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Labour a lost cause?

Former Labour NEC member Peter Kenyon wonders if the people's party can recover

Am I bovvered? Remember former Labour PM, Tony Blair in a Comic Relief clip filmed in 2007? In a parting gesture beyond irony he grasped comedienne Catherine Tate's catch-phrase before finally bowing to party pressure and stepping down as Party Leader, PM and MP. What a crushing put-down to the Party that gave him his whole career; an institution he nearly bankrupted both financially and politically, before launching himself on the international lecture circuit clutching a passport to great personal riches.

To remedy that legacy required a 'big beast' in the Westminster political vernacular. Instead the Party opted for Gordon Brown. Or rather, the salaried section of the Party's electoral college, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) organised a coronation. With exclusive rights to name candidates for Party Leader, the PLP showered Brown with so many nominations there were insufficient left for any other candidate to secure the 45 necessary to enter that Leadership ballot.

It wasn't business as usual as it had been under Blair. At least the warmongering was tamed. Feeble efforts by the likes of yours truly to set Labour on a course to rediscover its roots through the LabOUR Commission were sidelined. Empirical research showed falling membership might be linked to members being denied a say in policy. It was not just the Brownites who ignored its Interim Report in 2007. Trade Union and individual members' representatives on the NEC were all complicit. That 'awe of kingship' has left a mark on Labour, to which its elected representatives seem oblivious. A slavish culture, borne of a whisper 'Tony wants' in the months leading up to the 1997 General Election, led to the abandonment of any effective democratic checks and balances.

Brown may have helped save the world economy from depression post-2008. But he lacked the panache to hold his party together and secure electoral credit in 2010. Labour's grassroots had been allowed to wither in too many parts of the country, and in others, like Scotland and the former industrial heartlands, they had never really been encouraged. Key by-election losses in Scotland, Brown's backyard, highlighted that problem. To understand the extent of Labour's disconnect from its core vote and natural political base among the middle classes, now all too apparent, requires an appreciation of how the Party funded and accounted for its activities under Blair. Membership fell by over 50% during his period of office to close to fewer than 200,000 from over 400,000; and with it subscription income and small donations.

Funding of political parties

Labour while in government had legislated for the regulation of political parties and donation declarations funded its 2005 General Election campaign with hidden loans. When Labour's own creation, the Electoral Commission (EC) reported the results of its inquiry into the funding of political parties in 2004, it suggested that maybe the political class Labour, Conservative and Liberal-Democrat should forget about more state-funding. Among its recommendations were two simple and readily understandable ideas at least to the general public: recruit more members and encourage small donations. They were quietly ignored by all three mainstream political parties. The then leader of the House of Commons responsible for allocating time for parliamentary business, none other than Peter Hain MP, didn't table the EC report for debate; neither of the opposition parties pressed for a debate either. For them the EC had failed to respond to their needs as a political class, and therefore its report was shelved, but the political class could not let matters rest there. Their need to continue to evade accountability increased membership inevitably involved required a response.

Their fight-back started in late 2005 following the 'cash for honours' scandal and the setting up by Blair of the Hayden Phillips Inquiry reported in Chartist (March/April 2007 Beware: Pickpockets operate here). It recommended more state-funding and a cap on donations, but a consensus about how those aims should be achieved proved elusive. That inquiry was followed in 2010 by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which swallowed the special pleading of the political class 'benefits scroungers' and also endorsed the idea of more tax-payer-funding and an even smaller cap on donations.

That is still work in progress for the political class and the risk for Labour now arises from being in Opposition. The Conservative Party is poised to draft legislation to end the constitutional links between Labour and its affiliated trade unions. Possible industrial action by petrol tanker drivers was seized by Conservative ministers at the end of March 2012 to whip up anti-TU sentiment. Representing the workers was Unite, Britain's largest trade union and Labour's largest source of income through affiliation fees and donation. Skilful negotiation temporarily resolved the dispute, and investigative journalism exposed a leading Conservative fundraiser 'selling' supper with Prime Minister David Cameron at £250,000-a-time has put the TU-baiters on the defensive for now.

As part of that continuum, Deputy Prime Minister Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg has initiated fresh inter-party talks to revive interest in the Committee on Standards in Public Life's recommendations, and Labour Leader Ed Miliband thought it would be smart to try and wrong-foot the Conservatives by proposing on AM, a Sunday morning TV programme, an even smaller donation cap to political parties of £5,000; down from CSPL's £10k and Hayden Phillips £50k. He was speaking just two weeks after a humiliating election defeat for Labour in Bradford West, and three weeks before possible further electoral humiliation for Labour in the London Mayoral election and Glasgow, Labour's City stronghold in Scotland.

A crushing defeat

Two years since its crushing General Election defeat in 2010, Labour's challenge remains to reconnect with its members, core vote and the wider public now experiencing the full effects of Conservative policy protecting and promoting privilege and entitlement over the needs of working people, whether retired, disabled, ill, in work or looking for jobs. Most activists and commentators attribute this to policy. A succession of colourful policy propositions has been paraded Blue Labour with its siren call to ignorance and prejudice, proved short-lived. Mainly due to ill-considered views about about immigration voiced by recently ennobled academic and Miliband speech-writer, Maurice Glasman.

The Purple Book inspired by Progress, the self-proclaimed progressives on the centre-right has proved more popular, helped by financial backing from Labour's largest individual donor, David Sainsbury. The Red Book, promoted by newly formed Labour Left, has attracted interest and helped inspire fresh debate on the centre left. And a tract In the Black Labour published at the end of 2011 by the left-leaning think-tank, Policy Exchange, was brilliantly timed to make the case for fiscal conservatism and social justice going hand-in-hand, just when neo-liberal economists were starting to admit deficit reduction had gone too far. What next for Labour? offers a harlequin collection of short essays covering policy headings with some telling insights into current organisation.

In the meantime, the Labour Party's organisational capacity to reconnect remains in tatters in places and patchy elsewhere. In that regard Ed Miliband has proved a disappointment. Losing Bradford West, a 'safe' Labour seat to maverick former Labour MP, George Galloway, whose Respect Party won 57% of votes cast at the end of March 2012 poses serious questions for the leadership. Yes, there is an unusual demographic in that constituency, with its large Asian population. But it was the flaws in Labour's local party, regional office and head office engagement, together with its top down by-election selection procedures that have much wider implications.

Ed Miliband promised to listen and sped off to Bradford in a box-fresh shirt and tie, and dapper suit. There were Respect supporters in the meeting we were assured. But where was Naweed Hussain, former agent and campaign organiser to Marsha Singh (the former Labour MP for Bradford West) who abandoned Labour to work for Galloway reportedly in disgust at the selection carve-up following his former employer's resignation? The risk is that the Labour Party machine will grind out the essence and let it slip away. Didn't the 2011 Party Conference vote through major changes under the beguiling clarion call of Refounding Labour? Shouldn't those changes be allowed to bed in? Of course, nothing to worry about. Is it just a coincidence that Peter Hain MP, the Labour politician who could have championed increased membership and small donations in 2004, and didn't, was put in charge of Refounding Labour in 2010/11, which could have been a starting point for such initiatives, but wasn't?

Reflection

Members should reflect. Your ballot papers will arrive enabling voting for members' representatives on the National Executive Committee and the National Policy Forum shortly after the May 2012 local and regional elections and mayoral referenda are over. Since Hain was elected chair of the National Policy Forum, in November 2010, there has not been a single policy debate. As for his role in Refounding Labour, he was unwilling to even publish submissions made in the interests of openness and transparency. Miliband apparently was unwilling to exercise any leadership to redirect the party away from command and control.

On the contrary, he has been content to accumulate even great powers of patronage or 'awe of kingship' as leader with, for example, the abolition of shadow cabinet elections. That model of political organisation was spawned by the Blairites for local government through the promotion of elected mayors, at the expense of democratic, and accountable open government.

As inheritor of former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's greater success, New Labour, David Cameron is imposing referenda about elected mayors on cities across the country this May. Labour under Miliband has failed to grasp their political significance. It is no coincidence that local interest in an elected mayor appears to be greatest where local Labour Party organisation from a member perspective is weakest, or corrupted. In Birmingham where a Yes campaign is gathering momentum, the local Labour Parties have been in 'special measures' for over a decade.

Am I bovvered?

While the Labour Party continues to be dominated by the salaried and aspiring political class, its ability to 'reconnect' will be compromised. Am I bovvered? You bet. I'll be voting for any NEC or NPF candidate willing to move an NEC vote of no confidence against Peter Hain, and/or run a campaign to rebuild paid membership electoral ward by electoral ward, and give members an effective say in policy making.