Refounding labour: reinventing the wheel

by Peter Watt

So the refounding Labour consultation is done. According to the Labour party website there were:

•    3,255 individual submissions
•    20,354 hits on refounding Labour websites
•    66 regional events across the country led by our national and region offices
•    184 party submissions
•    36 submissions from groups or affiliates

It seemed a well-run process with much enthusiasm from many members and some great leadership being shown by some of the more active members of the NEC. There has been a strong sense that the party needed change and there was plenty of energy shown by hundreds of members determined to play their part in delivering it. So far so good.

And then last week saw the publication of “refounding Labour to win” the summary report of all of the submissions. There was a brief bit of “excitement”, as some people seemed worried that a document was published so soon after the close of the consultation. This was a clear indication to some of the new generation that not every submission could have been properly reviewed. A rat was smelt and, in order to check if indeed an injustice had been perpetrated, some demanded that Ed Miliband publish all of the submissions. In a dramatic moment (not) during the one of the twitter “ask Ed” sessions, Ed conceded and agreed to publish.

I have no idea and couldn’t care less whether they have yet been published. I must be living in a parallel universe to those who seem exercised by the transparency or otherwise of the process. And, before anyone accuses me of wanting a closed process, I think that they should be published. If people want to spend hours going through the submissions then I am pleased for them. No, my problem is that the whole process is predicated on the production of a series of technical tweaks to the structures of the party. The summary document consists of 12 pages of recommendations for changes to party meetings, LGC’s, candidate contracts and on and on.

Where the hell is the vision?

The problem is that process was set up in a way that made it likely to be a damp squib right from the start. To begin with, the blank piece of paper approach was lauded as being an asset. This was to be a genuinely open process where members were able to discuss the future of the party. There was to be no stitch-up and certainly no pre-conceptions.

That is not how the new generation works. And so those who best understand the arcane intricacies and byzantine operations of every dark corner of the party were asked to raise their sights to the future. Those who have chosen to be a member of a political party were asked to design a party to appeal to the 99.2% of the electorate who haven’t. With no overarching sense from the leadership of what sort of a future they wanted the result is unsurprisingly the mish-mosh of unrelated recommendations that is “refounding Labour to win”.

The only thing that wins is the apathy of the electorate. Let’s be honest, pulses will not be raised amongst the electorate by this. And this is the fault of the leadership. I accept that Ed wanted an open process, rightly so. But by failing to set out his vision for a social democratic party and its role in the early part of the 21st century the party has missed an opportunity.

Political parties are in crisis. Membership is in sharp decline. Of course there are temporary rises when we are in opposition, followed by even more rapid declines when we win. Trust in political parties is low and politics is seen as a dirty word. Financing of all of the main parties is difficult, and is likely to get more difficult. And at the same time the demands on finances is increasing with more and more sets of elections to be contested.

For most of the electorate political parties are completely irrelevant. If they have a problem, they sort it out themselves without the intervention of any political figure or body. If they want to raise a concern or run a campaign they get on with, resulting in informal and often spontaneous campaigns. The growth of social media and decline of traditional media mean that it is very easy to avoid all matters political. And most people do. Politics and political parties are seen as irrelevant at best and self-serving at worst. The best that we can do is tweak the structures and throw in the odd piece of political outreach.

Structural change will not solve these problems. We shouldn’t be asking how to make the party better for members. We should be asking how we can be a party that is relevant to people’s lives. By failing to set out a vision, Ed risks disappointing those who have taken part in the consultation in good faith. But most of all, he risks letting down those who are still likely to see the Labour party as irrelevant to their lives.

Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.


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10 Responses to “Refounding labour: reinventing the wheel”

  1. It was always gonna be a navel gazing exercise.

  2. paul barker says:

    Another thoughtful & relevant article from Mr Watt, wrong on peaks & troughs in Party membership though.
    Both Labour & Libdems had membership peaks in the late 90s & again last year. The trigger for both seems to have been Political excitement, the prospect of real change, the direction doesnt seem to matter.
    For labour, 1997 saw a peak of 407,000 which fell very rapidly by nearly 200,000 over 6 years.
    Last years peak was about 180,000, obviously its too soon to say whether the pattern of rapid decline will be repeated.
    The Libdem membership has seen parallel rises & falls while for the Tories its been just falls.
    This is a crisis for Party Politics as a whole in Britain, made worse in Labours case by the added problem of massive debts.

  3. Peter Watt says:

    Thanks Paul, sorry if I gave a different impression but I agree with you that this is a problem for Party politics not just Labour party politics.

  4. Jon says:

    So… Never mind the members. Don’t mention the unions. Just be relevant to people’s lies. So who decides what’s relevant to the members. The people who lost 5 million Labour votes between 1997 and 2010? Who alienated so many core Labour voters? Over 4 million of those 5 million lost votes were from social groups C2, D & E (see the figures here).

    Sorry Pete. I’d sooner trust the members, individual and affiliated.

  5. Real Chris says:

    @Peter

    Sorry but your article is complete drivel. You’re merely looking for a stick with which to beat Ed Miliband with, I doubt you could write on any Ed related topic and come out with a positive opinion of him. Your argument is just endless clichés, stuck in the past and very out of touch with what you get on the doorstep. When was the last time you canvassed?

  6. AnneJGP says:

    I comment on this with some reticence, not being a member. However, as an outsider, it seemed to me at the time of Mr Miliband’s leadership acceptance speech that his vision for the party was largely couched in negative terms. Not “negative” in a derogatory sense, but rather that he was concerned primarily to draw a line under what had gone wrong.

    In the circumstances, it seemed the right sort of approach to take for that speech.

    So I wonder whether, after initially formulating his vision as a “not like that”, he is struggling to transpose it into positive terms, to convey how he sees his party for the future.

  7. Roger says:

    I it was hugely premature and bounced on a party which is almost certainly looking at 5 years in opposition.

    We could have instead launched a year long consultation exercise after the local elections with time for Ed or a senior shadow cabinet member to hold meetings with every CLP (or more practically county or district LPs).

    This could also have been linked to a real and far reaching policy review.

    With deft ‘we’re listening’ branding conceivably this could have even sparked the public imagination and generated a real surge of new members.

    Instead we have – well I am not even sure what we have….

  8. Peter Watt says:

    Real Chris, I am certainly not ‘looking for a stick to beat Ed with’. I have been saying similar things about the future of political parties for a very long time. Just because you don’t agree doesn’t make it drivel.

  9. Real Chris says:

    @Peter

    I agree with some of it but as a whole it is still drivel. You’re taking the narrow issue of party reform and leaping from that to attacking Ed for his, in you opinion, lack of political “vision”.

    Your argument is very out of touch with real people, the idea that anybody with a problem ignores their local politicians and just starts their own social media campaign is laughable.

    A massive problem with the central labour party apparatchik’s, like yourself, is taking people for granted. Members are ignored so leave, fewer members means less presence in the community, voters never hear from their CLP so don’t vote Labour instead they voted libdem because “they make an effort”.

    “We should be asking how we can be a party that is relevant to people’s lives.”

    Is that supposed to be some sort of great incite? What is your plan – ignore members and base the party entirely around the facebook page? An excellent way of being relevant is to actually engage with people locally but for that you need members…

  10. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Peter,

    Somewhere along the line the reasons for the consultation were lost. It was supposed to be an act that would re-build trust in the Party. A platform to ensure our elected reps re active on the dorrsteps taking a lead and increasing voter Id etc whilst recruiting new members and making the party “relevant” by allowing people to bring local/national issues to their ward meetings where we invite guest speakers and field questions etc.

    What is happening and has been happening is the same old elected reps in CLps (with exceptions as there are good ones) have allowed all the CLp positions to be taken up without doing any of the work and allowing their local parties to decline to ensure they themselves are always re-selected.

    Meanwhile the “senior” (lol) party members created this exercise but have not created even a single change to the Party to solve its problems and retained their strangle hold. The problem with a strangle hold is that it prevents oxygon getting to the head and causes decline and ultimately death. That is what has been occuring. The whole structure is wrong in my view, the way in which the least number of people are permitted to take positions, we need a more even spread of power. You have to be onthis committee to get on that committee etc etc, utter nonsense and encouraging the worst kind of feudal like consequences.

    Our Party really struggles with the balance between effective leadership and democracy, with involving people and with party discipline.

    The Leadership have so far failed to improve Labour, as for re-founding it, well i doubt they were with the best will in the world, equiped to be ableto take on such a radical task as none of them seem to have entered politics for any kind of reason other than just being there (which is not always a bad thing, just most of the time).

    At the moment poor ed has to tell us he is in charge, he has to remind us he is the leader, and this is not a good sign. It should be a “given”. I like Ed, I thought and still think he has great potential, its just getting an instrument that has been locked away in a closet (Westminster) for far too long and getting it out into the community which is where we all should be.

    I have been knocking on doors for decades. Its bread and butter stuff and I like it. Though at the moment I am refusing to recruit more people into the Party. After the dozen or so households I recruited plus the others in other wards during the General Election I see no reason why i should break into a sweat until our party is truly reformed and rewards hard work, ensures people not just us elected reps get positions and can play a part, and an atmosphere is created beyond pure self interest to make sure our party is composed of people who can share democracy, feel there is a good reason to be involved with the ability to make a difference.

    “Re-founding” labour? That would take drive, commitment and passion and would need more Mr Hain and the Leader of the Party it would take a huge number of senior figures to impliment.

    So far there are no signs at all that these “senior” people understand the Party they have wandered into, because they did not “work their way up”. They just blundered in, many without even undertsanding politics lol.

    There are too many grand gestures, an over reliance on words without understanding the impications of the words, we are being told what they think we want to hear but not understanding the problem or indeed the solutions.

    So we shall little more than a very weak process that will result in very little and when i leave the Party and stand down as a Councilor, I shall not be alone, I’ll be off to join 4 million voters and heavens knows how many activists who left the Party previously (when they did I was in the mob and missed out on the disappointment of what the Party has become).

    But its still an open field, they can still change things, the ball is in their court.

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