A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Building the Party

LabourList are running a good initiative, asking Labour members how we should go about building the Party:
http://www.labourlist.org/building-the-party-how-do-we-increase-membership

The main note of caution I would offer is that we need to be careful not to assume a structural change quick-fix is possible or would produce the desired results. Quite often the problems in areas where we are under-gunned and out-organised are nothing to do with structures and are:

a) Political - we got very unpopular at the end of our 13 years in power. Naturally unpopularity depresses levels of membership and activism.
b) Cultural - structures whose design actually has a neutral impact can produce healthy, thriving CLPs where there are key officers running them who are open, involving, friendly and good organisers. The very same structures can produce a political desert or purgatory where they are run by unpleasant, sectarian, exclusive or lazy people. It's the people in an organisation that primarily shape its political culture and success, not the institutional structures that create the culture.

The solutions to these are for people of good will (note my choice of words - it's not about their politics, it's about their attitude) to take control of the structures, build the party where it is weak and promote attractive policies and an inclusive, campaigning culture. This requires a lot of hard work over years not weeks but produces results, whereas organisational fixes (e.g. abolish a bit of the structure you find irritating or is controlled by your opponents) is fast but often replaces disorder with a vacuum rather than order.

If you were trying to design a political party from scratch then you probably wouldn't end up with Labour's policy-making structure or the Byzantine complexity of our electoral and selection systems or the composition of our national bodies. All of those owe much to our federal origins as a Party set up by existing unions and socialist societies (with individual members an afterthought 18 years later) and a balance-of-power between party stakeholders that evolved at times painfully. I wouldn't recommend revisiting the national structures in haste - they work after a fashion and the pain involved in revising them would exceed the gain, with the exception of the NPF and policy-making which is rightly under review having been characterised by a complete absence of transparency and producing policies that only got us 29% of the vote.

But you probably would design from scratch an organisational structure that involved party units covering the levels of election the party fights: branch parties to fight ward elections and select and hold councillors to account, CLPs to fight parliamentary elections and select and hold MPs and PPCs to account, LGCs to co-ordinate council selections, elections and manifestos. I.e. broadly the structure we've got. You might want to encourage those party units to organise more socials and more campaigning and a few fewer meetings but the basic skeleton of the party makes sense and where populated with a reasonable number of people of good will, it works (we did win a hat-trick of General Elections not that long ago).

I've put my own stab at answering LabourList's questions below:

- Is the cost of membership a problem?
Yes. It's too high to attract the very people we are supposed to represent.

- Should we abandon the membership model altogether and look for supporters and donations instead?
No. The members (and the affiliates and their members) are the party. Without members I am not sure what legal status the party would have. It would just be a loose coalition of candidate fan clubs which would have to be recreated every four years. No members implies no member input to policy or selections. It also suggests that the party has no intrinsic value as a civic society institution beyond contesting elections - not a view I share.

- Do current party structures serve the membership (and the party) as well as they should?
See my comments above. Most of it does the job adequately when populated by good people. The policy making process is not fit-for-purpose but that is already being reviewed.

- How about taking a year out from party meetings and looking again at how we work?
If you didn't have party meetings for a year at the end of the year there wouldn't be much of a party left. In a democratic organisation meetings enable you to debate, resolve differences, decide policy and plan campaigns. And meet people who share your beliefs! A party without meetings requires you to have members who are just organisational sheep who will do what they are told without any input, and organisers and politicians who are infallible and don't need to consult anyone. Would anyone suggest having a company or a hospital or a charity without meetings? No.

- Is community organising the way to go, or should we learn from marginal seats where the focus was on "get out the vote" efforts?
I am still confused about what community organising is (as opposed to issue-based campaigning in communities that we have always done) and how directly it benefits us as a political party. We have very limited resources. I suggest we prioritise our main task of winning elections, then implementing our policies through the institutions we win control of, unless there are CLPs out there with a second set of spare activists and resources to devote to more esoteric tasks. I'm happy for the community organising evangelists to sell it to me a bit more though - i.e. sceptical rather than hostile.

- How do we interact with new members?
Badly at the moment. Contacting them and inviting them to a good mix of social events, campaigning (incl. training) and political discussions might be a good start! The best practice from the best CLPs needs to be rolled out everywhere, with a safety net of email contact and invitation to events by the national and regional parties.

- How much power over policy should be devolved to members?
Policy making at local government level is already wholly devolved to local members. At a national level we need more transparency about what happens to members' policy ideas and why they have been rejected if they are, but also an acceptance that other stakeholders have a big say e.g. affiliates and the PLP and Leadership who after all have to argue for policies in the Commons. A more evidence based policy making structure, with the NPF Commissions playing a similar role to scrutiny/select committees, hearing witnesses and taking submissions from inside and outside the party, would produce better policy than it being based on people's prejudices and entrenched positions.

- And how do we persuade people that joining the Labour Party is a positive way of making a difference both nationally and in their community?
By being more public and transparent about the way in which individual members play a role in policy, selections, election campaigns, community and issue-based campaigns and running for/holding public office. Our recruitment leaflets don't actually explain what being a member can involve if you want it to - it is simply presented as a way of expressing support for Labour when in fact it should be far more empowering than that.

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