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

4th April, 2013 12:03 pm

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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  • AlanGiles

    I don’t say this to embarrass him, but if only Labour (and the other main parties, come to that) had somebody with Mark Ferguson’s honesty, openess and willingness to speak the truth, without fear of what “head office” might think, politics would be a cleaner, healthier profession.

    • AlanGiles

      Sorry, Mark: 1 “down” already! (less than 30 minutes) It seems some people like the dirty old ways of the past….. 🙁

    • Quite right. The centralisation of power in political parties has coincided with the ever increasing authoritarianism of Governments, and that ‘mother knows best’ attitude makes me uncomfortable to say the least. As you know I’ve found myself somewhat on the fringes over the past couple of years, but I’ve recently been touring some CLPs speaking at various events – and I find ordinary members to be infinitely more reasonable, rational, knowledgeable, insightful and generally pleasant than they are given credit for. The cliques and the commentariat have too much power, and often they’re just not very nice – so that power needs to be handed back to the ordinary members pronto.

  • hotpoint

    Why does the Labour party not go back to its 1948 roots and support the working people of this country instead of helping foreigners come here and take our jobs and undercut the wages that the Unions have fought for over the years. Those policies just make the employers richer by paying starvation wages. This country is overcrowded I am not rascist or even of English parents but once the boat is full it is full any any further overcrowding will result in the boat sinking. Get real Labour and support the true workers of this country instead of middle class career politicians. Labour should be the party of the workers not the middle classes.

  • althejazz

    It’s about time the Labour party started standing up for the people they are supposed to represent instead of trying to mean all things to all men. We do NOT represent the tiny minority of greedy individuals who have been coining it for the last thirty five years or more. We should state clearly that we represent the majority in this country and we will NOT pander to those whose wealth enables them to subvert thedemocratic process. These people are the enemies of this country – the enemy within

  • BusyBeeBuzz

    Mark, you are a man after my own heart!

  • Carolekins

    So Shields have already flagged up that they must have a local candidate. It’ll be difficult to oppose that.

    • AlanGiles

      If somebody is wanted badly enough by HQ, a local link will be found, even if it is only when his/her mum was three months pregnant she was in a train that stopped for two minutes outside South Shields station – they will have that magic “local” connection.

      I went to South Shields for three days in 1957, but I won’t be applying 🙂

    • As an ultra-safe seat it’s far too important to be allowed to fall into the hands of a non-clone candidate. The elite are doing, and will continue to do, everything possible to prevent any dilution of the PLP’s New Labour orientation.

      • Carolekins

        I wish I thought you were wrong.

  • PeterBarnard

    Er, what are “relational, community politics” and, who has decided that this “big idea” has been “settled?”

    • aracataca

      This is a good point.I’m a party member and I haven’t been consulted about this ‘new way of doing politics’.As it happens I’m a fan but deciding that the ‘big idea has been settled’ without consulting the membership surely runs counter to the ‘big idea’ itself.

      • PeterBarnard

        Thanks, Aracataca.

        As far as I recall (from Refounding Labour), one of the first stepping stones to start the “new politics” was to get in touch with all new members, talk to them, find out what motivated them to join the Labour Party, what their expectations were, and so on. The “getting in touch” would be individual/face to face.
        I brought this to the attention of the CLP Executive Committee at the time (late 2011?), because it seemed to me to be an essential stepping stone ; I think there would have been more interest if I’d started talking about the wonders of the Fibonacci series …

        “We are doomed,” as that character always used to remark in Dad’s Army.

        • aracataca

          A top down initiative to open up and pluralise the political process sounds like a contradiction in terms.

          • PeterBarnard

            Well, if you say so, Aracataca. However, as that man from China remarked, “A journey of a thousand miles starts with but a single stride,” (or, something similar).

            It really does not matter who actually takes that stride.

          • aracataca


  • Quiet_Sceptic

    Good article although I think there’s a few issues:

    The idea of freeing the local parties from bureaucracy and actually making party meetings interesting (perhaps even dynamic!) is good but I suspect that there’s quite a few members who enjoy the safety and security of bureaucracy. If the chairman and those attending the meetings are used to the way they’ve been doing things for the past 20 years then given the freedom to chose, they’ll probably carry on as before. All those that came, got bored and didn’t come again aren’t there to push for a change.

    I don’t think the Labour party and those holding some of the organisational roles fully appreciate that members are volunteers and that there are many other voluntary organisations out there, often far better organised and far more member-focused than Labour competing for their would-be member’s time. If the Labour party ‘offer’ is a monthly or bi-monthly party meeting with exciting opportunities for delivering leaflets and cold-calling, it’s not surprising that we lose people to other organisations or activities.

  • BusyBeeBuzz

    As a new member to the Labour Party I’ve only attended CLP meetings and one BLP meeting. I hated every one of them! They are poorly attended and boring. They don’t discuss issues. They only discuss Labour Party business e.g. leafleting. I have been expressing my concern about the Coalitions destruction of the justice system; closed courts limiting judicial review; legal aid cuts and the threat to the rule of law, but they treat me like an over enthusiastic moron. The chairman hasn’t given me one word of warm welcome apart from “You will address the chair”. Nobody told me he was the chairman and he didn’t introduce himself as the chairman. They keep mentioning a Rule Book, but haven’t informed me where to get one. How can I follow rules if I don’t know what the rules are? I am passionate about politics, not about marketing a brand for the sake of marketing a brand.

  • sacicr

    I am in full agreement with this article. But I gave my local labour party a talk on the monetary system, by pushing its relevance to labour on a couple of bright members. Look at the Positive Money website. It was well received because it was refreshing, interesting and of crucial importance. If you are bored and frustrated by the minutes, chances are, so is everyone else!!

    Educate youurself about the monetary system and tax avoidance and give talks on them. That willliven the debate and open people eyes!


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