Recently Alex Smith (formerly of this parish) asked me to write a response to LabourList columnist Rob Marchant’s chapter of the Labour’s Business pamphlet. Rob’s chapter, and my response, deals with how Labour as a party can become more receptive to business voices. You can read it below:
In his chapter for Labour’s Business, Rob Marchant argues – rightly — that Labour as a party needs to learn at all levels how to speak to and engage with business and the private sector. That’s a given — not least because that’s where most of the electorate work. However, what Rob cites as a problem with Labour’s membership — the party meeting — is in fact reflective of a deeper malaise within the party. It’s one that needs to be dealt with if Labour is to become a genuine 21st-century party.
Rob’s contention is that the average Labour Party meeting is likely to be full of people who are public sector workers and trade unionists, as opposed to entrepreneurs. Rob may well be right, although choosing to look at Labour Party meetings is itself flawed. The average CLP meeting isn’t in any way representative of the diversity of the membership in that area, no least because attendees are only a tiny fraction of the membership. That’s due to a number of factors — not least the lack of internal party democracy that leads many to believe that party meetings are pointless.
But there’s also another crucial factor — the Labour Party hasn’t adapted to the changing needs of its membership. I would contend that whilst the party may lack entrepreneurs, it doesn’t lack private sector workers — and lots of them — some unionised, many not. In fact a large proportion of party members I have known and worked alongside work in the private sector. Yet, unfortunately, “contend” is all I can do, as the party seems to have no knowledge of what our members do for a living — or any real knowledge of who they are. That makes my intention as invalid as Rob’s, but it’s something that should concern us both — and you too.
Within the next few weeks the party will employ — for the first time — a senior member of staff whose job it is to engage with members and take their concerns on board. One of their first items of business should be to find out who our members actually are, and how they want to be involved with the party. Through that we may gain some understanding of why the average party meeting is a grumpy, uninspiring, ill-attended affair in a local community centre — and how we change that. Because only once our membership structures reflect the lives our members actually lead — and are flexible enough to include them — will a lot of busy but dedicated party members (from businesses, the public sector, and yes, entrepreneurs) start to have the kind of involvement that works for them.
And that works for the party too.