The ambition to change the Labour Party exists – but does the will?

This has been something of a rollercoaster week for those of us who want the Labour Party to move beyond the failed (controlling) ways of the past. Ed Miliband’s lofty rhetoric about party reform in my interview with him last week – and a successful meeting in Preston that shows how things can be done differently – soon came crashing head on into the depressing reality of snap turnaround by-election selections and the exclusion of all but the golden few from the chance to become an MP.

The Labour Party is going to have to choose very soon whether it wants to be the kind of party that opens out, embraces cultural change and believes in internal democracy – or whether it prefers the cosy but self-defeating tactic of clumsy realpolitik, snap selections (with no surprises) and the continuing pre-eminence of a cosy political elite.

Because you can’t do both.

The ambition is certainly there to change the Labour Party. No-one who has heard Ed Miliband or Iain McNicol speak on party reform – or ever metArnie Graf – could believe otherwise. And yet when push comes to shove the path of least resistance still seems to tend towards, if not the stitch up, then the selection which looks like a stitch up.

Ed Miliband has talked increasingly of late about the need to free local parties from the overwhelmngly bureaucracy that often suffocates the Labour Party. Anyone who has ever attended a Labour Party meeting will know exactly what I mean – it’s “minutes from the last meeting” culture writ large. It’s completely impenetrable to outsiders, and only of interest to the obsessives. Too many Labour Party meetings are about the running of the Labour Party, and not the communities we seek to represent. Or as Miliband put it in Carlisle last week, Labour needs to be:

“about changing the country not changing the minutes”

Freeing up local parties to actively pursue change in their communities could be genuinely transformational for the party, but at present, why would anyone bother? The problem that the party has – and has shown no aptitude yet for solving – is that ordinary members don’t feel trusted by the party, and don’t feel included in the decision making processes that have a genuine impact on the way the party is run.

Selections is just part of that.

The way policy is generated (nationally and locally) doesn’t feel ripe for membership involvement at all. Changes from Local Government Committee’s (LGCs) to Local Campaign Forum’s (LCFs) may have seemed like the reshuffling of the deckchairs on a certain famous cruise liner – but it’s worse than that.  In many areas local party members have been actively excluded from discussions about local government policy, leaving local councillors to cut them out of the process altogether. Nationally, the NPF is talked up periodically as a means of influencing policy, but Shadow Ministers still have the latitude to decide party policy on the fly. Today the party has reaffirmed support for Trident. Recently the decision was taken to wave through retroactive legislation on welfare sanctions. And where was the NPF when all of this was happening? Nowhere.

Similarly, whilst 38 degrees members are continually asked for their views on what their next campaign should be – when was the last time you were consulted on Labour’s next major campaign? How about in your local area? I’m guessing that they tend to appear as if from nowhere for most members. So there’s no investment in them. So why would you give up your time to work on them? And if party members and volunteers don’t back them, don’t tell their friends about them, don’t shout about them on social media – who will? And thus the campaigns don’t cut through (at best) or flop (at worst).

Ultimately, the party needs to stop talking at cross purposes with itself. Is it a centrally run bureaucracy that efficiently chooses the “right” campaigns, the “right” candidates and the “right” policies? Or is it a community, a movement – a party?

As Anthony Painter pointed out at the weekend, the party still has a long way to go to make this agenda real. I want to see what I saw in Preston replicated across the country – but that will mean many people in the party (hose who have become used to power) will need to let go. I’m not holding my breath, but there’s now just 2 years until the next election. We know “one more heave” won’t work, politically or organisationally. The big idea – relational, community politics – seems to be settled.

So when do we actually get started?

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