Special conference is only a matter of days away, and it seems almost certain that Ed Miliband will get his party reforms passed. All of the major unions are voting in favour and our recent survey suggests that support amongst members sems to be strong. The only speedbump for Miliband so far has been the decision by the party’s youth wing Young Labour to vote narrowly in favour of opposing the measures.
Yet Miliband doesn’t seem content to coast through over the line on Saturday. Last week he was in Leeds to answer questions from party members on the reform proposals. As is often the case with these kinds of events, what the politician wants to talk about and what people want to ask questions about is refreshingly different (here, it was ATOS, HS2 and whether or not Miliband would rule out a coalition with the Lib Dems that got debate going, more than party reform).
After Miliband finished his Q&A, I caught a few minutes with the Labour leader, and tried to gauge where he thinks this is all headed, as we approach special conference on Saturday. But first, I wanted to ask Miliband about his own time as a party member. The Q&A on Friday was peppered with people’s stories of their time as a member – so how long has the Labour leader been a member – and what brought him to the party?
Mark: There were lots of people talking about how long they’ve been party members today. How many years have you been a member of the Labour Party?
Ed: I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for 27 years.
Mark: Something that I think Arnie Graf might have said to me in the past is that one of the most interesting questions you can ask is why people joined the Labour Party. So why did you join?
Ed: To coin a phrase that somebody didn’t use, I was born into it. Tony [Blair] famously said “I wasn’t born into it”, I suppose I was born into it a bit. I came from a very political political family, I grew up in the Thatcher years, I saw what was happening in the country. Sometimes I say Mrs Thatcher brought both me and David Cameron into politics but on the opposite side. It was a sense of idealism and of changing the world and all that.
Mark: I mentioned Arnie Graf there – he’s going to have a big role to play in the election campaign isn’t he?
Ed: Definitely. What really strikes me about the influence he’s having – talk to candidates, talk to organisers as I did the other week, I spoke to about fifty organisers who had gathered in London – they all talk about Arnie’s role and the influence he’s had. That notion of community organisation is absolutely part of these reforms. Because what are these reforms about? They’re about letting people in, creating a movement – that’s true locally and nationally. I think that these are very very big changes, and I think they will make it more likely that can be a genuine movement. I think people are still understanding the scale of what the reforms mean. Local parties will – for the first time – have access to supporters who are paet of the party, so I think it’s very very exciting.
Mark: You talked today about party members being more involved. The Collins Review and this specific piece of party reform deals with one aspect of that which is getting more people into meetings and giving them more of a say in the leadership contest. Do you still think there’s some way to go so that party meetings – the party’d democratic structures – do allow party members to be involved in more of the decision making around things like policy…
Ed: Yes, yes, yes
Mark: Would you want to see members having a bigger say in the manifesto process?
Ed: Definitely, and we’ve done that a bit with Your Britain, but there’s more to do to give people that voice. What enables us to give people more of a voice is that process of becoming a more representative party, a party more rooted in every workplace in the country, more rooted in every community in the country. If you do that, then it opens up more possibilities not less. This is always a continuous process of reform and change, this is always what it has been. Now as I’ve discovered over the last seven months, reform and change is hard in the Labour Party, and I think if I hadn’t taken the risk I had in July, then we wouldn’t be in the position where I’m hopeful we’ll get these reforms through. It was taking a risk – and making some people feel uncomfortable – that has led to this process of change.
Mark: One thing you said today was that if party members had been more involved in policy development, things – for example around housing – would have been different. How do you envisage reaching down to people and pulling up those ideas in future?
Ed: I think if there was an easy answer we’d have found it already. I think it’s quite a lot of things. I think it’s about the National Policy Forum and the role it plays. I think it’s about online and engaging people online. I think it’s organising in local communities and having that feedback to what’s happening. Take a campaign like payday lenders. In many ways that arose from work that was happening – by local parties and people like Stella Creasy on the ground – this wasn’t national policy becomes local activism, this was local activism becomes national policy. And we need more of that. There is no substitute for MPs and a party that is in touch with people’s lives. There is no simple answer to this question, but I think it’s something you’ve got to keep striving for.
Mark: Without wanting to seem complacent, this has already passed next Saturday. What are you hoping to get out of the day? What are you hoping to say to people?
Ed: If it is passed, what I want to say to people is that this is a Labour Party opening itself up and letting people in, not driving people away. And it’s about a politics that is in touch with people not out of touch with people. That is fundamentally what this is all about. It’s about recognising that too often politics doesn’t speak to people’s lives, doesn’t speak to people’s concerns, doesn’t hear people’s voices. And that’s what we’re determined to change.
Mark: You mentioned in your speech today that you can’t pull a lever in Westminster and expect that something pops out in Leeds or elsewhere. That’s something that Jon Cruddas and Emma Reynolds have both said on LabourList recently. So is this the organisational version of that? You can’t pull a lever in Brewers Green…
Ed: Absolutely right. This is about putting trust in our members and supporters and opening ourselves up. Some people worry “who are these people who will come in?”. I think you should welcome people, not push them away. Other people worry that there’s some other agenda here – the only agenda here is how to do hear people’s voices?
The leadership election stuff is interesting, because it is about putting trust in members and supporters. Given where we were in 1980 – or now – it’s a massive change.
Special Conference takes place on March 1st (Saturday) from the Excel centre in London, where LabourList will be reporting live.