by Peter Watt
I have my copy of The Purple Book and I am loving it. It is great to have a coherent and well thought out vision for the next phase of Labour’s development. I agree with what Anthony Painter said on this site on Thursday:
“The Purple Book, published today, after months of political hysteria, is actually a largely constructive and imaginative collection. It is far from being “lazy” and “idiotic” as its detractors claim. This is the progressive Labour – out of political favour for almost half a decade – response to blue Labour. It is much more than that too. And it manages, fairly convincingly, to move on from its New Labour past”.
I strongly recommend that people buy and read it. But there is a downside to The Purple Book: that it will, inevitably, be seen as being partisan. Because of course it is. Speaking as a fully signed up member of progress, I am completely comfortable with the direction of its partisanship. But the Labour party is a coalition (I know that this is a bit of a dirty word, but I think we may well have to get used to it) and there will be many therefore who dismiss The Purple Book simply because it is from the progress stable.
I am not complaining about this, as to a large extent we all filter what we read and listen to on the basis of our politics. For that reason, I am pleased that there is another book that has just been published that also aims to foster debate and discussion within the party.
“What next for Labour? Ideas for a new generation“ has been edited by Tom Scholes-Fogg and Hisham Hamid. It is a collection of essays about policy and party development. So far so same-same. But the big point of difference with The Purple Book is that the essays come from across the spectrum of opinion within the party. The nearly 30 contributors range from Ann Black to Peter Temple-Morris and from Aaron Porter to Admiral Lord West and all points in-between. The aim has been to provoke discussion and debate from all sections of the party and thereby allow us to see how much we agree on and also what we don’t. As the editors say:
“The new landscape in British politics created after the 2010 general election has dramatically altered the role of the Labour party by essentially becoming the only opposition to the Coalition. Consigning the party back to the opposition benches gives an unparalleled opportunity to rebuild the party stronger and once again become the party of government. A debate about what the future of the party is ideologically, and a debate about whom the party represents, and most importantly what does the Labour party stand for? This book includes the thoughts of figures from Labour’s past and present as well as front line activists. Bringing these ideas together into one place will not only be informative and enlightening to the reader, but we feel strongly would also benefit the party in regrouping and rebuilding whilst in opposition”.
All areas of policy are discussed and party development is not missed either. In fact I strongly recommend the chapter, “Building a Party for the Future”, written by, well, me. Let me give you a flavour:
The problem is that political parties in their current form are in trouble. The membership of political parties in the UK is declining and has been doing so since the 1960’s.
Currently the numbers of those choosing to be members of political parties is hovering at around 1% of the electorate down from 4% as recently as 1983. Being a member of a political party is a minority sport. In terms of participation it is more handball than football. And the problem is that within that minority an even smaller minority of activists form the small pool that gets elected, chooses candidates, decides policy and makes decisions on behalf of everyone else.
And the very nature of political parties means that all too often party activists are divorced from the lives of those whose lives that they seek to influence. Activists mostly socialise together, mostly discuss issues only with each other, mostly read the same newspapers and blogs. They have their own language, culture and social norms (social norms that often other non members find distinctly abnormal). We then use ‘member engagement’ as a proxy for finding out what the electorate think and feel and spend huge amounts of resource feeding the insatiable appetite that is the party bureaucracy at every level of our organisation.
I then go on to give my 12 point plan for revitalising the party. The thing is that you may or may not agree with me, but there is clearly a debate to be had. Whether Refounding Labour has delivered this is a moot point. But in What next for Labour?, you can also read contributions from Lord Whitty, Dr Rupa Huq, Tony Lloyd MP, Siôn Simon, Lord Temple-Morris and Tracey Cheetham all with their take on the future of the party. Because it’s all about fostering debate. And the same approach is taken on defence, law and order, campaigning, education, business and enterprise, health, equality and the environment.
So if you fancy challenging your own views, then you will not be disappointed. And not only that, but some of the money that you spend buying a copy of What next for Labour? will go to charity.
Peter Watt is a former general secretary of the Labour party.