The nuts and bolts of what we need to do, by Peter Wheeler

Over the next couple of weeks, Labour party members will get plenty of voting practice as we vote for a new leader, national executive committee members and members of the national policy forum. In London, members will also be voting for a candidate for mayor.

The key vote will obviously be for our new Leader but that leader is going to need a party behind him which is strong, dynamic and well organised. A party which encourages the efforts of members to build support in their communities and recognises the central role our members play in winning for our party.

It is the national executive which is responsible for ensuring that happens and that’s why the elections are important.

CLP reps are elected for two years and the next two years will be crucial for the party. The conservative coalition could last five years but it would be a big mistake to count on that. The Lib Dems are not exactly known for discipline under fire and it wouldn’t be impossible for Cameron to decide that they had served their purpose and ditch them for an early election if he thought he could win it. I am not saying it will happen, but it could, and we need to factor the possibility in.

That means we need to ensure that the party is in a position to fight an election whenever it comes – and that means taking decisions now – these things don’t happen overnight.

One of the first decisions we need to take is to start the candidate selection procedure as soon as possible. Many seats were put into an impossible position last time round with the unprecedented number of late resignations meaning many good candidates just didn’t get the time necessary to build that crucial relationship with the voters. That alone may well have cost us up to six seats.

Next time we need to do better. We know the marginal seats we need to regain – so let the local parties get on with either endorsing the candidate they had last time ( if that’s what the members want to do) or let them select a new candidate and get on with the campaigning

We have made progress with selecting more women candidates – 31% of the PLP. Our 81 women MPs are more than all the other parties put together but we still need to do more. That’s why we need to keep all women shortlists as one of a number of tools for greater equality. However, having seen how these decisions are made, I can guarantee there is a need for much greater openness and work to involve members in these decisions.

The selection of BAME candidates is one area where the Tories have finally started to make some progress – 11 Tories to 16 labour MPs – and we need to be conscious of the need for our MPs to be representative of the wider Labour community. Interestingly, despite all their rhetoric about equality there are no BAME MPs among the 57 Lib Dem shield bearers for Conservatism.

We need to  commit more resources to supporting and encouraging candidates with a wider experience, which includes an acknowledgement of the need for more candidates from a working class background. Some resources can be freed up by abolishing the candidates panel which seems to have no purpose other than to use up a colossal amount of staff and volunteer time.

A related aspect is the importance of being well prepared for any boundary review/gerrymander the Tories are planning. We need to ensure every possible elector is on the register. That means putting pressure on local councils to do the job properly but many Tory councils know it’s in their interests to keep registration low. For that reason, we need the party to be campaigning independently in many areas to ensure the registers are up to date.

We will also need to ensure that the Party is properly organised for the boundary review. We were very organised at the review in the 1990s with all sections of the party – MPs, councillors, CLPs and individual members – acting as a team. We need to get that discipline back again. The Tories have learnt some sharp tricks from the Texas republicans – we need to be prepared.

The key to future success lies in building a party structure that supports the efforts of party members to build support in their communities and harnesses their skills, abilities and enthusiasm. A party genuinely in touch with the views of Labour supporters and the wider community- the people whose support  we need to win back.

That applies equally to our crucial links with the trade union movement. At a national level those links are strong and close but at a local level the relaitonship has often been alowed to drift. How many MPs know the name of the convenors at their local engineering works or the shop steward at their local Tesco? What are relations like with the local CWU and are we helping their campaign against the sell off? These links will be vital in building our movement of resistance to this government.

In May we will be facing our first major nationwide election challenge with local elections in most of England, Assembly elections in Wales and Parliamentary elections in Scotland. These will be a crucial opportunity to re-build Labour’s base in local government – electing the Labour councillors who are vital for delivering Labour’s policies in the community and building support for our party on the ground.

They will also be an ideal opportunity to show Nick Clegg what a price he will pay for making the Lib Dem MPs a wholly owned subsidiary of Tory central office. Watch out for Lib Dem councillors, who can’t stomach the unnecessary cuts their partners demand, jumping ship. As a party, we need to make those who want to come over very welcome. Big Labour successes in these elections will add massively to the pressure on the coalition. Always remember though: at a general election the real enemy, as ever, will be the Conservative party.

To beat that enemy we need to build on the amazing process that has been going on almost unnoticed since last May. In the last four months over 25,000 people have joined the Labour party. Our membership in May was around 150,000, so you can see the size of the growth (remember all those pundits last year who were saying political parties were finished? They never get it right.)

This growth gives branches and constituencies a real challenge to integrate these members into existing structures, making the party easier to get involved with. Nationally, we need to review the membership fee. For many people £39 per year is a real problem. Locally, we need to revive the Labour supporters networks – but under the control of local parties – not kept on a database at Head Office. Every leaflet and news-letter should be encouraging people to learn more about Labour, what we do and how to get involved. The process of people turning back to Labour has started and we need to harness it as a potent force of resistance to the Tories slash and burn economics.

To win that battle, we need to win the economic argument. That means refuting the Tory myth that it’s all Labour’s fault. Remind people that without Labour’s approach to deficit financing – opposed at every turn by the Tories – our economy would now be a smoking ruin. This crisis was caused by bankers’ greed, not politicians’ decisions. In fact, if the Tories had had their way, Northern Rock would have gone to the wall followed in short order by a large chunk of the British financial sector.

We need to remind people of this, but just winning arguments about the past isn’t enough. We need credible alternatives to the governments economic policies which embody Labour’s belief that economic success relies on partnership between workforce and management, treating the workforce with respect.

We know there is  a role for government – both local and national – in creating the context for economic success. The crude and untruthful Tory division between private (productive) and public (wasteful) shows a real failure to understand how things work. Try making anything without schools to educate your workforce, roads to move your goods or police to stop your profit disappearing in a bag marked “swag”.

Economic activity involves partnership between public and private sectors – always has and always will. That’s why the Sheffield Forgemasters issue was so important. Labour’s investment in current and future economic success (a loan, for crying out loud) was cancelled for free market ideological reasons. With Nick Clegg, the local MP, powerless to do anything about it, despite being “so influential” in the government.

We need to review our policies to ensure we have the right answers for the next decade – what worked for 1997 might need updating for 2011. What is the Labour response to the deficit and the cuts? How do we support modern manufacturing and jobs in a global environment. How do we factor in the need for environmental protection? How do we respond to the needs of an ageing population? How do we meet the needs of the skilled and white collar workers who were the biggest group to leave Labour last time?

People will want answers and they will want them quickly. And we need the confidence to base those answers on real Labor values: fairness, hard work, compassion, empathy and solidarity.

As a party we have a lot to do over the next few months. So let’s elect the new leader and get to it.

Peter Wheeler is an incumbent candidate for the constituency section of the national executive committee.

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2 Responses to “The nuts and bolts of what we need to do, by Peter Wheeler”

  1. Gaipajama says:

    “The Lib Dems are not exactly known for discipline under fire and it wouldn’t be impossible for Cameron to decide that they had served their purpose and ditch them for an early election if he thought he could win it.”

    I thought that with the fixed-term parliament legislation/55% to dissolve, the only way to force a dissolution is with a 50%+1 vote of no confidence? Cameron has made a big play of the fact that he’s the PM who ‘gave away’ the power to call an election on a whim, so theoretically we don’t have to worry about that yet. Have I got this wrong?

  2. The legislation has not gone through yet and very well may not.
    The point is that we need to be gearing up and picking candidates to be leading our campaigns especially in the seats we need to gain. The biggest gift the party can give a candidate is time to build their relationship with the local voters.

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