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Is the party retrievable? Some ideas For debate

Jon Cruddas MP defends his proposals

Trevor Fisher's review of a recent Compass pamphlet 'Fit for Purpose' (1) written by myself and journalist John Harris did not, as is customary for Trevor, pull any punches. Our pamphlet was 'strong on analysis, weak on prescription'; our reliance on some of the conclusions in the Power Commission 'remains part of the problem not part of the solution'; our remedies in terms of party reform 'far from boosting democracy, would make a bad situation a thousand times worse' etc. etc. Tough stuff.

It should also be said that Trevor was slightly more charitable in other parts of his review: we are 'refreshingly honest' on the nature of party decline; although our 'strategic analysis is underdeveloped', we have managed to provide a useful history of the failure of New Labour to deliver on its early promises on internal party reform, and the like. What Trevor seems to have missed however, is the actual purpose of our contribution.

Our pamphlet had a very simple departure point: to make the case for the Labour Party as a modern, federal and pluralist Party. This would seem self evident to thousands of people across the Party. Yet this notion has been under sustained attack over the last few years and we thought that defending our own history and internal architecture was a useful contribution to debate; not least as we are about to enter a period where internal elections allow us to reconsider where we are as a Party and a government. Put simply, can we rebuild a progressive agenda for governance and simultaneously retrieve the Party as an active, vibrant source of political mobilisation in all of our communities.

Moreover, we did not seek to simply hit the rewind button, to dis-invent the changes of the last ten years and revert to our structures circa 1993. Our objective was to try to initiate debate about how we could rebuild our current structural arrangements so as to provide a modern pluralism across the Party. These ideas do not amount to a specifically redrafted constitution; they are simply proposals for debate and discussion. Some proposals will be rejected as unworkable, some might be accepted. The objective is to try to stimulate discussion. Let's remind ourselves why this is important.

Membership of the Party stands at some 180,000, we have lost more members since 1997 than we currently actually retain today. The activist base is in free fall and the morale of those that remain have been recurrently laid low by cash for honours, the consequences in Iraq, attempts to position ourselves on the right flank of David Cameron, successive reforms of public services and the way we continue to camp out in some mythical middle England.

Given the announcement that Tony Blair is to depart, the Party stands at a critical point in its history. The future of our Party literally depends on our ability to renew ourselves over the next few months. The stakes could not be higher.

However, senior Party figures remain attached to a future model of the party that can best be described as a 'Virtual Party'. Pivotal to this is a formal break with the union movement- witness the ideas circulated around the Haydon Phillips Enquiry which would literally finish the notion of affiliated membership within the Party and consequently undermine collective union representation within the structures of the Party. The ideas around primaries for elections and an amorphous Supporters Network compliment this attack- undermining the rights afforded as actual individual members of the party and in turn attacking our central representative democracy.

The recent history of the Party suggests that within this vision there lurks the danger of a pseudo-democratic monolith: a tightly drilled central bureaucracy, serviced by a loosely bound mass of 'supporters' with no meaningful role beyond that of electoral campaigning, and providing the kind of support that can easily be manipulated through a form of plebiscite democracy which circumvents the internal architecture of the Party itself- the internal wiring essential for the functioning of a pluralistic social Democratic Party.

Our central proposition is that it does not have to be this way. There is a progressive alternative based on a revival of the Party's democratic processes; a belated act of modernisation that is not wrapped up in deterministic notions of the inevitability of organisational decline but which rebuilds a democratic architecture reflecting a society now characterised by multiple centres of power and debate , and the expectation that participation should be meaningful rather than tokenistic.

Reform of the Party

The new leadership of the party should establish a new settlement within the party structures built around a common formula for internal representation. Our decision making bodies- the National Executive Committee, the National Policy Forum, the annual conference- should be built on a model with a third of votes assigned to the membership, a third to the unions and a third to a new third force made up of MPs, MEPs, representatives in Local Government and socialist societies.

We should overhaul the National Policy Forum (NPF). It has become a simple exercise in political management and control. For some the Party into Power initiatives of the 1995-7 period were an attempt to rebuild the party as a space for policy debate that would be active and vibrant, yet simultaneously attuned to the realities of government. For others it was simply a route to exercising authoritarian control of the party from the centre. For the former, what was hoped for was a new integrated form of involved policy making, which acknowledged, indeed treasured, the role of the party itself in the policy making process.

In reality the new structures have failed to deliver this settlement and as such have lost credibility in the eyes of the membership.

In order to revive the NPF, we should open up the constituency section to a vote by the entire membership, allow members and affiliates to engage with its proceedings via the internet and ensure submissions are subject to an 'audit trail' and ensure documents are more options based. Immediately following an election we should also charge the NPF with a renewal of our aims and values.

We should also open up the annual conference by blurring the distinction between the formal and the fringe aspects, an increased role for outside voices and organisations, a modernisation of the contemporary resolutions procedures, which would allow for more discussion in the run up, and a more away from the strangulated management that has played a role in so deadening the event's atmosphere.

We also need an overhaul of the broken down youth organisation of the party, possible orientated around the idea of re-constituting Young Labour as a socialist society, and thereby allowing it an increased independence.

We should introduce a key recommendation of the Power Inquiry, the institution of a new form of state funding: the local 'voter voucher', whereby £3 of public money would be allocated by each voter to a party of their choice, exclusively reserved for activity in their area. Labour could respond to this innovation by creating a new Democracy Force: full time (and/or part time) organisers who could assist local parties in all aspects of their work, and play a key role in forging links between the party and wider society. This would help turnouts, reduce cynicism about the political process and enfranchise many of those communities currently discounted by the political class.

We need to rebuild the local party campaigning role and borrow from modern anti fascist campaigns, migrant rights activity and Living Wage campaigns to rebuild the party as a vibrant local campaigning force. This would link in with the work of the new Democracy Force employing literally hundreds and hundreds of local organisers across the whole of the country to rebuild the party and not just in key seats.

We should re-align the Supporters Network project, involving its administration and control by local parties, a firm rejection of proposals for Labour's embrace of US style primaries, and a restatement of what formal party membership entails, and why it is important.

The Party Chair and the Deputy Leader

Deputy Leader of the Labour Party is a serious role, and it is time that the holder of the post had the space to exercise their duties, free of the burden of being Deputy Prime Minister. The post should become the transmission belt between Party and Government; the holder should not be responsible for a government department on top of these duties. However, the post holder could remain in the cabinet.

The Deputy Leader should have three clear tasks. First, to bring the voice of the party to the government liberated from the 'shadowing' role of the DPM. Second to oversee the reconstruction of the party's crumbling infrastructure. Third to help rebuild a new centre left coalition.

In the Compass document, we suggested that the position of Party Chair should become a democratically elected position within the party. The recently triggered discussion of the role and functions of the Deputy Leader allows us to suggest that the two post are merged- initially elected by the full electoral college and annually endorsed by the conference itself. In the eyes of much of the membership the position of Chair has been contaminated; this suggestion would rehabilitate the position with recourse to election by the party as Deputy Leader.


The party must not be an inconvenience, best held in check and occasionally cajoled into knocking on doors and stuffing envelopes.

In taking on an increased political weight, the party would also give Labour that bit more leverage in the ongoing debate about our society's direction of travel; given the formidable forces- from the tabloid press to multinational companies- that endlessly push for free market individualism, a renewed party on the ground might just play a key role in the creation of that much discussed Progressive Consensus.

(1) Fit for Purpose: A Programme for Labour Party Renewal, Compass, 2006.