This party has to change

by Rob Marchant

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”

Albert Einstein

The Parliamentary Labour Party’s second-lowest postwar ebb (its 1983-1987 nadir was the only time it has been smaller) is not a time for us to adopt a “steady as she goes” philosophy. We’ve been there, after 2010.

The same economics, literally, because the team behind it was the same. The same poor – or absent – decision-making. The same sense of drift (usually leftwards, because that is the party’s comfort zone).

In many ways, Milibandism was simply Continuity Brownism and we should therefore scarcely be surprised that it achieved a similar result. Worse still, we may not have even reached the bottom yet: the political direction of travel is clearly still downwards and will continue to be, until/unless a big change can be made to happen.

But while we listen to a hundred reasons why Labour lost, most of them perfectly correct, we miss something underlying. Yes, we had the wrong leader. Yes, our scoring on the economy was mostly awful. Yes, our policy offering was a rag-bag of quite-good and not-so-good tactical ideas, which lacked a mission, a coherent and credible overall theme. Yes, Scotland. Yes, UKIP. Yes, yes, yes.


How did we get here? How did we get to doing all those things wrong?

We have to go deeper.

The fundamental building block of parliamentary democracy is the political party. You cannot secure power without one. It is the motor which drives the train. And it is the health of this organic, living, breathing thing which ultimately determines the outcome of the politics.

Political parties could learn a lot from companies. No, not because we are all right-wing free-marketeers now (although that association might be a convenient excuse for some of us to dismiss the comparison out of hand).

No, it is in one particular sense: companies are agents of economic Darwinism, just as parties practise political Darwinism, like it or not. They have to survive in a competitive marketplace. Beliefs and values are vital, essential, but they are not enough.

In politics, too, there is a brutal survival of the fittest, which we in Labour sometimes prefer not to notice. As the Liberals found out to their cost in the early part of the 20th century, no party can afford to be complacent about its political success.

A good leader is important, but so are all the people in an organisation. They inform its thinking and its ideas. And so, an unhealthy party will make unhealthy decisions, no decisions or decisions by default. It will select the wrong leaders. It will repel outside influences and turn in on itself.

Some such parties will recover, under the right leadership: others will eventually succumb to those inexorable Darwinian forces and self-combust.

The unpalatable truth is that that is exactly the kind of party that Labour has become: an unhealthy one. We want to change the country but, in order to do so, we first need to relearn how to change ourselves. Physician, heal thyself.

The Labour Party needs to take a look at itself as a party, a local organisation across the country; not as many MPs see it, as a monolithic vehicle for developing policies or securing office. It needs to look, not just at why it lost in Scotland so badly, but – perhaps more deeply worrying – why UKIP came second to it in so many northern mill towns.

Yes, we can talk vacuously about “engaging” with “communities”. But we had better think harder about the nuts and bolts of what makes us tick as an organisation.

Our party needs to look at its processes, its meetings, its candidate selections; down to its very ethos. Why do we so often give the impression that we feel morally superior to other people? Why do we accept conventional wisdoms on policy rather than think for ourselves? Why do we not see that an unthinking identity politics is slowly corroding our beloved party and our ability to think outside our boxes?

Why do we often happily shoot the messenger, rather than listen to an unwelcome message? And, in particular, why do we believe that Tories are evil, rather than merely wrong?

What is our strategy for changing all that?

Indeed, it is quite possible that the Tories themselves may beat us to the punch at party reform. Robert Halfon, a thoughtful MP to the left of his party, recognises its flaws and is determined to rebuild it, as ConservativeHome notes. He could well succeed.

We, on the other hand, talked a good game in 2010 and then embarked on the limpest of limp reforms, “Refounding Labour”, which barely scratched the surface of the party’s need for reform. It was only when the debacle of the Falkirk selection brought chickens home to roost that Miliband realised his house was on fire.

Trouble was, by the time he had reformed its funding and union links in March 2014 – a genuinely brave and radical move, in truth perhaps the only lasting one of his entire leadership – a general election was looming and there was no time to do more.

There is now. A proper, bottom up reform of the party is what we now have five years to achieve. On the basis of that change, we can make ourselves once again ready for government.

The immediate challenge, yes, will first be to find a leader who sees the magnitude of the task in hand.

But we will not solve our underlying problems, cannot solve our problems, until we first change our way of thinking.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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9 Responses to “This party has to change”

  1. swatantra says:

    Rob is singing a different tune now. Maybe, just maybe he’s seen the light.

  2. Madasafish says:

    To win an election, Labour have to win seats.

    And apart from the SNP, the ONLY source of more than 15 seats is the Conservative Party.

    And to win seats from the Conservative Party, you HAVE to appeal to people who vote Conservative.. Or UKIP that is if UKIP have lots of votes in the constituency.Somehow I am sure you would prefer to tempt people who voted Conservative.. 🙂

    Not all the people who vote Conservative but the floating voters.. The ones who like social equality and economic competence.. The White Working Class that Emily Thornberry despises. The people who dislike their taxes paying for people who never work. The Daily Mail readers.
    The “evil” Tories whom Polly despises in the Guardian.

    Whatever you decide to do , a simple rule of thumb is as follows : If Owen Jones and Polly agree with you, you’re likely to be wrong. 🙂

    And if you do decide to reform, it will be inevitable you will lose some of the voters who believe in magic money trees.. Or have fond memories of the 1960s, or 1970s or 1980s..

    And if you do that, you’ll never regain a seat in Scotland.

  3. paul barker says:

    You might ask yourselves if the Movement model – with a Party tied in with Unions & Co-ops is still appropriate . Labour was founded at a time when only 1 in 10 adults had a vote & some people had half-a-dozen, when The Welfare State & The NHS were still dreams. Your basic structure has been amended but not fundamentally changed.
    The Tories & Liberals were movement Parties back then of course, each tied to vast networks of Clubs & Associations. Those networks died because the social enviroment couldnt sustain them any more but the Parties survived & reinvented themselves. Can Labour reinvent itself while its tied in to The Unions ?

  4. David Walker says:

    “Why do we often happily shoot the messenger, rather than listen to an unwelcome message?”

    When you believe you are always right, this is a logical thing to do. There is no need to listen to the messenger. You are always right, so if you simply attack the deliverer of a different opinion you are bringing the matter to a close there and then. The public just need to be shown that the people who are right do not agree with the messenger. It does not matter what they are saying, because you are always right.

    “And, in particular, why do we believe that Tories are evil, rather than merely wrong?”

    Wrong and evil mean exactly the same thing to those on the left. It is evil to be wrong because being wrong is the opposite of being right. Being right means the same as being good. So the left will always see itself as being right and good, while anybody that doesn’t agree with it must be seen as being both wrong and evil.

    Labour-Uncut is just about the only left-wing publication where this orthodoxy is even questioned. Even here, the point has not been reached where the left is prepared to question whether it is actually right after all.

    No left-wing party has been elected with a workable majority since 1966 (these 49 years in the electoral wilderness can only be thought of as such if you think that Labour, led by Tony Blair, was not a left-wing party).

    This creates a problem for Labour. The electorate, by and large, are thought of as both wrong and evil for denying the country the socialist utopia it deserves – time after time again.

    Whenever another election comes around, a left-wing Labour Party can only say to the electorate “You are both nasty and stupid. Can we rely on your vote this time?”.

  5. jbshort4jb says:

    From a milltown in the north: Existential risks requires bold moves to save our Labour Party. Joint Declaration.
    #keirforleader #tom4deputy

  6. Tim Cole says:

    Had a sit down chat with a lifelong Labour supporter the other night. He was so against Thatcher he actually became a goat farmer in France rather than live here! But he is also a big picture person, and he said something very interesting. He reckoned that the Tories looked at the election map and realised that Scotland was the key to everything (as labour has finally found out). He reckoned that the Tories gave Scotland it’s referendum to stir them up, knowing that there would be a very good chance that the nationalist fervour stirred up by it may well reduce the number of Labour seats. It at least sounds plausible.

    But it also highlights something else, and to me it’s quite simple. Is Labour really as popular as it thinks it is? If you take out the Scottish seats and distributed them more equally over the past, then are the labour victories/levels of Labour support really quite so clear cut? I agree with a lot of what is said on labour Uncut regarding what is going on in the Labour party, but perhaps a more honest look at itself beyond what is recommended in these articles may be be required? Has the Scottish block vote made labour too confident in what it assumes the electorate desires?

  7. Ralph Baldwin says:


    I have evaluated Labours position and there is no willingness to do what you ask at the Senior levels of your party. There is a reason your are leaving the BNP, SNP and UKIP in your wake it is because your leaders are in the business of closing doors and making enemies. Your current selection represents a continuation not a change.
    The good news for all of us as a people in this country is that Christmas is coming whether they vote for it or not.
    Not a single MP in Parliament would place their party over their own interests and this goes for the National Interest too…the people know it, most party members who remain know it, its just a question of time now. I look forwards to the next General Election result…I won a wager at work on this last one and I am looking forwards to winning again on the next one.

    If it helps I am very grateful to you all.

  8. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Oh and remember everyone, only your leaders can change your party, you have no ability to do this – you have as members of your party no meaningful rights at all other than to give them your money and choose from a limited choice of drones….

    Have a lovely day 🙂

  9. John P Reid says:

    The Admirable journalist Rod Liddle ,who dared speak out on Islam when others were afraid too ,through fear of being called Is Islamaphobic dared questioned the validity of the trial for the men accused of killing Stephen Lawrence, with the abolition of double jeopardy, the sleaze surrounding Ken Livingstone in his support of Lufthur Rahman and Lee Jasper,before many other did,as well as his call for Tony. Lair to face a trial at The Hague, backed Andy Burnham for labour leader ,as Andy Bur ham was the only one after Diane Abbott who was working class,and understood told how unpopular labour was with the working class, sure he made mistakes, his il judged joke to which he apologized, suggesting a bloke down the pub, style joke about was Harriet Harman fancy able, and his mock of Blind transgender labour MP not knowing ,due to her sight impediment, whether she was a woman or not, didn’t hit the mark

    But Liddle had come out in support of 90% of Michael Goves education reforms,Gove who appear try idolized Tony Blair and had good friendships with Hazel Blears and James purnell.Rod Liddle has praised Lord Glasman and John Cruddas’s Blue labour. Now for 5 years I’ve tried to describe the huge differences between Blue Labour and New labour, some on the left having gained control of the. Party 5 years ago,saw support edging away as they interpreted ,due to its name that New Labour was blue labour, despite like Compass, a view in 2002 that after our first term we were moving away from what we were about.

    Lord Glasman has come out in support of Liz for leader,other supporters of a Blue Labour,Natasha Engel,not sure about Yvette or Andy are undecided ,now know 10 people who backed Andy last time as they saw him the closest to blue lapburlast time who aren’t backing Andy this time.
    If Liz does back Some of Goves education reforms it won’t be because she’s New labour but more she could appeal to Blue labour,

    Philip Collins tweeted 2 days ago that if Andy Burnham had stuck to his guns and mixed Blue labour and new labour he’d have been on to a winner but he’s afraid,of upsetting union bosses so won’t stick to reforms.

    I note the 3 women who voted labour all their lives, since 1970″ voted Tory for the fist time 2 weeks ago’ admired Goves education reforms.

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