Despite its vagueness and many, many unanswered questions, Refounding Labour could be a genuine opportunity to renew the party, says WILL BROWN
The future of the Labour Party, and in particular its internal organisation and operation, was a recurrent theme in the campaign for party leadership. All candidates argued that the party needs reinvigorating and revitalising, and all candidates made some commitment to renewing party democracy.
For his part, Ed Miliband criticised past new Labour practice. ‘The leadership spent too much time treating the membership as a threat to sensible policy and direction,’ he said, arguing instead for ‘a party rooted in communities, dynamic and campaigning, that can win the argument for a fairer, more equal and more democratic Britain’. More specifically he called for ‘a living, breathing movement with more to say for party members in policy making; greater focus on local campaigning; and an elected party chair.’
To meet these commitments, and as part of the wider post-mortem on the election defeat, Peter Hain was given the task of leading a consultation on the future of the party. This was launched at the end of March when the Refounding Labour document and associated web site was published. Members and local parties have been invited to discuss the document in May and June and a make contributions and responses by 24 June. Over the summer the National Executive Committee (NEC) will consider recommendations for reform and make proposals for constitutional changes to party conference in September.
The launch of Refounding Labour was heavily spun around the idea of allowing non-party members to have a say in the system for choosing party leaders. Although an important issue, the document is much less forthright on this issue than the press releases suggested. In fact, Refounding Labour is a very broad document, raising many – possibly too many – possibilities and questions, and in itself actually contains no firm proposals for change.
Depending how cynical you are, this indicates either that the leadership is genuinely open about future change; that it does not know what it wants; or that it knows fine well what it’s going to propose and the open consultation process merely allows it to claim its preferred reforms have some backing from party members. Elements of all three explanations may, in fact, be true.
Refounding Labour is a very broad document and it is only possible here to highlight some important points.
The document begins by placing the process in the bleak context of Labour’s election defeat. In 2010 Labour secured one of the lowest shares of the vote in the party’s modern history – 29.7 per cent – a performance only masked by the vagaries of first past the post. The party received four million fewer votes than in 1997. It is also saddled with a colossal debt and faces an ongoing financial crisis.
The document notes that these problems sit in the wider context of a historic decline in party membership across western Europe. In Labour’s case, despite 50,000 new members since the election, membership is under half its 1997 level.
In addition, members are less active, local parties and structures have atrophied, and there is a general sense of disconnect between members and policy. This has undermined attendance at local meetings and national conference. Fewer than two-thirds of constituency parties, the document notes, bother to attend party conference.
In terms of Labour’s affiliated membership, Refounding Labour notes the wider decline in union membership. This, it notes in a barbed comment, has not been reversed despite the efforts of the Labour government to improve union recognition rights in the workplace. Overall, trade union affiliate membership of the party declined from 6.5 million in 1979 to 2.7 million in 2010. For Labour, this leaves fewer trade unionists, concentrated in many fewer unions, still exercising enormous influence within the party (more than 50 per cent of votes at conference).
Against this gloomy picture, the document does note some positive points, including the well-known successes of the 2010 campaign in places like Edgbaston, where active campaigning in target marginals helped shore-up Labour’s tally of seats, and the success of the party’s voter ID incentive scheme. More generally, it also promotes a vision of an active, campaigning, engaged party, one very different from the Blair years.
Some of the claims it makes need to be taken with a healthy dose of caution, however. For example, the idea that local campaigning can make a huge difference is strongly trailed in the document: ‘The seats doing the most local work defied the trend,’ it says, and, ‘Local campaigns make a tremendous difference to election results.’ But some academic studies question this, suggesting local campaigning is relevant only in the most marginal of seats with most voter behaviour decided at a far remove from local campaigns.
It also claims that ‘regular selection and re-selection procedures have improved the accountability of our representatives both locally and nationally’. For those with long memories, this procedure was a key victory for the left, on a matter of democratic principle, one eventually introduced in 1979, so the statement is true in that sense. However, it rather glosses over the extent to which the national party has vetted and imposed parliamentary, mayoral and devolved assembly candidates, something which has rather eroded this aspect of democratic accountability.
The document ranges over such a lot of ground, and flags up so many possible changes, that it’s not possible to survey them all. However, there are some important ideas which should be noted, including:
- opening out the party to Labour supporters: both informally (through local meetings and campaigns), semi-formally (setting up a body of registered supporters), and formally (allowing them to play a role in electing leaders, selecting parliamentary candidates, and contributing to policy).
- making policy-making more transparent and accountable
- reaffirming conference as the party’s supreme decision-making body: including minority reports from the National Policy Forum to be debated and voted on at national conference (an idea the ILP argued for back when the NPF was brought in)
- holding local party discussion meetings, rather than the arid, formal format usually adopted, and even staging a ‘Compass-style’ annual ‘festival’
- extending the reduced membership fees scheme (currently it’s £1 for under 27-year-olds) to other groups of potential members.
The document finishes with four groups of questions which are intended to be the focus responses.
First, how do we make an outward looking party?
The questions here cover changes to local organisation, to the relationship with affiliated organisations, and to the roles of MPs and councillors.
Second, how do we improve the voice for members?
This group includes an incredible 37 questions covering how to give members more say and more responsibility; changes to the role of conference, voting at conference, the organisation of debates, and making conference less corporate; how to give non-members a voice in the party; and whether to continue with or alter the NPF.
Third, how do we renew the party?
These questions ask how the party should engage with others in decision-making; how to extend the party’s links beyond trades unions; what new methods of activism should be promoted; and how to get better gender representation.
Finally, how do we win back power?
Here the questions ask: what can be learned from the Edgbaston example; what changes should we make to candidate selection; what relationship should there be between local and national campaigns?
A managed opportunity for change?
Overall, Refounding Labour is very welcome. Its aim of renewing the party and creating a living organisation with new campaigning links to wider society, is an admirable one. It recognises that Labour could be more than a semi-dormant and increasingly dysfunctional electoral machine.
The open consultation process provides a space for those of us who have long argued for a revitalised, democratic party, engaging in real political debate, to voice our ideas. It presents some sharp issues that members will have to express a view on, such as whether to allow non-members a formal say in party affairs.
However, time is short and it is far from clear whether this openness will carry on through the summer. We do not know for instance if we will have access to other party members’ responses – will these be made public, will we be able to see for ourselves the balance of opinion?
We do not know how the inevitably broad range of opinions will be turned into concrete proposals by the NEC – who will make sense of the consultation responses and choose a ‘representative’ set of reforms to enact?
And we do not know what kind of debate will be possible once the NEC has put forward its vision – will they be voted through wihtout adequate discussion in the way conference currently makes decisions?
This is based on an introduction to a discussion on Refounding Labour at the ILP’s 2011 Weekend School.