It’s time to change how we operate

by Richard Costello

With the refounding Labour review closing today I feel that it is important for us to consider the real issues in our party. We will never win again unless we confront the elephants in the room and for me the major issue is the role of constituency Labour parties CLPs.

Too often, instead of empowering members, CLPs create the feeling of powerlessness and inferiority in our membership – discouraging involvement in our movement. As a party we talk about making the country more meritocratic, well why don’t we start by making the Labour movement a meritocracy.

Many of us remember our first Labour party meetings, the story always seems to be the same, like a tale from a John O’Farrell book. You enter a drafty hall, which is half empty, there is probably a rickety table at the front where the chair and secretary sit and a horseshoe of seats, despite there only being two or three members in attendance. Those members are male, elderly and white, hardly representative of the people’s party.

Acronyms seem to be the order of the day with: CLP, CAC, NPF and NEC being branded about at alarming regularity, with no explanation of what they stand for or actually mean. Worse still there is a rigid agenda that is followed to the letter, despite the glaring mistakes in it. The biggest mistake being that there is no politics or time for open discussion on the agenda.

Despite this we persist and turn up to the meetings, somehow get involved in campaigning and move on from there. Many members do not though. The equally common story is of the young member who turns up once never to be seen again, put off by the rigidity, pointlessness and confusion that typifies Labour meetings. Those people are not just lost members, but lost talent and lost ideas. If Labour is to win again we need all the help we can get. The CLP in its current, archaic guise does not help to facilitate that.

When I speak to members most join the Labour party because they care about their communities and want to campaign to improve them. They do not join to hear irrelevant reports. CLPs must be about campaigning, getting involved with the community and debating issues with like minded people. The myriad of branch and constituency meetings stifles involvement in the community and undervalues the role of campaigning.

To achieve our objectives we must slim down the self fulfilling bureaucracy of CLPs and concentrate on what matters. Is there really any need for delegates from branches or for that matter any positions beyond a chair to maintain order, a secretary to administrate and a treasurer to take care of financial matters. If we move towards all member meetings we bring more people into the process and allow CLPs to focus on the real issues.

If we have learnt anything from the last thirteen years it surely must be that we do not have all the answers and must create institutions that allow individuals to be heard more easily.

Ordinary members must feel like they have the ability to change things within the party. To steal a famous phrase ‘they are members of a free party but do not feel free.’ Moving towards a less hierarchical structure would change this and would give individuals real power in the party. The time to make these changes is now. Ed needs a moment of the same magnitude of one member one vote or what Clause IV was for Blair. Party reform could be that change and signal that the Labour party is a forward looking, dynamic force, rather than an institution consumed by internal matters. To put it quite simply Labour needs to be more relevant to ordinary people and making these changes will help us to achieve that.

Richard Costello is a member of the national policy forum, he writes in a personal capacity.

You can have your say at – the consultation ends today.

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7 Responses to “It’s time to change how we operate”

  1. DavidHitchin says:

    What a load of Blairite nonsense hiding under the guise of empowering members. CLPs are about holding people to account, campaigning is secondary, the party needs checksa and measures

  2. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    This ignores the reasons that there is so much jargon and obsession with minutiae. It happens because unless you are absolutely exact you will never get any idea carried above the CLP level that does not tie in to leadership priorities.

    You do need to restructure, but you need to deal with that problem or new ones will emerge.

  3. jk says:

    Quite right DavidHitchin.
    In my former CLP they carried out Blairite reforms, closed down wards, held fewer CLP meetings and those which did take place were open to all members. The night was changed to a Thursday so the MP could attend. Guess what? The membership plummeted and now there is no political organisation in any of the wards.

    Without local and I mean local at a ward level of party organisation and yes that means many meetings are held in draughty church halls (because there are precious few other social places to meet these days; schools wont hire, pubs have closed, libraries closed).

    The Blairite wing think that the LP doesn’t need active members, or only needs them at election time. And they wonder why Labour fails to win?

    The party organisation or ward and CLP provide a place to apply checks and balances of those who hold office on behalf of the Labour Party. Too many ex ministers have enriched themselves on the back of their former political jobs and are beyond criticism of how they have used the LP and its supporters to benefit themselves.

    CLPs are one of the few places where MPs and councillors can be held to account. The Blairite wing set out to hollow out the LP. Assuming that party members would stick loyally to the Party regardless. Not true. And helps to explain the poor financial and organisational position of the party.

  4. AmberStar says:

    My CLP held their AGM at the local community center. The room was packed; not enough tables & chairs for all. We are seeing new faces every meeting & they do come back.

    What’s really needed is a mere 30 minutes of unstructured time, either at the start or end of each meeting. Time when people can just talk to each other or take the opportunity to meet the MP, MSP & Councillors who always attend each meeting.

    It would make a big difference, I think.

  5. Richard says:

    “The biggest mistake being that there is no politics or time for open discussion on the agenda.”

    Well there is in my CLP. We used a teeny weeny bit of initiative and put it on the agenda. A new subject every month with guest speakers.

  6. Richard says:

    David Hitchin has completely missed the point of this article which is that the party in its local organisation and activities should be be more outward-looking to the community which it seeks to ameliorate and less navel-gazing, obsessed with excessive procedure. His is a knee-jerk reaction to the prospect that accountability will be lost and shock horror, the Blairites will rule the roost. Why only the Blairites? A faction from the other end of the spectrum could just as equally impose itself. And anyway, why should any acccountability be lost? It’s perfectly possible to redesign meetings whilst retaining a structure of accountability. I wouldn’t go so far as Richard Costello in advocating the abolition of secretary and treasurer. It’s plain silly as an idea for practical reasons: these are jobs that need to be done, take time, and are necessary for internal party communication, planning and accountability.

    However, on the idea of opening up CLP meetings to all members, I’m all in favour. So much so that my CLP has been doing it for years. We not only welcome all members from our CLP, but from other CLPs too. And branch meetings are also open to members from other branches. Were they not, there are members who I would only ever come across at election time, if that. It has created a healthy environment of exchange and co-operation which can only ever be a good thing for constructive, fresh thinking, enabling new ideas and new talents to emerge.

    Recently we have been discussing taking this one stage further and opening up the monthly topic section of the meetings to the wider community – what better way could there be for the Labour Party to show that it is the party of the people listening to the people?

  7. Jim Monaghan says:

    I agree, my CLP already has all member meetings, it makes sense. My problem with the CLP situation in Scotland is that they are based on Westminster constituencies and are increasingly irrelevant (geographically) to how politics is done up here. But I agree with Richard Costello that all members should attend and the party should be about getting involved in the communities where we campaign. I dont understanbd why david thinks this is “blairite”

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