Peter Hain this week moved to allay fears that a new Labour supporters’ network will lead to ‘US primary-style’ party elections as a result of the Refounding Labour process on party reform which he is heading.
Speaking at a meeting in the House of Commons organised by Compass on Tuesday (14 June), Hain said that Labour needs to reach out beyond its dwindling membership to involve supporters and communities in its activities.
However, this must be done “in a way that does not compromise the rights of members to select candidates and leaders, to affect policy, or to send delegates”, he said.
“These are rights of membership and should remain so,” he added. “If you’re a member you have certain rights which come with that and they shouldn’t be compromised.
“We should try to have the kind of relationship with supporters where we are constantly trying to get them signed up as members, maybe with an introductory rate.”
Refounding Labour is about “trying to construct an entirely new party for an entirely new era”, according to Hain, who has been consulting members and local parties around the country and via the Refounding Labour website.
He described party organisation under new Labour as over-centralised and characterised by “a control freakery which squeezed the life out of the party”. Politics has changed, he said, but Labour’s current structures were designed for a pre-internet era which has long-since passed.
Like all parties, Labour has been losing members for years, but it’s also suffered “a savage decline” in affiliated trade union membership which means it’s lost touch with people’s working lives.
“We realise there is a lot of disillusion around and we have to breathe life back into the party,” he said. “Ed Miliband is determined to do that.
“If we don’t change we won’t win the next election. It is absolutely vital to the party’s prospects.”
Hain outlined the main tasks of Refounding Labour as:
- to energise the party at local level
- to make sure members feel valued, talked to, listened to, and have a real say in decisions
- to breathe life into the policy process
- to change the party’s practice and how it is structured.
He pointed to local parties which had been successful in recent elections, often against the odds – such as, Edgbaston, Barking and Oxford East – claiming they had done so by breaking out of party structures and involving local supporters and communities in activities and campaigns.
He added that the party should learn more from wider interest groups and civil society organisations such as students, Greenpeace, Mumsnet, and non-affiliated trade unions, and seek to establish Labour-supporting networks within those organisations.
“Labour has to be embedded in civil society, and be at the centre of it, so we are seen as the natural home for their supporters,” he said.
A number of speakers from the audience made the point that energising local parties and attracting new members cannot be divorced from the politics and policies of the national party.
“The problem is we don’t know what the Labour Party stands for,” said one.
“It’s exciting people about ideas and policies that will get them into the Labour Party,” added another.
“Labour needs to start making and winning the arguments again; it has to shift public opinion and fight on its convictions rather than following the media and opinion polls,” said a third.
There was general support for the idea of supporters’ networks (“The party does need to reach beyond members”), yet a sense of relief that the “unique privileges” of membership should be protected.
One suggested the Refounding Labour process had been conducted too quickly and asked that local parties have a chance to amend the national executive committee’s proposals to Labour conference this September.
Hain said he would consider not presenting the proposed reforms as ‘all-or-nothing’. He also responded positively to a member who suggested the culture of the party is more important than the process.
“We want to free up constituencies rather than suffocating them in their own procedures,” said Hain.
“If we do make these sort of changes, it will be a seismic shift in the party, therefore we have to take the party with us and make members enthusiastic about the changes we introduce.
“We can’t do this from the top. We cannot change this movement unless you all take ownership of it.”
The deadline for submissions to Refounding Labour is 24 June.
The ILP’s submission will be posted here soon.
Read the Dronfield Blather discussion group’s submission here.