Refounding Labour: a cautionary tale

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Refounding Labour2By Vincenzo Rampulla / @VMRampulla

“Change before you have to” – Jack Welch

In 19 days time Labour’s NEC will gather to discuss recommendations from Refounding Labour. A week later stuff, if there are any rule changes, will go to Party Conference for a rubber stamping.

That is all we officially know. Anything else has either come from individual NEC member’s blogs (here and here) or ‘leaks’ to LabourList and the press.

‘So what?’ is a legitimate question. As Luke Akehurst has previously suggested, chilling out and waiting for events to unfold is not an outrageous strategy. But it was the party that told us that Refounding labour was important, it was Ed and Peter that told us it was our chance to building a party fit for our time.

Since the consultation ended in late June there has been precious little coming out of the party about what we gained out of the whole enterprise. All those hundreds of people who discussed, debated and took the time to engage have heard nothing. Those meetings where the great and the good of the party met the great unwashed of its membership seem to have been the totality of the conversation, not its start.

I’m just an ordinary member here so I don’t have an axe to grind about any particular change I want to see. I’m even less concerned with being involved in the decision process as say Daniel Goodliffe seems to be. A lot of us just want to be kept in the loop.

All this cloak and dagger, back room, hidden political discussion encourages people to turn away from political parties and it is endemic in the Labour Party. If anything it points to a need to refound the attitude, the habits and approach we employ.

When Ed Miliband launched Refounding Labour with Peter Hain in March he reflected on how localised the success of the Party had been in 2010’s election, he set out the challenge facing the party:

“Our task now is to ensure that same level of energy is replicated at every level of the party. We must repair, restore and reform our party to meet the challenges ahead.”

That is a mighty challenge for the party and one which we need to get right. So here comes the cautionary tale:

Cast your mind back to 1997 and take your attention off Labour. Post-1997 the Tories faced the many of the same problems we do, problems which face any political party thrown out of government after such a long period.

Its finances were shot, there was a general mistrust between the Party’s centre and local parties, and an out of date political machine more interested in internal intrigue than political mobilsation.

First thing William Hague did as leader was to embark on a period of internal and organisational introspection. He made Archie Norman (one of the few Tory MPs elected in 1997) Chief Executive of the party, to give Hague a sort of ‘Tory Mandelson’ with a mandate for overhauling the party.

The internal resistance to change, the perception of Norman’s initiatives as ‘fads’ without strategy and a lack of morale amongst members meant it was not a success.

A major factor was that those at the centre failed to bring the party along with them. Reform became a power struggle focused on leadership and members, not an organisation-building effort.

Just how much Hague and Norman failed was clear when they sought the party’s endorsement vote on six key organizational principles – unity, decentralization, democracy, involvement, integrity and openness. At their annual conference they lost a fifth of the membership vote on a low 44% turnout. Without a ringing endorsement on the principles, there was little buy-in on the practical changes they needed to make.

In retrospect Norman could only point to the following:

“…I had come to recognise that the party was determined to go through its long march through the desert.”

There are some obvious lessons for Labour.

The main thing is that Labour needs to re-learn how speak directly to its members and supporters. No one is going to get everything they wanted out of Refounding Labour; it is a long term project not a quick fix. But to make sense tom most people it needs to be based on a vision. So tell people about the vision.

Look at this and this. That kind of openness and engagement is sorely missing from our party. (During the 2010 election Douglas Alexander started to do something similar but it was never followed up). The pay back will be a party that is still interested in being better, one that recognises its achievements and one that wants to be more involved.

So in short, bring the party with you – we’ll be more likely to do some of the heavy lifting that way.

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