Transforming Labour

By Hayes, Gavin | Renewal, Autumn-Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Transforming Labour


Hayes, Gavin, Renewal


On becoming Labour Leader a year ago, Ed Miliband stated very clearly his desire to change and 'refound' the Party. Indeed there is much debate right now about Party reform and how to transform Labour, with proposals due to be put forward to this year's Labour Annual Conference.

In this article I want to argue that it is essential that any reforms put forward must make Labour more democratic and that democracy must become the key tenet of any reform programme.

Learning the lessons from the past

It has been abundantly clear for some time that the Party in its current form is not fit for purpose (Cruddas and Harris, 2007). The facts and figures speak loud and clear. Labour's defeat in May 2010 was the biggest since 1929. Since 1997 the Party lost over half its members, down from over 400,000 to a recent low before the last general election of around 150,000. At the same time the Party's councillor base was hollowed out (see Turner, 2010). Across the country you will find dozens of local parties dormant, or at best dwindling, with just a handful of long-standing members.

There are of course some who will argue that what has happened to the Labour Party is not in any way dissimilar to the decline of many political parties across Western democracies - that this phenomena is something that has not just affected or is contained to the Labour Party.

Yet we can pinpoint a number of contributing factors in recent years that have led to the particular demise of the British Labour Party - not least relating to the style and culture of New Labour and their organisational management of the Party. It is the command and control top-down culture that came to dominate Labour's period in power, that meant for too long the Party was weakened and ignored.

That's not to say that things didn't start out with the best of intentions - indeed we should acknowledge that in 1997 there was much hope of a new party politics and some good things did happen. There was the goal of a mass-membership party, there was talk of 'partnership in power', and there was at least a commitment to a new collegiate, democratic and cooperative style of formulating policy through an embryonic National Policy Forum.

But we should recognise too that once in power New Labour fell woefully short. Probably its greatest failure was that it did not transform the Party into a grassroots movement. Instead over the years it became a centralising machine, a tight bureaucracy that stifled debate, dismantled democratic structures without replacing them, and concentrated power in the Leader's office. This was a mistake.

Above all else, this top-down command and control culture must be changed if Labour is to renew and transform itself afresh - the key test of any reform programme should be whether it makes the Labour Party more democratic.

Learning from new movements

In this context, it is worth noting that there are a whole host of new political organisations and movements that have emerged over the last few years that show that decline in political involvement and engagement and ever increasing public apathy is not at all inevitable. This can be seen through the rise of political issue-based campaigning organisations such as MoveOn in the United States, Avaaz and more recently 38 Degrees in the UK (see Lownsbrough, 2010); as well as citizen organising groups such as London Citizens and Citizens UK (Littman, 2008; Baskerville and Stears, 2010).

All these provide modern examples of thriving, living, breathing political movements, all of whom have hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of members. So what is the key to their success? The one commonality that runs through all of these organisations is that they have mechanisms for their members' voices to be properly heard - all these organisations have 'dared more democracy' in the way they organise. There is much the Labour Party could learn from these organisations and movements in mapping out a blueprint for its own reform.

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