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Cut off at the roots

Has Labour a future without the Party on the ground? asks Gaye Johnston

There has been a growing chorus of voices from the Labour grassroots and trades unions calling for the reclamation of the Labour Party for its affiliated and individual members. There are bodies such as the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Network of Socialist Campaign Groups, Labour Reform and Scottish Campaign for Socialism. Latterly, they have been joined by Save the Labour Party (STLP), Welsh Labour Grassroots, and the newly launched Labour Representation Committee. Meanwhile the Party has continued to lose many members. At the end of December 2003 Labour membership stood at 214,952 more than 30,000 down on the previous December and to around 208,000 early this year.

In the last year there have been internal consultations instigated by Party HQ about the future of the Labour party relating to the “21st Century Party” document and the Partnership In Power constitutional changes. There will be an, in camera, review of the latter in the near future. Peter Hain M.P. Leader of the House of Commons recently wrote a pamphlet, published by the left-wing think tank Catalyst, which proposes the shape of the future of the Labour Party. This is a well researched document which includes some refreshingly honest insights about the contemporary state of the Party on the ground, but many of the remedies proposed merely tinker with the shortcomings of the current methods of operation.

Political Parties can be seen to have three component parts, according to Mair, the Party in Office (comprising Government and Parliament), the Party Central Office (and related administration) and the Party on the Ground (the individual and affiliated membership outside the first two entities). The Labour Party’s most pressing contemporary problem is that whilst the first two are, to a large extent, flourishing the latter is in severe decline. But each of these sections of the Party needs the other in order to be viable. The Party on the Ground is declining because it is not receiving an appreciable share of the resources from the other two. Their view of the situation seems to be that the Party on the Ground is expected to do all the giving and virtually none of the taking. It is therefore not surprising that people have left the Party in droves. By far the most common reason for quitting was the nature of Government policies especially the war in Iraq. For example:

Other polices were also cited as being decisive and mention was also made of the Labour Party having ceased to be a democratic Party. What has happened to the Party on the Ground since 1997 gives grave cause for concern. It is bound to impair campaigning in elections and may partly explain why the turnout in the 2001 General Election (59%) was the lowest since that in 1918. Despite the increased number of Labour women MPs since 1997 there is evidence that women’s active membership of the Party on the Ground has decreased. Two women who attended the National Women’s conference held in Manchester in March 2004 reported at a fringe meeting that only 70 women were present.

In respect of young people, it is a sine qua non that if they continue to be under-represented in the Party, in 40 years’ time the Party on the ground will be all but dead. The majority of them see little point in voting either. Less than 40% of 18-25 year olds voted in the 2001 general election The introduction of top- up fees, against which the National Union Students has campaigned, will hardly have encouraged young people in higher education to vote Labour or to join the Party

Muslim support for Labour was as high as 73% in the 2001 general election but fell back to 27% in the Scottish Parliament elections in 2003. The loss of the Brent by-election in September 2003 has also been attributed to the defection of local Muslims.

Perhaps worst of all the Party is not representative of Labour voters: a decreasing proportion of party supporters are party members, in the general election of 2001, only one in 40 Labour voters were Party members contrasted with 1 in 15 in 1951

There is also the issue of the trades unions. Many trades unions have either reduced their contributions to the Labour Party, or at the behest of their Conferences, are considering doing so. The RMT, one of our founding unions, has been expelled from the Labour Party as it permitted some of its Scottish branches to affiliate to the Scottish Socialists. The FBU has also left.

There is probably little argument that all those Labour members in the Party in Government, the Party Central Office and the Party on the Ground would want certain basic outputs and outcomes from the Party’s future operations. These would surely include a resounding victory for Labour in all future elections especially the next general election. However, most members of the Party on the Ground would probably wish to see more accountability and transparency on the part of the leadership and the Parliamentary Party. Finally it is to be hoped that all sections of the Party would want there to be a clear, qualitative and ideological difference between the values and programme of our Party and that of other UK parties –particularly the Conservative Party.

It seems a reasonable assumption that all sections of the Party would want to see a continuation of what have clearly been successful policies and achievements of the Labour Government since 1997. Amongst these must be included the successful management of the economy (now the fourth largest in the world) which has, eventually, permitted much increased spending on public services, full employment, the national minimum wage, children’s welfare and international development.

But some of these achievements have been made at a heavy cost - notably the Chancellor’s adherence to the Tory spending plans for three years after 1997. Private Finance Initiatives were instigated by the Tories and carried on under New Labour. Taxpayers pay the price for subsidising big business. Together with Best Value exercises in local government they have often worsened the pay and conditions of service of many former public sector workers.

What we need is a coherent new set of explicit democratic socialist values, which underpin a strategic policy plan. It is clearly difficult to have such a set of values when there is a deliberate attempt, on the part of the Leadership, to avoid all ideology at all costs and to rule by pragmatism.

What the Party in Office wants and needs above all is to remain in government, nationally, locally and in Europe. This is what the Party on the Ground also wants. But there is conflict relating to how it should be achieved. The Party in Office, or rather its Leadership, wants to ensure that its elected representatives, particularly in Parliament, are supportive of, as well as compliant towards the wishes of the Leadership and unlikely to criticise it publicly or vote against its wishes.

The Party in Office currently seems to be moving in the direction of increasing state funding. This may not be appealing to the electorate and could rebound in the ballot box. Further the funding which would go to currently impoverished smaller and minority parties, including the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and BNP would give them additional campaigning advantages which Labour would have to offset from part of its state subventions. State funding would identify the Party more closely with the state on which it would be then be heavily dependent for income and give it less accountability to civil society.

The Party on the Ground needs to recover what it has lost since the mid-1990s in terms of the opportunities to debate policies in depth, and to have an effective say in policy-making. As Peter Hain notes if members are unable to see where any contributions they have made (e.g. at local policy forums) have disappeared to then they are bound to think that they have participated in a meaningless and ineffectual symbolic exercise.

Conference has little say in relation to policy papers from the National Policy Forum. It can only act if the NPF decides to give it a choice. A minority report from the NPF requires 35 votes (just under 20% of its membership) if it is to go forward to Conference. At the end of NPF debates on amendments to the Leadership position proposers get three minutes to speak and ministers get three minutes to reply but the vote on the amendment is taken and announced before these speeches.

Even after last year’s increase only eight resolutions submitted by the trades unions or constituency parties can be debated at party conference. What the members need is real opportunities to debate on, and influence current and future policies for the Party in Office.

Re-selection did increase the accountability and focus the minds of MPs on their responsibility to their local Constituency Labour Party. Since 1997 there have only been one or two actual de-selections so that the probable impact on MPs has greatly diminished. This is partly due to the fact that the “trigger mechanism” procedure makes de-selection more difficult. However it is also the case that OMOV may make it easier for sitting MPs to contact and talk round inactive members who are not fully appraised of their poor performance and may be persuaded to opt for postal votes so that they do not hear other candidates at the hustings.

No one is seeking a return to the former mode of blood letting in front of the media at Conference, widely seen as contributing to Labour’s 18-years in the political wilderness from 1979 to 1997. Reviving a culture of active party political discussion is a longer-term project in its own right. But in order to restart that process the Party in Office needs the Party on the ground. For the next general election that process, as suggested above, has to be clearly consolidated at Annual Conference in September 2004. A programme of political education is needed right through until the next election to encourage Branch Labour Parties to engage with communities at the ward level. Restoring delegate conferences for local government, women and Young Labour in 2005 ahead of a general election campaign could usefully reinforce this.

To treat members as though they do not matter raises the question of whether Labour is fit to govern the country. The current NEC review of Partnership in Power has to produce some credible answers linking initiatives such as the Big Conversation and policy forums to policy-making itself. Support from the Leadership for an independent Commission on Party Renewal chaired by an eminent Labour Party member endorsed by conference to report after the next election could help restore confidence. Among its recommendations could be a Charter of Party Members’ Rights.

In return it is reasonable that members of the Party on the Ground will be encouraged to rejoin or remain in the Party. With the right leadership, members are more likely to want to participate more fully in fund raising, campaigning, recruitment and local administration, as well as real policy-making, selecting candidates and winning elections. In the run up to the next General Election most media attention will be on policy. But for those interested in the future of Labour as a mainstream political party the questions above are the ones that all members of the Party and astute commentators will need to keep in mind. If the Party in Office heeds the warning and seizes the opportunity, Labour will have started to lay a sound foundation for an ongoing role at the forefront of progressive politics in the United Kingdom in the 21st century.

Gaye Johnston is Secretary of Save the Labour Party