Rites of passage often involve the adherence to certain rituals that help mark significant moments in life. Think of weddings and think exchange of rings, the best-man’s speech and embarrassing dancing. The point is that the rituals happen almost without thinking and often invoke feelings of familiarity and security.
The same is true for the Labour party. Election victories, election defeats and new leaders are all rites of passage with associated rituals. Generally these rituals are benign at worse and even sometimes helpful. The coming together at conferences to show unity, the cries of ‘all Tories are evil’ and trade union general secretaries condemning the government all help the party feel at ease with itself.
But there is another ritual that almost always occurs and that is far from benign; in fact is positively damaging. The membership drive.
I urge Ed strongly to resist the temptation to call for the party to leave Manchester and go out and recruit more members, however tempting such an entreaty may be. The truth is that membership goes up a bit when we are in opposition as some people decide that they want to help get the Tories out.
Then it goes down when we win. We may well recruit some more members over the coming months, but it will not mark an end to a trend that we must not ignore – fewer and fewer people want to be members of political parties. In the early 1980s, approximately four per cet of the electorate were party members. The figure is now less than one per cent.
So at conference next year Ed may well be able to point to the number of new recruits as a sign of our progress towards electoral victory. But, as night follows day, membership will then begin to fall and he will be criticised for causing the decline. Remember how Tony Blair was lauded for raising membership levels to 405,000, and then hammered for causing the (inevitable) post-1997 decline.
And the problem is that the longer we remain focused on bucking an un-buckable trend, the longer we put off facing some uncomfortable truths. We use talking to members and membership recruitment as a proxy for listening to voters. They are not the same thing at all. In fact, if we are honest, party members are not in any way representative of voters and never will be. People who join a political party are in a tiny minority and we political activists who choose to deliver leaflets, attend meetings or spend time at a party conference are weird.
Yet we allow ourselves to pretend that it is OK for this tiny group to select candidates and set policy for millions of people. And then we scratch our heads and wonder why so many people are not interested in or are hostile to party politics. Our focus on membership reinforces the dangerous separation between the party and voters.
Organisationally, we also waste money trying to recruit members. Which means that when we are not successful we have to pretend that we were. Every year the NEC sets a membership target that is frankly unachievable – and shockingly not achieved.
Of course we need money and there is no doubt that our members raise considerable cash for the party. The 34000 new members since May will certainly bring welcome extra gold to party coffers. But we will not raise enough to run the party from membership subs alone.
Ed has called for the party to change. He should use the authority that he now has to set a different course and begin quickly to mould the party into a fundamentally different shape. Members will continue to be important, of course. We need an inner core of activists. But they should not be the focus of our activity. Those members are already motivated enough to take part through the effort of joining. We should nowadays provide them with the tools, both online and offline, to get on with it.
Our focus should be the electorate. Candidates should be chosen in open primaries and leadership elections should involve votes for the public. Our website, our publications, our events should all be designed to attract and welcome voters. We should set targets for the number of people that take part in selection contests – not how many people join. It is a strange world indeed when the Conservatives have had primaries to select candidates already whereas we, with one or two unofficial and laudable exceptions, have not.
At a local level, we should be seeing how we can help other people’s campaigns – not just running our own. Our best advocates at election times should be local people telling each other stories about how the Labour party helped their campaign to change their area for the better.
Change is coming to the party, but some of that change will happen whether Ed or anyone else likes it or not. The membership decline will continue to affect all parties (even if we have a temporary reprieve in the coming months), and the government is going to legislate on party funding, which will force us to look at the nature of our relationship with affiliates. We should now respond to these changes positively, avoid wasting time and money trying to recruit members, thus organisationally reinforcing our separation from the electorate. Instead, we should reach out to those who may never consider joining the party.
I am – as we all are – proud to be a members of the Labour party. But you know what they say about pride. So Ed please, please, please, when the dust has settled on yesterday’s speech – NO membership drive.
Peter Watt was general secretary of the Labour party.