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.