here 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
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
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
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
Gaye Johnston is Secretary of Save the Labour Party