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Political nightmare

Fresh from election to Labour's NEC ponders Peter Kenyon the scope for a turnaround

Tuesday 23 September – the Chair of Save the Labour Party (STLP) will attend his first Labour Party National Executive Committee. That's me. It is part of the stage-management at the end of the last full day of Annual Conference 2008. Retiring members will be thanked, new officers elected. We know who they will be: Cath Speight of Unite should become chair and Ann Black of the Centre Left Grassroots Alliance vice-chair.

I'm worried that by the time I take my place I will have lost the will to live, at least as a Labour Party activist. In that regard, there is no danger of feeling alone – more people go to the theatre than vote.

Abruptly refused

It will have been two months since I was elected with 16,464 votes – over 10% of the current membership of the Labour Party and more than 50% of the votes cast. In the meantime a lot has happened, much more could if only there had been the political will. I found out about the result in a telephone call from Party Head Office on the eve of the National Policy Forum – or Warwick Two as it is known – at the end of July. A request for a visitor or observer pass was abruptly refused by the un-elected acting general secretary Chris Lennie. Messages to contacts in ‘high places' all proved fruitless. But Derek Draper had one, I learned a few days later. I blogged about it. Tribune picked up the story in John Street's diary.

That's my dilemma. Do I rock the boat publicly? Do I maintain self-imposed radio silence, and rely on quiet diplomacy. Or will I be able to choose a judicious combination of the two?

Throughout August the focus was on policy and the Leadership. After the loss of Crewe and Nantwich and Glasgow East parliamentary seats, more losses of councillors in council by-elections, and the lowest poll ratings for Labour since the 1930s, speculation switched from when Gordon Brown would call the next election to whether he would still be Party leader.

Hundreds of column inches have been devoted to the provisions of the Labour Party Rule Book and the constitutional implications of changing a party leader twice without being obliged to call a British General Election.

STLP's position on this was quite clear. The Rule Book provides for an annual Leader/Deputy nomination process. Of course, the stage-managers abandoned the practice of circulating the papers to members via their Constituency Labour Parties, affiliated unions or socialist societies or elected representatives in the House of Commons or the European Parliament in 1997. I wrote on behalf of STLP to the new General Secretary, Ray Collins in early August asking for them to be circulated by the end of the month. That would provide sufficient time for Party meetings to decide whether or not to endorse the incumbents, write in alternative names or abstain before Annual Conference 2008. At the time of going to press no reply was forthcoming. That may be for straightforward practical reasons. But I am not holding my breath.

The search for support for a package of measures that will re-motivate members, enable recruitment, revitalise activism and re-build party finances is, however, on. Aspiring to a mass membership party is as vital to winning the next British general election as it was in 1997. The task is greater now, as back in the mid-1990s membership, local council representation and electoral popularity were on the up. Cynicism with Labour politicians is possibly even greater than in 1978/79 at the end of the Callaghan government. Thirty years ago there was an even greater reduction in membership in absolute numbers than has been witnessed since Blair was appointed Prime Minister. Direct comparisons are not possible since membership was recorded locally then, whereas now it is national. But grosso modo membership fell from 800,000 to 400,000 between 1976 and 1980, whereas it only fell from 400.000 to 160,000 between 1997 and 2008.

Opposite effect

There is no consensus in the Labour Party about either the role of members, the scope for rebuilding, or whether more members would be desirable. But there are flickering signs of recognition that all is not well.

Last year, Gordon Brown published a paper entitled, ‘Extending and renewing party democracy' ostensibly to give members a greater say in party policy-making. His plan included provisions that appeared to have the opposite effect by shutting down debate at Annual Conference about so-called contemporary issues. Before delegates had had a chance to vote, members in constituencies had spotted the catastrophic effects that the abolition of the 10p tax rate proposed by Brown, in his last budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer, was going to have on Labour's core vote. The Conference Arrangements Committee ruled all contemporary motions on the subject out of order.

Did he mean well? I like to think only the best of people. So I'm prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt and look at all the processes that helped turn a good title into a political nightmare.

There are rumours of two important sets of rule changes to be supported by the National Executive Committee that fit the category of ‘flickering signs'. A long-campaign by Bethnal Green and Bow activist Belle Harris to address flagging attendance at Conference by proposing that CLPs should be enabled to send a male and female delegate, and a move to democratise Young Labour are both being recommended for further consideration, rather than rejection. Earliest implementation – 2010!

These sorts of measures are the product of a governance structure suffering systemic failure. They reflect a failure on the part of elected members of the National Executive Committee to demand the sort of management information and position papers that would enable the Party to prosper on a sustainable basis. Members of the NEC are not trusted with such vital information or sensitive ideas. Two years ago there was no induction for new members. This is a body apparently incapable of codifying what it is about. As soon as I received official confirmation on my election result I wrote my first letter to the new General Secretary asking about induction, dates of future meetings and arrangements for the nomination and election to sub-committees. Again, I'm not holding my breath.

Absence of debate

The absence of debate about the Party's finances based on timely, accurate and pertinent management accounts is another of the problems to be wrestled with. Re-elected Party Treasurer Jack Dromey says in the 2007 Accounts now published on the Electoral Commission website, but as the time of writing not on the Labour Party website, ‘A surplus of £7.5 million demonstrates the considerable amount of work undertaken to improve efficiency and commercial income.' However, unsecured debt remains unchanged at £15 million. It beggars belief that the ruling party could have allowed its former Leader to run up debts of some £24 million to pay for an election campaign in 2005 and have no apparent plan to pay for the next election involving its membership as a whole.

The LabOUR Commission (2007) commenting on fundraising, which was not part of its evidence-based work, but was such a hot issue that it could not be left aside, concluded that national fundraising from individual members would not work:

‘Sn 7.12 We believe it is reasonable to assume in the current climate that local fund raising for spending locally will be easier than national fund-raising until members' confidence in the Leadership and Party HQ has been restored.'

Tough call

It will be a tough call as a ‘new boy' to get some sense instilled about this without making enemies of everyone on the NEC who ‘allowed' it to happen on their watch in 2002/04, and 2004/06.

Then there's policy. The NEC was stripped of any meaningful say in the policies followed by Labour in Government at the 1997 Conference. Instead there is a very time-consuming process at the bi-monthly NEC meetings in which each member has the opportunity to put questions to the Leader, Deputy Leader and Leader of the European Parliamentary Labour Party who provide regular reports to the 33-person body. As a result the normal governance functions of the management committee of a voluntary association tend to get short shrift. There is a very large delegation of authority to the Business Board and sub-committees, whose minutes are perfunctory and time for scrutiny by the whole NEC limited if not impossible.

Yet as the vast majority of members know what attracts members and helps retain them are policies, and the Labour values they reflect. Feverish speculation about whether Brown can survive the Annual Conference continued at the time of writing. Whoever is in charge the underlying problems are the same. Labour in government has been pursuing policies that do not reflect Labour values and are increasingly unpopular with the electorate. From an economic perspective much of the government's current unpopularity reflects voters' understandable fears about the future, compounded by extraordinary clumsiness on the part of Brown and his senior ministers about how to deal with the ‘credit crunch' and commodity price inflation.

Ape-ing the siren calls for change that have come to characterise the 2008 US Presidential election are not going to cause a fundamental shift in public sentiment back towards Labour. A delicate balancing act will be needed to restore confidence in Labour's record largely built by Brown and a prolonged run of market good-luck. The most damaging charge against Labour is about rising income and wealth inequalities and a decline of social mobility.

Tackle that now and there is a possibility that Labour can recover. But it will not be without a growing membership willing to go out on the streets, distributing leaflets, knocking on doors, and talking to their neighbours. In Glasgow East there was no canvass data. No one knew who the Labour supporters were. Any credible recovery plan has got to involve every Labour MP and elected representative working together to kick-start street campaigning nationwide. A correspondent in Tribune in mid-August wrote calling for no Labour MP to be allowed to stand if their contact rate is less than 15% at the time of the next British General Election, and should be over 30% by the time of the election following if they win next time and want to stand again.

Drastic action

Drastic action is needed to galvanise our dwindling membership and elected representation into rebuilding. Transforming Labour's electoral prospects will not happen through either a change of Leader, or the current Leader relying on pulling policy rabbits out of a hat, stage management of Annual Conference 2008 or expecting an increasingly hostile media to project the positives about Labour in Government. With a General Election now less than two years away it will be increasingly difficult to get any policy changes implemented as civil servants themselves plan for a possible Tory victory.

We Labour Party members have to get ahead of them and the media and tell our neighbours why we are sticking with Labour. So while you were away Gordon, did you do your homework? Did you take time to check on the canvass data for your own constituency, and capacity on the ground? And the other 330 seats you need to stay in power?