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Labour in opposition - time to come out of the shadows

Peter Kenyon assesses Ed Miliband's leadership so far

Eejoice! Labour's ahead in the polls. Survey the political landscape. Conservative plans to squeeze the living standards of working people, shred the welfare state and privatise public services are spewing out of Whitehall. All in the name of cutting the deficit and clearing up the mess left by Labour, says the Prime Minister David Cameron and his cabinet of millionaires. Fortunately for Labour's new leader, Ed Miliband, the public has become increasingly wary of their mantra. The evidence can be seen in daily opinion polls and weekly through live audiences making their feelings known to Conservative talking heads repeating it on BBC television's Question Time, and Radio 4's Any Questions.

Such whimsical indicators account for little other than respite and solace for those wishing Labour well. What matters is how people vote and why. There have been the usual local government by-elections and Labour has pulled off some surprising wins - a county council seat in Cornwall, another in Gloucestershire. Scrambling from fourth to first place in a year, seeing the Liberal Democrats trounced is good for party morale. And there have been those parliamentary ones too, Oldham East and Saddleworth in January and Barnsley Central in March. For Labour aspiring to govern again, the circumstances in which local voters were obliged to go the polls again so soon after a General Election provided uncomfortable reminders for the leaders of all political parties of ongoing problems in British politics.

In both cases, Labour's high command seized control. Forget the lessons that might be learned. 'Got to move on', they cried. Opportunities to rethink relations with members and strengthen local parties were cast aside in the interests of business as usual. Local party offices were stormed by staff from both head office and the regional citadel. Usurping a reserve power in Labour's Rule Book, the National Executive Committee (NEC) (with nothing better to do) commandeered the selection process for a new prospective parliamentary candidate. Constituency party members' rights to select their candidates for public office were squeezed to a 'take it or leave it' shortlist. Both seats were retained. The reasons for there being a need for a fresh election best forgotten in the minds of party managers, and apparently members' elected representatives on the NEC. The Labour Party has neither the money nor the staff to operate like that come the next General Election. Lessons from last May, when Labour polled best where it was able to mobilise locally are barely understood. A Google-style map of the British Labour Party in satellite mode would show the 'bombed-out' remains of branches and constituencies all over the country.

On the streets students and public sector workers are revolting. A protest organised by the usually supine Trades Union Congress (TUC) in London on 26 March will have leading Labour Party figures on the march and leader, Ed Miliband at the rally. Miliband is also scheduled to attend the Durham Miners' Annual Gala in the summer. The speed of political change in the Middle East and North Africa has prompted questions about 'Cairo today, London tomorrow?' These are important gestures if Labour is to reconnect with both its core and prospective supporters. Rebuilding electoral support has to be more durable than the next tabloid newspaper headline, or opinion poll finding. To this end there are two initiatives unfolding under the aegis of Labour's new Leader.

A two-year policy review starting with a blank sheet was launched in late November last year at the newly convened National Policy Forum under Liam Byrne MP. How Byrne came to be appointed to this role can only be explained in terms of Labour Party machine politics, and the fragile hold that Ed Miliband had on the Party, particularly its Parliamentary wing at the time someone from the right to do the job.

The key messages set out in a memo circulated by Byrne to members of the Parliamentary Labour Party are:

"Changing our policy platform will focus on reaching out to the public, reconnecting with the lives of people with whom we lost touch. Our policy review will be a comprehensive process looking at every aspect of our policy platform to develop a programme for Government in advance of the next general election whenever that comes. But this exercise isn't about simply sitting back and thinking about the future. As you will be hearing in your surgeries and elsewhere that people have real concerns at the path this Conservative-led Government is taking. So Labour is not giving up on changing Britain for the better just because we're not in national government. So we need to hear what the public's priorities are for campaigning against the Government's most damaging actions".

Laudable as it appears there is not a smidgeon of mea culpa either about the policies Labour fought the last General Election on, or the way in which it formulated policy and organised itself as a mainstream political party under New Labour. I'm told by those who know Byrne personally, that is not in his nature. This touches on a sensitive question. Will Labour ever govern again with an absolute majority of seats in the House of Commons? If so, how? We have just witnessed the passage of the Conservative government's Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill which heralds a referendum on the Alternative Vote. If passed by however small a proportion of the electorate this will mean the end of first past the post for parliamentary elections. More worrying is the gerrymandering of parliamentary constituencies in a way that will further damage 'organic' links between local communities and their elected representatives. This will be due to the need for Boundary Commissioners to cut up local government electoral wards arbitrarily to fit the 'same size' rule set out in the above legislation.

Has anyone thought through the organisational implications for local political party structures of this parliamentary outrage? Perhaps, the co-ordinator of the other internal Labour Party review, Peter Hain, will take the opportunity. Confusingly nominated by Ed Miliband and subsequently elected to chair the National Policy Forum, Hain was also appointed to oversee a rethink of party structures. Unlike Byrne, Hain has not issued a route map to control the process. Instead Hain is in listening mode, submissions have been invited, discussion groups involving rank-and-file members directly are being held.

Both face daunting tasks sifting and selecting whether submissions concern internal structures or policy messages. Faced with a largely hostile media, controlled by meddlesome private sector publishers, Labour can either remain cowed by their power and influence or seek to reorder the way in which we do our politics. Social networking, open source development and freedom of information all point to ways of enabling people to be genuinely democratic, as opposed to listening to politicians saying they are. Some pointed to the Obama campaign as showing the way. Others now look to the Middle East and North Africa. It is time we looked to our own. The founders of facilities like They Work for You developed by My Society have provided a means of holding British members of parliament to better account. Such facilities are now available in our countries. The framework can be applied to any country with democratic structures. A similar application is needed for political parties. How individual members position themselves in that democratic space. How can I have a say? How can I get involved? How do I sign up? Where do I go? Who do I tell if it's not working for me? How does this party membership 'thingy' all fit together?

In that regard, political parties are generally way behind the curve and in some respects the Labour Party is lamentable in its failure to grasp the potential of new media. Embarrassingly, within weeks of launching a new website last November to solicit contributions to policy thinking the Daily Telegraph website asked: Labour's 'Fresh Ideas': Is this the worst website in British politics today? Instead of offering an open access facility to encourage lightly moderate debate, Labour's command and control freaks created a once a day edited version of ideas with no comment allowed. Worse, they responded to the public mockery by adding a voting feature with no real choice such as 'thumbs up, thumbs down', but enabled users just to 'vote' for an 'idea' 10 times in a session. Bizarre.

Whilst Ed Miliband appears more in control of the Parliamentary Labour Party, performing better in that bear-pit at Prime Minister's Questions in the House of Commons, big unanswered questions remain about who's in charge of the Labour Party? General Secretary, Ray (now Lord) Collins is still clinging on to his job in Labour Party HQ, having been ennobled as a working peer. Two jobs Collins is a PR disaster waiting to happen. Labour First's grip on the machine remains unchallenged. Last year's National Executive Committee and National Policy Forum elections were a further reminder of the fractured, spent structures on the centre-left of the Labour Party.

At the time of going to press informal discussions were underway between remaining Save the Labour Party stalwarts and other Labour Party members committed to promoting and advancing democracy to give real meaning to the idea 'The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party'.