The last couple of months have seen poll ratings of both the Labour party and its leaders move in an encouraging direction. As Labour members we should be making sure that our own party’s house is in order, so that whenever the next general election comes, we are in the best possible position to fight it.
With an eye on the future, the Fabian Society published an interesting and timely report More to Do: Unequal Experiences of Labour Party Membership at the end of November. Its publication was overshadowed by the shadow cabinet reshuffle on the same day, ironically illustrating an important point: attention in the party is easily pulled toward urgent (but often short-term) issues rather than being focused on more fundamental underlying long-term factors.
If we constantly focus on fighting fires, it is easy to miss the early signs of subsidence until the building is at risk of collapse. So, I would urge fellow members who wish to help us build strong foundations for a future Labour government, to read the report. This piece is not intended to be a comprehensive review of the report: Sienna Rodgers’s excellent summary for Labour List has already done that. Rather, I will consider and propose some practical steps that the party could take, locally and nationally, to address the issues raised.
Lack of progress
The survey was deliberately focused on ‘Labour activists and members holding positions of responsibility’. It was intended to mirror a similar survey from the summer of 2015 – that turbulent period post a general election defeat and pre Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Those of us who have been active in the party since that time, of any faction or none, can surely agree that this period has been tumultuous and challenging. And yet the survey shows a stubborn consistency and a disappointing lack of progress in attitudes, perceptions, and opportunities with members’ experiences.
Indeed the report shows a move in the wrong direction since 2015, despite the significant increase in membership and the oft-repeated assertions that a broader range of members’ voices were being heard. It indicates that the party still has a lot of work to do, at all levels, to address concerns around internal processes and perceptions amongst our own most engaged members, if it genuinely wishes to embody core Labour values around equality of opportunity and diversity of representation.
There are some key areas where I think the party needs to do more to break the deadlock.
Welcoming new members
The longer that we have been party members, the more active we are, the more scars and cynicism we carry from internal factional battles, the further away we move from people who have taken the bold step of joining the Labour party. Remember, we political activists are unusual people: there are a barely a million people in the UK who are members of mainstream political parties – around one in 55 adults – and only a small percentage are regularly active.
So, we should be tremendously grateful and welcoming when people decide to join us, to give up an evening a month to attend a CLP meeting or turn up to knock on doors on a cold Saturday morning outside of election periods. And yet the report shows there has been a significant decline in members who find meetings ‘friendly and welcoming’, with members from disadvantaged or under-represented groups feeling this even more acutely.
I would argue that the first couple of interactions a new member has with their local party members can be profoundly influential. Local CLPs and branches should be proactively welcoming, supporting and guiding new members – especially those from disadvantaged groups. I am sure there are many examples of good practice amongst our CLPs which could be shared, but I am equally sure that a focus on personal or factional battles preoccupies many regular attendees and officers at CLP meetings. We would do well to remind ourselves, every month at the very least, that new members are the lifeblood of our party – and may be much better guides to where local voters stand than those of us who have been party members for years.
At a local level particularly, longstanding members and elected officers should be actively connecting with, encouraging, and supporting new members. We need to ask: do we simply expect a single CLP membership officer to do everything? And how can we organise and events to welcome and reassure new members, and explain the impenetrable workings of the party?
Competencies of representatives
Being a Labour party member, especially in a marginal constituency, affords us an extraordinary amount of influence on our local and national government. We can select – or reject – candidates for council and parliamentary elections, who may go on to vote on issues which cost millions or billions of pounds, and change thousands of lives. Sometimes, the decisions about who is chosen are made by just a few dozen members.
The importance of competent local officers, of effective and open local organisation and communication, cannot be underestimated if we want to demonstrate to the public that we can provide capable and competent candidates for local, regional and national government.
It is often a hassle to be a CLP officer and, especially those in key positions such as chair, secretary and treasurer, certain skills and competencies are required. Far too often, we see officers who hold these positions due to factional connections rather than for actual competencies, or people who hold positions for too long and may inadvertently block new voices or ideas – especially those from underrepresented or disadvantaged members.
If we believe in meritocracy, let us support it with practical policies: maximum terms for holding key positions; progression to becoming a CLP chair through demonstrable experience as vice -chair; and key competencies demonstrated prior to elections. The closer we get to government, regionally and nationally, the more important it is that Labour’s representatives are seen as credible and competent by the public. Given the vast amounts of money that even the smallest local authorities control, compared to private sector business, I find it remarkable how little focus there is on skills and competence in the selection of political representatives at all levels.
Labour’s regional organisational structure
There will always be a tension between people whose main job is working in politics – whether as elected representatives or staff – and most party members who do not. Whether it is the amount of time people have available to focus on political matters, individual ambition, personal circumstances or the eternal debate between idealism and pragmatism, there will inevitably be different priorities and concerns. Moreover, a CLP in a constituency that has a longstanding MP and/or several local councillors will have a very different dynamic from a marginal seat, let alone a ‘safe’ Conservative seat.
If the Labour party is to be a party of government and represent the interests of the whole country, it needs to listen to voices beyond its membership. I do not believe that the party’s current regional organisation adequately connects the public and grassroots members to regional and national staff. The party’s current financial situation has exacerbated this dilemma – fewer staff are having to do more work across more constituencies.
Our regional directors and their teams are some of our most hard-working staff. And yet my regional team represents an area that is impractically diverse. The south east region stretches from the leafy Cotswolds through the Home Counties to the poorest coastal towns of Kent – and of course excludes London, where many south east region members may actually work.
The Labour party urgently needs to find ways of developing closer local and regional connections – perhaps based on constituencies that have more in common demographically and economically than geographically if we are to maximise our chances of electoral success.
It is important that we ask ourselves searching questions such as those I have outlined. Online CLP meetings, forced on us by necessity recently, would have been inconceivable a few years ago – we have proven that our members and structures can adapt rapidly if required. Perhaps the national party could explore different ways of organising and pilot schemes in one particular region. Could we have a competition to identify CLPs and officers with good ideas and proven practical success as champions who could share their good work? And surely the party should engage with those groups who have reported negative experiences in the Fabian survey and ask them what could be done to improve their experience?
These problems will not go away unless we proactively seek solutions, and while they may not be seen as urgent compared to the daily political news cycle, they are fundamentally important and must be addressed.
Photo by Carlos Quintero on Unsplash