreate from the ashes of our own failures.

The measures in Refounding Labour are a good start. But if we stumble at the very beginning of our road to a stronger, better Party we’ll all suffer because of it. Not least those we should be serving – our voters.

The processes of Refounding Labour may have finished the consultation stage, but the passion for engagement they have brought up will not be recontained. We demand that our membership means something and we demand that those who manage the party accept and understand that. That they work with this tide of democracy, messy and haphazard as it can sometimes be. We know that frightens them, but the electoral oblivion of a party without an engaged membership should frighten them all the more. If they thought 2010 was bad, try doing that without your foot soldiers.

Power will be devolved to Labour Party members because we will demand nothing less. We know what we want, we are no longer shy of demanding it and we have more ways of doing so loudly and forcefully every single day.

Embracing this change is the only one way to win in this new paradigm. Those who will win the responsibility for securing the future of the Labour Party will be those who understand and embrace this devolution. The problem is, currently all concerned are locked into an undignified scramble to be the biggest loser; the Kings and Queens of a crumbling sandcastle.

This post first appeared on Labour List.

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Below is an exchange of letters with Mark Thompson. It has also been published on his blog Mark Reckons.

Dear Emma

I recently read Alex Hilton’s recent piece on LabourList “Losing Faith” which strongly criticised the approach of the Labour Party and given our previous conversations about internal party democracy regarding Lib Dems and Labour, I was interested in your views.

 As an active member of the Lib Dems, one of the things I find most satisfying is knowing that my views and my vote as a voting rep at conference can and does have an effect on party policy and of course more recently on government policy.

 One of the most striking comments from Alex’s piece about Labour for me was this:

 ”We’re an illiberal elitist capitalist party with no taste for democracy and a misplaced belief that the masses are better off in our care than that of other parties.”

 I only became active in politics a few years ago despite having been interested in (some would say obsessed with) it for nearly 20 years. I could not have considered joining the Labour Party though, not just because of the policies it was pursuing that I profoundly disagreed with but because the members of the party no longer get to make its policy so I’d have no chance of changing this. When Alex says the party has no taste for democracy I suspect this is one of the things to which he is referring.

 I understand why Tony Blair wanted to wrest control of his party from its members. I recall watching Labour conferences in the years before he became leader and I can appreciate that to some it would have appeared unedifyingly divided. But that is the price of democracy. The Tories have always been a very top-down party. The tragedy is that Labour have followed them down this road, rather than reforming its internal democracy in a way which could have allowed its members to still have a big say in its direction and policy.

 Instead we have had the even more unedifying sight of policies being announced that have clearly been scribbled on the back of a fag packet by a junior SpAd 30 minutes before the leader’s speech to conference on far too many occasions (Gordon Brown’s supervised communal houses for teenage mums anyone?).

 Ed Miliband’s “Refounding Labour” project appears to have petered out to very little effect and one of his “boldest” moves was actually to further reduce internal democracy by ceasing elections to shadow cabinet.

 If I was again looking to join a political party I could still not contemplate making it Labour even if I agreed with lots of its current policies.

 I think that should worry dedicated and committed members of the party such as yourself.

 Best regards,

 Mark.

 

Dear Mark,

 I too read Alex’s piece on LabourList, though with more sorrow than recognition.

 I am sorry Alex has worked himself up into this state, but his characterisation of both Ed’s leadership, and the changes to the processes of the Labour Party are unrecognisable to me. I fear both yourself and Alex are looking for a “big bang” in a Party that has long accepted a gradualist approach to our evolution.

 Some of the changes in Refounding Labour will make an enormous difference to Labour in the long term, without having an immediate effect the day the ink dried on the document.

 There are real changes to the nature of the relationship between the central and local Parties. Empowering Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to organise in the way that works for them locally will ensure better engagement with our power and decision making structures from all CLPs including those in areas that don’t have a Labour MP, and will give them better resources to organise themselves. These may seem small, but over time, will change the culture of the Party.

 Equally, the Shadow Cabinet elections are a complete red herring. They aren’t elected by the Party, but by the tiny electorate of MPsThe Leader is democratically elected though our agreed internal processes (the only process of any Party which brings in those outside the Party, by giving the vote to individual union members). He has far more of a mandate to shape the Party, including who he wants to take each issue forward, than the tiny electorate of MPs.

 Refounding Labour has finished the aspects that looked at Party organisation, but continues to look at our policy making processes. Opening these up more to Party members and strengthening the role of the National Policy Forum were both agreed by Refounding Labour, but the more complex details of how are being consulted on now.

 So for me the picture of internal Labour Party democracy is neither as settled nor as bleak as you or Alex makes out.

 Balancing competing democratic mandates in these situations is not clear cut, as your Party is discovering to its cost on issue after issue. Post Refounding Labour, we are improving, if gradually, where other Parties are not, and in fact are reneging on the things, in the past, activists like you have been so proud of.

 You and I are in very different political parties because we have very different political priorities. I am happy to accept that sometimes liberal outcomes come from enforced means. You seem happier to accept unequal outcomes as long as the means are ostensibly fair. I think that’s probably true of our approaches to internal democracy. I want something that will have an obvious and claimable output in Government. You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government.

Kind regards,

 Emma.

 

Dear Emma

 I admire your faith in the processes set in train by Refounding Labour but I fear that without a solid democratic process underpinning it (e.g. reps voting on policy at conference) then it will be all too easy for the party leadership to ride roughshod over what members such as yourself want.

 You are correct in your assertion that we have very different political priorities. For me and most fellow Lib Dems, liberty is a fundamental part of my political philosophy.

 I find your final comment rather strange: “You seem happy to set policies for a Party that will never, ever enact them, despite being in Government”. This is difficult for me to reconcile with the facts. Research by the BBC last year showed that 75% of the Lib Dem manifesto is included in the government programme as opposed to 60% from the Conservatives. Lots of policies voted on by myself and my fellow Lib Dem members are now being implemented and making a difference to people’s lives.

 Where I agree with you is that it is a difficult call to determine what gets priority and that is one thing that I very much think needs reform within the Lib Dems. We need an agreed mechanism for communicating which policies are most important to the members to ensure they end up being the “red lines” in any future negotiations. This won’t be straightforward as showing your hand early makes negotiating harder but who said politics was easy?!

 Labour had 13 years of untrammelled power with large majorities and was able to implement its programme in full. The Lib Dems only have about a sixth of the MPs in government and hence have to compromise. It’s in the nature of coalition. I think sometimes Labour activists and politicians such as yourself (perhaps sometimes willfully) forget this with calls of “betrayal” and “selling out”. The logical conclusion of those saying that is the Lib Dems should never be in government unless governing alone. And of course had the party eschewed the opportunity in May 2010 those same people would be deriding them as a “wasted vote” and not a party serious about power.

 It’s almost as if we can’t ever win!

 Best regards,

 Mark.

 

Dear Mark,

 The Labour Party does have a process whereby elected representatives discuss and produce policy on a year round basis. It’s called the National Policy Forum (NPF). It has representative elected from all the different sections of the broad Labour family, including members, MEPs, MPs, Socialist Societies and the unions. While sometimes this body doesn’t work as well as it might, it does come into its own during the manifesto process which is negotiated through this body. Policy papers proposed by the NPF are also ratified by a vote at conference. It is this process that is continuing to be strengthened in the last remaining part of the Refounding Labour process.

 Sometimes, it’s not about “winning” but about doing the right thing and being honest. And you aren’t being honest – I suspect even to yourself.

 The research you refer to is incredibly flawed. In practically every piece of legislation ever enacted there are good and bad things. There is even some good in the appalling Health and Social Care Bill, though not nearly enough to make it worthwhile or to convince me it shouldn’t be dropped. You managed to get some fairly innocuous measures into what are otherwise terrible bills. Equally, counted as part of these figures is the AV referendum: A classic example of claiming a victory while changing precisely nothing. Next stop, Lords reform.

 You claim a democratic mandate from your members to the Government – or at the least the MPs and Peers who represent your Party. Tell that to the delegates to your conference who voted overwhelmingly to protect ESA who have had their “faith shattered” and are wondering whatever happened to democracy in the Lib Dems.

 Equally, you also told voters one thing and then did another when elected. This is where you miss the point on “betrayal”. You haven’t betrayed Labour – you’ve betrayed your voters.  

 As Labour struggle towards improving our internal processes for the 21st century, yours are  crumbling under the new strain of Government. Unless that is recognised and dealt with now, you will lose for good any sense that activists have a say that makes a difference.

 Labour isn’t perfect on this score. We have a long way to go. But of the two parties, I’m confident that we’re the one moving in the right direction.

 Kind regards,

 Emma.

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A Tale of Two Polls

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Yesterday, both the Miliband camps released polling data that supported the central tenets of their respective pitches to the party. David Miliband’s showed that he is thought of by a majority voters as the candidate most able to win were a general election held soon. Ed Miliband’s showed that the public are where he is on moving beyond New Labour and talismanic New Labour policies. How you react to these polls probably depends on how long you think the coalition will last. Myself I think we’re probably stuck with the for at least 3 years, and so am more relaxed about the “ready to lead now” question. Ed will have plenty of time to establish himself as a strong, articulate and empathetic leader once elected, which I am in no doubt that he will do.

Now obviously I want Ed to win. I’ve made that very clear. I think the voting is likely to be really close, and I don’t know who will win (though I suspect his surname will be Miliband) but I think this contest has changed the Labour Party in some important ways, so that whoever wins it is vitally clear that if they are serious about increasing internal party democracy & winning an election, they will need to take into account the message of Ed’s polling. The Labour party are itching to adopt these policies, and the country are behind them in doing so. The closeness of the race means that Ed will have to take very seriously people’s concerns about his relative inexperience (and therefore have some big hitters in the Cabinet. Alan Johnson’s announcement will help in that respect, though Ed’s difference with him on Civil Liberties would mean moving him from the Home Office brief). It also means David will have to take very seriously people’s concerns on policies and as such be persuaded from his Labour Light prescription on taxes.

These polls are being presented as New Labour Vs Old Labour, but if the Milibands play it right, they can both learn from and use the data provided to build a better and stronger Labour Party.

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Dear Andy, David, Diane, Ed & Ed,

As you set of on your hols I thought I’d give you a few thoughts to chew over. I know you’re getting advice from every quarter at the moment, but with all of you expressing a greater commitment to listening and to party democracy, I thought I’d add my twopence worth.

I’m a fairly ordinary Labour Party member. I am probably a bit more active in national bodies than I am locally, but I am not important or influential in the party (hands up who stopped reading at that point), I have no money to donate (still with me?) and no strong faction to bring to the table (hello?!). But I understand the Labour Party and its members. I was born into the Labour Party and my parents – especially my Dad – are the kind of grassroots members who keep us going and whose intervention and shoe leather stopped us falling all the way off our cliff in May.

I live and breath Labour politics. I discuss endlessly with my colleagues,  friends and family how Labour could win again, could be better and could win/win back the support we don’t currently have. From these conversations, and my own observations I offer you the following pieces of advice:

1. Be a leader, not a fighter.

You will have plenty of colleagues who will be able to take the fight to the Tory coalition. You will need to be a figurehead who is see as above that. Yes, attack at PMQs will be important, as will rebuttal. But wherever possible, you must delegate this, and use your platform to inform and inspire. The more you can be seen as a real embodiment of a positive Labour message, the better.

2. Give up some of your power

If you want to have the ultimate authority of becoming Prime Minister, what you really need is a strong team behind you. Not just the bright young Oxbridge Grads that scoot around after you as you go from husting to husting, but the army of Labour members, who may understand they are the foot soldiers, but still want to play a vital role in policy making and in steering the direction of the party. Let them.

Sure, we may end up with a few policies you think will harm us in the Daily Mail, but then we are never, ever going to win over the Daily Mail. We will definitely end up with a considerably more energised and committed party willing to fight and fight hard for a victory they really believe in.

3. Use the resources the Party has ignored for too long.

One way of doing this is to be more sensible about how the Labour Party utilises the resources it has. One great example of this is the Socialist Societies. These are single issue groups full of people who really, really know and understand both their policy areas and the way these impact on the core Labour values of fairness and justice. As the party currently lacks money for research, this vacuum could be filled by these groups, providing not only a wealth of expertise, but also a great way of offering to members a way of getting engaged in the issues they really care about.

4. Ensure CLPs are properly engaging in their communities

I have been banging on for years about the value of changing the CLP meeting structure and getting people out on the streets, cleaning up graffiti and litter or painting dilapidated play spaces or eyesores. I suspect you as leader could be far more influential in changing our meeting culture to that of activism as well as policy engagement.

5. Chill out!

The coalition may well be here to last for 5 years. Relax and stop obsessing over the polls. Be Labour in the face of the Daily Mail and the Daily Express while in opposition, and you will be able to govern with a strong agenda and mandate. Also lead by example with your work life balance. Get a hobby, take holidays and enjoy your families. You need to be a person as well as a politician.

6. But don’t be someone you are not.

When I say get a hobby, don’t – for Gods sake – focus group it. Do something that interests you, not what a clever pollster tells you the public want you to do. If you actually have terrible taste in music, that’s actually OK, no one will vote for you on the strength of your music taste (though I am impressed with your love of the Wedding Present Andy!).

7. Read something you disagree with every day.

It will raise your blood pressure, but will also keep your skills of argument sharp. I make a point of reading Conservative Home and Lib Dem Voice regularly. Knowing what the other side are talking and arguing about can only make you stronger.

8. The “other side” is never your own party except Frank Field.

The Labour Party is a broad church. You won’t agree with everything and they won’t all agree with you. But that’s not the point of leadership. Never attack your own members. But you should cut Frank Field loose. He’s an embarrassment and we need better party discipline from our MPs.

9. Cut out the dead wood.

This will be really difficult, as it is natural to turn to our predecessors for advice, but the following people need to be nowhere near the Labour Party for the sake of cleansing our brand for the foreseeable and indeed distant future: Peter Mandelson, Alistair Campbell, James Purnell, Charles Clarke. The following should be left on the back benches: Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Hazel Blears, Caroline Flint. I’m sure they are interesting and have much to offer, but the hard political truth, and what they would be advising you were it 20 years ago, is that talent is no match for the stigma they bring.

10. Don’t forget each other’s good ideas

There have been plenty in this leadership campaign. Remember to be both magnanimous and sharing in victory, then coldly pinch all that was the best about your combined talents!

I hope this advice is helpful to you. I promise here and now I will continue to work and fight hard whoever wins, and I hope you all do the same.

Yours in Socialism,

Emma.

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1. Will you restore the vote to conference, and if so, what measures beyond this would you take to make our party more democratic?

2. What will you do to ensure that the Labour Party Leadership and cabinet reflect the diversity of our membership and of Britain?

3. How should  a left-of-centre party, in opposition to a Right-of-Centre coalition conduct itself in opposition?

4. If you were forced in this contest to be defined by one key policy proposal, what would it be?

5. How do we articulate a progressive and (small l) liberal vision of an active and pro-active state?

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I was at the Fabian’s Next Left conference on Saturday, and anyone who saw me there will know that I am supporting Ed Miliband for the leadership of our party. I think he is an ideal candidate, warm and engaging, thoughtful and not afraid to push back on a question – or to say I don’t know, but then make sure he does find out. I thought the speech he gave was inspiring and principled (I actually welled up to hear a Labour politician talking thoughtfully about class, something we have tried to ignore for too long). Ed’s record at DECC was exemplary, and through my work with SERA and my interest in climate change issues I am aware of how far he brought us and the passion he has for taking Britain into a new era in a compassionate, fair and progressive way.

The issues that arose at the Fabian conference got me thinking about what we need in a leader and what I would want the whole slate to commit to or think about.

So here are some questions all our candidates should answer, some specific, some on direction and principle, that will help to focus the debate, and the answers and discussion of then would help us to renew as a party, a movement and as an electoral force.

1. Will you restore the vote to conference, and if so, what measures beyond this would you take to make our party more democratic?

2. What will you do to ensure that never again will we have a position where there are no female candidates in the contest for the Labour Party Leadership?

3. How should  a left-of-centre party, in opposition to a Right-of-Centre coalition conduct itself in opposition?

4. If you were forced in this contest to be defined by one key policy proposal, what would it be?

5. How do we articulate a progressive and (small l) liberal vision of an active and pro-active state?

For me I think these cover the areas of vision and leadership, without tying them down to policy specifics that they may decide would be best discussed through conference and other bodies.

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