This morning the Guardian reported on some of the potential changes that the party could undergo as part of Refounding Labour. Unlike Sunny Hundal, I don’t believe that these changes alone will transform the party – this is just a small step in what will be a long process – but it’s a potentially positive step all the same. Community organising (if allied to other forms of campaigning) can win elections, so it’s pleasing to see the party embrace that. Likewise moving towards embracing supporters (as well as members) could have knock on benefits for the party on the ground. As long as membership is still the bedrock of the party, then few members would be likely to complain. Realistically though, there’s little in the Guardian story that wasn’t in the previous draft of the Refounding Labour document published on LabourList last month.
So by and large the changes are positive. However, there’s still some way for the party and the leadership to go in explaining these reforms to the membership. After all, if the membership aren’t convinced, any party reforms will be prove to be mere tinkering, rather than the major step change that Miliband clearly wants to see. Ed now needs to sell these proposals to Labour members – as well as the wider electorate. That interaction with the party faithful has been lacking since the close of the consultation. After weeks of radio silence from the party and the leadership on party reform, many members have rightly wondered what has happened to the more than 3000 submissions they produced. It’s nearly two months since Ed Miliband last said anything of note on party reform when he said that individual submissions should be published. We’re still waiting for that to happen – weeks after the process seemed to be finally underway.
What is missing in the kind of direct contact between the leadership and supporters that (to use a lazy example) the Obama campaign made such great use of. Keeping people in the loop is key, and there was no shortage of that at the start of the process, with not one but two websites for the consultation and regular emails explaining the scale and scope of what was planned. Since then the only word has come through leaks and briefings, making it hard to know who or what to believe. Understandably, that makes members jittery.
Of course it’s the proposals that come out at end that are important. Seeing the way that the sausages are made is never pretty. But as Vincenzo Rampulla argued persuasively at the weekend, it’s crucially important to take the party with you on issues like this – regardless of how good the proposals are.
So far, that sense of engagement is sorely missing from the process, and threatens to undo vast quantities of good work, and some changes that could really benefit Labour as an electoral vehicle and a movement in the years to come. In fairness to Team Ed, they seem to understand that the membership need to be kept involved in this process. In fairness to Miliband himself, it was this kind of engagement with members that enthused so many people to volunteer for him last summer. I have every faith that in the weeks to come before conference the truth about these proposals will become clearer.
But party members have felt let down all too often in recent years. In many ways that sense of disengagement is one of the reasons the party elected the younger Miliband.
Ed would be smart to keep that in mind.