Reforming, yes. Refounding, no thanks

by Kevin Meagher

When I hear all this talk about “refounding” Labour, my heart sinks.

I’m not dewy-eyed about it – I don’t mind a bit of tinkering to make the engine of our beloved old jalopy of a party run a bit better – but according to the Refounding Labour website, the party ‘must change fundamentally if it is to lead progressive opinion and win again.’

Why? Our unreformed, unreconstructed party has managed to attract 50,000 new members in the past year, won every by-election fought and delivered 800 new councillors. Not bad for an old banger.

Set in that context, self-loathing about the party’s structures seems a bit perverse. Unfortunately, it’s always been voguish in Labour circles to decry the state of the party’s organisation and push for change.

We need to be careful. When I used to work in the party’s north-west regional office we used to dread talk of organisational reform from smart Alec, dilettante, newbie MPs. I remember one of them dispensing with the monthly meetings of her constituency general management committee in favour of quarterly coffee mornings instead.

As the 2001 election fast approached she needed to be bailed out as her party had by then completely disintegrated. No meetings meant no activists, cash or campaign plan either. Something as simple as scrapping the four-weekly get together removed the organisational tent poles, leaving her local party a billowing shapeless void as people simply got out of the habit of being active members.

The Labour party’s grassroots ecology needs careful management. Local parties are not the plaything of MPs – however senior they are or however well intentioned they may be. Beware, therefore, O Great Leadership of ours, of refounding the party’s structures over the heads of ordinary members.

Most local parties are held together by half a dozen super-activists. Lose them and its curtains. If members like the existing arrangements, don’t risk upsetting them with careless top-down reform.

But what about the hordes of would-be activists who are said to be put off getting involved in the party because of the drudgery of meetings and general party foot sloggery?

I have to say I’ve never actually met these mythical creatures. My view of this is simple: either you are committed to getting involved or you are not. If you are, you will not be put off by the odd longwinded treasurer’s report. If you are not, you will always find some deal breaker to moan about.

In danger of stating the bleeding obvious, politics is not an 18-30s holiday. There has never been a golden age when monthly meetings were joyous, life-affirming occasions. (I dare say Kier Hardie’s constituency party meetings were stifling too. The great man could drone on a bit). Many are monotonous affairs in hot, cramped rooms. But many are entirely necessary too. Regularity and consistency are the glue that keeps local parties together.

Of course many young urban trendies on the way up have always been keen to avoid becoming entangled in the affairs of their local parties, preferring to soar above the fray of crusty old types banging on about boring procedural stuff.

I was a CLP officer for 16 years and a chair for five. True, when I started off as a 17 year old I was the youngest active member. And when I left at 33…I was still the youngest active member.

But that is not unusual. Many of us have the same experience. Along the way, the first great whoosh of political enthusiasm subsides. Some people drop off the radar. I have seen callow Blairites in the mid 90s become rootsy Brownites a decade later and then watched as they eventually drifted off into single issue purity.

We kid ourselves if we pretend political organising isn’t a hard and often boring slog. The grass is not greener in the wonderful world of community organising either let me tell you. Try bidding for a national lottery grant if you want to experience life-sapping tedium.

As the ‘Yes’ campaign for the alternative vote referendum found out the hard way, you cannot win a political campaign in this country without an effective ground war. To fight one, you need boots on the street. You can tweet and retweet to your heart’s content, but doors need to be knocked on, leaflets need to be stuffed through letter boxes and street stalls need to be manned. Punters need to be looked in the eye.

Anyway, I have missed the deadline for submissions to the Refounding Labour consultation, but here’s my two penneth’ worth.

First, we need to create greater incentive for members to be involved locally. After all, the party’s poor bloody infantry are taken for granted – and always have been. Constituency chairs, secretaries and treasurers keep the show on the road, but no-one in their right mind would want to do these jobs. Responsibility without power or prestige is never a winning offer.

Yet these are the people who robustly refuse to be drawn on criticising the party when the Sunday Times phones up now and again inviting them to do so. They are the party’s centre of gravity and deserve a bigger and more defined role and some good old fashioned gratitude.

We should establish a national forum of constituency chairs to act as a sounding board on future internal reforms and to generally monitor the grassroots health of the party. This forum could meet twice a year to swap ideas and provide insight into the state of membership, finance and campaigning capability. Heck, it may even spur on some good natured competition between local parties. A nice little summer reception with the leader would go down well too. Just for key activists. Let’s make being a local official something people might actually want to do.

Second – and related to the first point – it has become simply too easy for the ambitious upwardly mobile to bodyswerve the hard graft of helping to run the party at a local level.

How about ensuring that that all would-be parliamentary candidates have to serve five years on a constituency executive to earn their place on the panel? That would be an immediate way of re-energising local parties by injecting talented, go-getting types into the party’s grassroots organisation while creating more rounded potential candidates in the process.

We need to be like Tesco and produce more people who know the organisation from its roots up – like their former CEO Sir Terry Leahy who started off on the shop floor.

As I say, there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this great old party of ours.

Reforming, yes. Refounding, no thanks.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.


9 Responses to “Reforming, yes. Refounding, no thanks”

  1. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Great article.

  2. doreen ogden says:

    Well said. Saying what a lot of us are thinking.

  3. redmik says:

    Nice in theory Kevin, but in practice it seems it will always be undermined by those paid officials who corruptly smash every rule in the Party.

    In my own CLP (Stoke Central) the very experienced and committed Chair (who was also a previous Council Leader) was suspended – as was the CLP – on a trumped-up non-offence which was actually proved by a statement in the ‘Refounding Labour’ document:

    Charge No 1

    a) That Mr Stockley chaired and allowed a delegate-based Annual Meeting of Stoke-on-Trent Central CLP to go ahead on 19th February 2010 despite instruction from the NEC that the meeting be cancelled as the CLP’s meetings must be “All-Member Meetings”.

    However, on page 13 of the Refounding Labour document, Peter Hain has the following comment:

    “The last round of party reform gave constituency parties
    the option of moving to All Member Meetings instead
    of having a General Committee. The take-up has been
    patchy. Most constituency parties probably now have a
    General Committee to which all members are welcome as
    observers (with voting reserved to elected delegates),
    with a sizeable minority moving to All Member Meetings.
    The distinction between the two options may be marginal
    given that the trend has been towards open discussions
    with all views being summarised and forwarded rather
    than voting on old style resolutions that come down firmly
    on one side of an issue. How can we also ensure
    that CLPs and party members without MPs and councillors
    feel as valued and involved as those CLPs with MPs and
    many councillors?”

    As was recently remarked locally “how can you be ‘charged’ with not carrying out an ‘instruction’ if the matter was ‘optional’ in the first place ?

    Those of us like myself (46 years membership, 28 years a Labour councillor, National Merit Ward in 2008) found this to be far too corrupt even for Labour and resigned.

    In my own case disillusion had been building up since 2001 when the then Regional Director offered my MP (Mark Fisher) a peerage if he would stand down and allow them to parachute Shaun Woodward into the constituency. We (loyal Party members) assured him of our support and he bravely resisted and went on to become a serial dissenter on issues such as the Iraq war.

    However, last year they seized on Fisher’s ill-health to apply pressure, suspended the CLP (for the non-reason given above) and parachuted Tristram Hunt in. (Hunt had failed in Stalybridge and Hyde, Leyton and Wanstead so it was his turn to be indulged.)
    This was regarded by seasoned observers such as myself as a ‘Mandelson Ask’ of Brown.

    And it still goes on.

    Despite my having received a letter from Ray Collins asking me to re-join the Party, those new ‘imported’ members of the CLP decided that although they would welcome ‘lost sheep’ they would not approach ‘significant leavers’ such as myself.

    My Branch used to be the best-attended and most politically aware BLP in the City, but due to all the officers and activists resigning, they are now unable to hold meetings. We ‘ex-Labour’ people, in contrast, hold regular monthly meetings and are far more aware of Party issues than are actual members. (For instance we discussed the ‘Refounding Labour’ document on April 7th but it wasn’t until June that the CLP were given an edited version of the document and invited to submit responses.)

    And in informal soundings I have discovered that very few know of the impending appointment of a new General Secretary – and I couldn’t find one who knew who was on the shortlist. Sadly this no longer matters, since the NEC stopped representing the ordinary members some time ago and now (apart from a few honourable exceptions) appears only to articulate the views of certain vested interests.

    And from my contacts from all parts of the country I find that our experience is par for the course and similar heavy-handed actions have been the order of the day in Sunderland for instance, where Denny Wilson was peremptorily dropped from the panel of council candidates despite a most impressive (even nationally) record. I identify this example since it has already had publicity, but will not identify others for their own protection.

    As long as people like my own Regional Director (Ian Reilly) and the laughingly-titled ‘Senior Constitutional Officer’ (Eric “we don’t do minutes” Wilson) remain in office there seems to be little hope for the Party and I would certainly not contemplate a return to membership until and unless their services are dispensed with.

    It matters not that a brief spell of favourable comments for Ed Miliband on the ‘Hacking’ issues is casting Labour in a good light. Next Tuesday’s appointment of a new General Secretary will be much more influential to the future success – or otherwise – of the Party.

  4. John P Reid says:

    ditto

  5. Mike Killingworth says:

    How about ensuring that that all would-be parliamentary candidates have to serve five years on a constituency executive to earn their place on the panel?

    Perhaps Kevin would care to tell us which of Labour’s past & present leaders would have met this criterion?

    Politics is not an 18-30s holiday. There has never been a golden age when monthly meetings were joyous, life-affirming occasions.

    Ah, Kevin, you should have been in the Stroud Green branch of the Hornsey CLP in the mid 1970s.

  6. Jon Preater says:

    Really enjoyed this article – read as the result of a tweet incidentally. I have only just become a Labour member and would be horrified by rhe thought that my views would be given the same weight as established activists. Your suggestions make a lot of sense.

  7. paul barker says:

    You descibe Labour as having gained 50,000 new members over the last year. While true that doesnt give an accurate picture. 46,000 new members joined between May & November 2010, raising total Labour membership by 30,000 to 180,000.
    For the first half of both 2010 & 2011 Labour membership was stable, new members joining matching old members leaving.
    Labour membership is now falling again & that fall is accelerating – ask Labour HQ if you dont beleive me.

  8. Dear Kevin

    I think you forgot to mention the machine and the GS (s)election on Tuesday. So I have just posted this:

    http://bit.ly/pVpZa9

    otherwise, I agree with Edward.

  9. Tom Miller says:

    “We need to be careful. When I used to work in the party’s north-west regional office…”

    Says it all. People that work in offices don’t like other people changing stuff to do with their job.

    It’s both natural, and a problem.

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