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Below is an exchange of letters with Mark Thompson. It has also been published on his blog Mark Reckons.
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.
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.
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!
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.
The 2010 election was a tale of two campaigns. On the one hand there were member-led innovations like Mob Monday and #Labourdoorstep which got activists targeting their support and pooling their resources.
Sadly, the campaign at the top seemed unable to capture this spirit and equally unable to really give the activists the space they deserved to lead the campaigns. The one opportunity I remember where this was attempted was the dreadful, disastrous “Fire up the Quattro” poster. When one considers how many people that went through for approval, it is astonishing that not one of them had the gumption to wonder about the public attitude to this pop culture figure. While one poster is not all that important in the grand scheme of things, this was emblematic of how distanced from the public and the lived experience of ordinary people.
To be a properly campaigning Party, we need to be a better disciplined Party. The astonishing situation we find ourselves in today is in many ways a mirror inversion of the situation of the 1980s. Party members – as a whole – are disciplined and focused on defeating the Tory-led government at every level. The staff and PLP are undisciplined, briefing anonymously, undermining the leader and therefore the members and defeating Labour in the public arena with scant attention to the feelings and needs of those they are supposed to serve.
I have already discussed issues around the staff. I believe it is also inherent that we change the way the PLP is organised and run. I believe that the events of the last few months have shown that it is essential that the Leader appoint his own shadow cabinet. As far as I can see it is the only way to restore some discipline into the PLP. While I supported Ed for leader, if any other candidate had won, and Ed supporter were behaving in the way some have done over the last 6 months I would be saying exactly the same. My loyalty is to the people of Britain and to offering them an electable Labour government.
Again I think that MPs need to have a contract with their CLP outlining what is expected of them as representatives.
In the 2010 Manifesto, we said:
“We will ban MPs from working for generic lobbying companies and require those
who want to take up paid outside appointments to seek approval from an independent
body to avoid jobs that conflict with their responsibilities to the public.”
I believe it is essential that we retain this rule while out of office and implement the lobbyist register as soon as we are returned to Government. We can never again be the Party where behaviour like that of Stephen Byers, Patricia Hewitt and Geoff Hoon is allowed to take place.
Equally we must be a united force against the coalition. Any MP or Peer working for this Government in a formal capacity, as John Hutton and Frank Field have done, should have the whip removed from them. There should be no question of Alan Milburn getting a peerage.
The selection process should be better staggered over the life of a Parliament. I think the Island seats are a great idea, and selecting early in this way will have a positive effect on our chances of winning these seats. I realise that the boundary review is going to make other early selections difficult, but there should be a timetable rolled out for seats after that. A constant drumbeat of selections will help Labour to campaign long term.
We need to encourage MPs who want to stand down to announce that they are doing so as soon as possible. At present this is difficult as MPs fear they will lose power and status. I propose that MPs who announce early that they are going to step down should form an emeritus committee to consult on manifesto issues and processes, essentially formalising their role as Party grandees. I believe that this committee should have access to the manifesto process, but that retiring MPs should not be part of the Clause 5 process, as there is too strong a chance of a potential conflict of interest.
There are a number of ways we can strengthen the voice of the members in policy making at every stage. This needs to be done with a sense of responsibility on both sides. If we are to practice the collectivism we preach, we need both to make and accept collective decisions. That goes for me campaigning publically for a party fighting to keep Trident, as much as it goes for the Party agreeing to review that decision if the members choose to do so.
I recommend not just an audit trail for any ideas submitted by CLPs, Unions and Socialist Societies to any policy making body, though that is an important first step. I recommend a clear story of the submission. We need to know what body has considered it. If it was accepted for further consideration, we need to know where it goes to next. If rejected, we need a reason why. Not an essay perhaps, but a cogent explanation.
We could reward activity with invitations to be more engaged. If people are giving up large quantities of their spare time, it is unlikely to be out of a sheer love of delivering leaflets. People get involved in politics to be and stay inspired, and to change things for the better. Yes, leaflets are probably important (though when was the last time we tested that, as I don’t think many people read them). But delivering them isn’t enough to make people feel they are making a difference.
MPs need to remember that for every Labour Party member who makes it to Parliament, to Government, to leadership, there is an army of people who made this happen. The lucky few who make it aren’t uniquely blessed by God, they were chosen among a number of other suitably qualified candidates and fought for by a determined army. We praise and appreciate their talents, but don’t ever think that doesn’t mean that we aren’t equally aware of their weaknesses. They are there because of us, and while they are elected to serve the country, their first mandate is to do so in the democratic way that we as a party agree is the best way forward. We have different ideas from the other parties, and we know in our hearts that ours are right. They should never, ever forget that they are there as our representatives. They are not bigger than the party, and the way we all know this is that they wouldn’t be elected as independents.
We don’t work this hard for the betterment of another person’s career, but because we believe in a better way of organising society. That’s important to us. That doesn’t mean that we don’t need or want to be challenged. We understand the need to be constantly evaluating what this organisation means and would mean to our modern citizens. It does mean that when we take a person on as our representative, this underlying belief is what they are there to represent; That we will only accept a challenge when presented through the prism of our unchanging values.
Having an army of volunteers work for you must feel good. I can understand how MPs may come to think that it is their unique talent that is important and not the collective values they are there to represent. My understanding this doesn’t make it right. It isn’t.
So each MP should have a contract agreed with their constituency, a minimum standard of engagement to which they are expected to adhere to. A contract that – in the final instance – is enforceable by the NEC. This should not restrict them politically, but ensure that where they do disagree with a majority of their CLP on an issue they are at least expected to attend discussions to explain their decision making process.
In this review of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing: Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strong-arming delegates at conferences at which they were supposed to listen to the will of the party, to ignoring what came out of those votes when the strong-arming didn’t go as planned.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labour culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline was essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making them an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are there. Remind the staff what they are for, not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement for Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want, is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.
Finally, I envisage a completely different way of running our conferences.
A reconstituted NPF (one in which every elected member can inform any one of the policy commissions) would prepare documents based on their discussions and submissions in time for Easter.
Instead of a spring conference that feels like a smaller, less important version of the autumn conference, we would instead invite delegates from every CLP, Union and Socialist Societies as well as 10 MPs selected by lottery to participate in a direct democracy event lasting over several days. These would be closed to the media and be a modernised version of the old compositing events.
Split into manageable tables of 10 with a facilitator and laptop at each table there would be discussion around each section of the documents produced by the NPF. Feedback would be inputted to a central point by the facilitators and the networked laptops would display comments for groups discussion and take in all the input.
The outcomes of these discussions would be voted on by everyone in the room. These would them be put back together again with reference to the voting and comments by the Labour Party Staff for the NPF to sign off to send for final approval at the Autumn conference.
This level of input and scrutiny should give members a real sense of control over the policy making process, while the staff and NPF can keep it on track. Having the initial discussions away from the cameras will also help to ensure that we don’t replicate the terrible conferences of the 1980s while keeping members in charge.
This would also free up more time for the autumn Party conference to be a more outward looking event, where Labour sets its stall out to the nation.
Constituency Labour Parties vary wildly as do their individual issues. It is the case that the most active and vibrant CLPs are to be found where there are also elected Labour members. However, it has been my experience, that those CLPs without elected representation are often those who came to feel most disconnection from the central party and least able to have any say at all in how the Party is run, how it formulates policy and how it governs. With no MP over whose final vote the CLPs might have an influence, and with policy seemingly presented to them often as a fait acompli, these areas lost members and energy because all but a very loyal few could see the point of their membership.
If – as I hope – we are to open up decision making to members far more and make that process more transparent, this may start to attract those members in the Tory heartlands whose active membership is essential to giving Labour voters a sense of some Labour presence, but whose rewards for doing so are often scant at best.
I don’t believe that there is a one-size-fits-all approach to managing CLPs. There isn’t a magic bullet that is suddenly going to make CLPs across the country lively and vibrant places to be. There are however plenty of good ideas out there. So far the Party has presented CLPs with a somewhat binary choice for change: remain with a GC structure or open up to all member meetings. Both have their advantages and disadvantages, and work for CLPs of different sizes and characters.
I suggest that the Party produces a booklet sent to every CLP Secretary and updated every 5 years with a series of menu options of differing approaches to local structure, and best practice advice for each. At CLP AGMs, as well as choosing officers, CLPs could also vote on how to conduct their business over the forthcoming year, picking and choosing from different parts of the booklet and deciding how they want to run themselves. While this might make the AGM a lot more procedural, it should avoid procedural wrangling during the rest of the year, as procedure – as well as those who implement it – is chosen by all CLP members.
I suspect it would not lead to massive upheavals year upon year, but would give members who felt their CLPs were not operating at full capacity a chance to debate how to change that without forcing an officer’s position on them, something to which not everyone is inclined or suited, nor always able to invest the time and energy required.
Doing this annually also gives CLPs an opportunity to test what works and what doesn’t and a duty of CLP secretaries should be to report this back centrally for further compilation and discussion. This helps the Party to be an enabling framework, rather than a rigid bureaucracy, but also ensures a realistic amount of two way communication and responsibility.
Labour need to look not just at affiliated unions, important though this is, but also at the Socialist Societies and how they can help to link in with community groups. For example, local and active members of SERA are likely to be an excellent bridge to local environmental campaigns which are tied to the community.
While it is essential that Labour is involved in local communities, we need to remember that people – particularly in the 21st – engage in communities far beyond where they live. The world is changing, and the Labour Party needs to change with it. New ways of linking with people that a decade ago we wouldn’t have known existed make it much easier to make real and valuable human connections on a global scale. In light of this, Labour needs to look again at what we mean by communities and community activism. We need to recognise that the way people identify as communities is evolving.
In the past, it was only those with money and considerable leisure time who could engage in communities of interest that were not geographically based. Now anyone interested in a particular issue can learn from and engage with others and these groups bear all the hallmarks of communities. Labour must engage these communities too as we reach out to look outside of ourselves to broaden our appeal.
Thankfully, Labour uniquely already has an excellent vehicle for engaging with these communities of interest. Labour’s Socialist Societies make up a wide range of communities and interest groups formally affiliated to the party. There is a wealth of knowledge in these organisations, and a depth of commitment to bettering the policies of the Labour Party as a result. I have been proud to run one of the societies in my time, and now serve on the Executive of another and am always proud of the contribution we make to debates both in our own expert contributions and our ability to pull in knowledge from outside the party. I am also currently the Secretary of the Socialist Societies Executive, a group formed to ensure cross society cooperation in the best spirit of the Labour movement. We work together on projects to bring together policy expertise, for example on green homes, or the effect of education on health outcomes.
I am not and haven’t been a councillor, so I feel my opinions on this section should carry far less weight than those who do dedicate their time and energy to the party in this way. However, I do feel that there can be a compromise between meeting held for their own sake and no meetings at all.
Labour Housing Group are currently trying to organise regionally based networks of councillors with housing responsibilities or opposition housing briefs to share best practice, campaigning and policy expertise. This is an uphill struggle, as it is at present almost impossible to get the national party and the staff to assist in the promotion of such an event (I don’t mean dedicating staff time, but sharing email lists with trusted affiliates (or even sending email invitations on their behalf)) that few others are even attempting what could be a valuable way of having councillors network, inspired, better informed and working together to formulate Party policy.
Ed’s getting it in the neck at the moment. This happens when he goes away. It happened when ho took paternity leave and it’s happening again now he’s on honeymoon. Of course some do it constantly, but so much so that they are in serious danger of overplaying their hands. One can only write the same column so many times before it disappears in into its own sense of self-importance. But yes, when Ed goes away, the restless come out to play. Sadly, we must leave aside the classlessness of that. Politics is what it is.
Ed’s dilemma is not that there are people sniping at him. That happens to every leader. It’s how Blair knew he was doing it right. Ed’s problem is that there is a real tension between the two things the Party really wants. Members of the Party are determined to remake the Party into one in which members voices are heard, listened to and acted on. Ed has clearly made this his top priority and the emphasis being put on projects like Refounding Labour is truly admirable. At the same time, the Party also wants to see the shape of our party and platform that Ed wants to see. What shape are we going to be in. That’s understandable, but equally understandable is Ed standing firm and saying to members that this is up to us now.
Tonight I have been working on my personal submission for Refounding Labour. Mine will a bit of an essay – possibly even four essays. I fully intend to publish my answers here for people to read, and I don’t think there’s anything to stop others from doing the same.
So why not Ed?
What better way to show how seriously he takes this consultation than by submitting his own response? How better to show that there is form and shape to his vision but to lay it out to the Party members? How better to demonstrate that the Party is lead by Ed but informed by the members than to have the final document be written by us jointly?
When Ed gets back from honeymoon, he should put fingers to keyboard, and write the answers he envisages to the Big Questions. Making it clear that his is not the final answer, but a part of the vision puzzle.
Go on Ed – yours might even be better than mine!
There was an important post on Labour List this weekend about one of the real uphill battle the Labour Party has to face. It’s a problem I have battled with for years. It’s a matter of our legitimacy, our ability and our credibility. And we are shying away from it.
In all the reviews of Labour’s policy making and party structures there is something missing. Any discussion of root and branch reformation of the Party staff. The Party staff work long and very hard. But I am unconvinced – sceptical even – that they are led to do so in the right way with the right outcomes in mind.
Everyone has a story about the control freakery of the Party. From the “lost” submissions to the press releases not viewed by candidates; from queries never answered to open derision aimed at member bodies. From the canvassing for votes and strongarming delegates at conferences at which you were supposed to listen to the will of the party to ignoring what came out of those votes when it didn’t go as planned. But few in a position to do so ever speak up further than complaining at our branch meetings.
Mostly we rightly blamed the leadership. And we will be right to do so again if Ed doesn’t get a handle on this problem. But we can’t ignore a whole aspect of the Labout culture that exists and reinforces itself among the staff.
What has happened at head office is understandable in a historical context. When Labour was tearing itself apart, an over emphasis on their role in our internal discipline wasa essential to bring us back from the brink. But what was once essential is now habit. Current and former party staffers I meet take pride in defining themselves against the members, despite the members having grown and matured away from the undisciplined rabble we have been. We don’t need a nanny anymore, and clinging to that role is making you an inadequate provider of what is needed.
The Party is about to appoint a new General Secretary. I urge whoever that is to be far bolder than any person in that role has managed for years and remember why you are are. Remind the staff what they are for not just what they define themselves against. Introduce member feedback and modern mechanisms and understanding of politics. Don’t just have a Movement For Change officer, have a genuinely changed ethos.
I want to support the staff in continuing to do the hard, hard slog of getting us back to power. All I ask, all I want is that they decide to support me and the millions like me in doing the same.
This column first appeared on Labour List:
The world is changing, and the Labour Party needs to change with it. Our methods of communications are infinitely more sophisticated which open up new worlds of opportunity for everyone. New ways of linking with people that a decade ago we wouldn’t have known existed make it much easier to make real and valuable human connections on a global scale. I have real and genuine friends made online, who I met in the flesh for the first time at my wedding (also to a man I met online). I spend hours debating online with people I have never and will never meet. And where ten years ago this might have been considered odd, it is increasingly the norm.In light of this, Labour needs to look again at what we mean by communities and community activism. While I am excited by the valuable work being done to recognise the importance of Labour engaging in local communities, and would in no way seek to change or downgrade this work, we need to recognise that the way people identify as communities is evolving.
In the past, it was only those with money and considerable leisure time who could engage in communities of interest that were not geographically based. Now anyone interested in a particular issue can learn from and engage with others and these groups bear all the hallmarks of communities. Labour must engage these communities too as we reach out to look outside of ourselves to broaden our appeal.
Thankfully, Labour uniquely already has an excellent vehicle for engaging with these communities of interest. Labour’s Socialist Societies make up a wide range of communities and interest groups formally affiliated to the party. We combine expertise in a variety of key sectors with reach into the relevant communities of interest. At our best, socialist societies act as a perfect bridge between expert communities and the party. On housing, environment, science, law, education, health and with LGBT, Jewish, Tamil, Chinese, disabled, student and Irish communities, Christian socialists and the broad interests of the Fabians and the Labour Clubs, the Socialist Societies offer the unique combination of practitioner and campaigner expertise and Socialist beliefs.
There is a wealth of knowledge in these organisations, and a depth of commitment to bettering the policies of the Labour Party as a result. I have been proud to run one of the societies in my time, and now serve on the Executive of another and am always proud of the contribution we make to debates both in our own expert contributions and our ability to pull in knowledge from outside the party. I am also currently the Secretary of the Socialist Societies Executive, a group formed to ensure cross society cooperation in the best spirit of the Labour movement. We work together on projects to bring together policy expertise on green homes, or the effect of education on health outcomes.
While we live in an ever more interconnected world, people’s interests are becoming more separate. I believe one of the reasons for the decline in mass party membership of all parties is the tendency for people to pursue their individual passions through niche organisations. The Socialist Societies have in the past proved an excellent recruiting tool for the wider party, and I know several people who joined SERA first and the party second, convinced through their experience of an active Socialist Society of the wider value of party membership. The party could gain not just expertise and links to wider communities, but if they promote the Socialist Societies more widely, an excellent recruiting tool too.
We have often served as a bridge between frontbenchers and the communities of interest. However there has been less engagement between the societies and the policy development team within the party. This is an area I and others will be urging Peter Hain to look at during the review of our policy making processes. With Labour so under-resourced, it would be a tragedy not to take the fullest advantage of a loyal and dedicated group of expert volunteers.
Perhaps we are Labour’s own Big Society, one that actually works.
This post first appeared on Labour List
Recently there has been a lot of focus on individual players within the Labour Party. This is inevitable, and – as Mark’s recent piece observed – leadership matters. I understand this – trust me, I wouldn’t have devoted my summer to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign if I didn’t – but it’s not the only thing that matters, especially in a party such as ours. It was Ed’s recognition of the value of our collective nature that – in part – led to my support for his candidacy.
The ranking of cabinet ministers by their profile in prliament and the press has some superficial attraction. We can see who is best placed at taking our messages out to the public, and who has the ferocity and forensic skills to represent us in high profile parliamentary briefs. Both of these are important in attracting future voters and scrutinising the current government. But there is something missing in this assessment, and that is the job some are doing in making the party itself a vehicle capable of winning and governing again.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking for a messiah to lead us from the darkness, believing that our path back is all about one person – the right person – and to ignore all the other things we need to do. The idea that we should put all faith and decision making into the hands of a charismatic leader has served us well in the past, and Tony Blair’s charisma and strength to carry out much needed reform worked well for Labour for many years. But then it stopped working.
It stopped working in part because Blair got tired and picked his battles less carefully, allowing the initially brilliant strategy of New Labour to become an inflexible dogma that in the end destroyed it. But it also stopped working because it can only ever be an illusion that policy and governance can be achieved through the work of one person.
It’s a dangerous illusion too. Because the more we believe it, the more we seek a person, the “heir to Blair”. Brown’s inability to be that person was in part his failure to understand that he didn’t have what it took, but more a failure to understand that if you aren’t, you need to offer something else, not just attempt to shape yourself into a leader. If we spend all our time seeking personalities, we will continue to play in the shallows of personality politics giving less attention to the truly difficult bit, the building of a party than can work together, using all its resources, to create policy that is both ideologically and politically satisfactory, and to build a narrative together that adapts to our separate communities. Some will read this article as an attack on Ed Miliband. It isn’t, not one bit. It is actually applauding the fact that I believe Ed sees the importance of this strategy.
This is why seeing Peter Hain ranked so low under the measures used concerns me. Because I’ve heard from Peter several times as he works with me and the party to have a conversation (one people can actually believe in) about how to change our party. I know that Peter is doing the work that won’t get him in the pressn and won’t get him parliamentary coverage but that is an absolutely essential part of making us able to win and fit to govern. He’s rebuilding the Labour Party from one that only functioned through the control of a small, exceptional group managing the message, policy, direction and process, to one where every member feels they have a real connection to the party and the ability (if they want it) to contribute to our policy making. It isn’t sexy, and it won’t generate press coverage, but it is the start of rebuilding a movement that has long term appeal in our more democratic age.
We don’t yet know what the outcome of the Partnership into Power review will be. I hear the same cynical voices as everyone else does about what has gone so wrong before with the NPF and the process until now. But if we are going to make Labour policy and politics about more than the personalities and something all members can be proud of being engaged in, we need to put aside that cynicism, and feed into an important process. If we take ownership of it, it will not only have the strength of mass acceptance, but it will also be far harder to dismantle or ignore. So let me return to conference next year and tell the Labour Party staff member who drunkenly told me that “the NPF doesn’t matter” that it (and the wider policy making process) does now.
Submissions to the policy review and in response to the review of Partnership into Power can also be made by email to PiP@new,labour.org.uk or in writing c/o Policy and Research Department, The Labour Party, 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA.