As the Labour Party leaves Millbank, smiles will no doubt
be raised amongst those who
came to view it with animosity
and contempt. But if the move really signifies the demise of New Labour, it is Tory Central Office that will have the most to smile about.
The modernisation of the Labour Party has two distinct and yet nonetheless interlinked aspirations. New Labour is too often seen in terms of its ends – a professional, efficient and effective campaigns and communications machine, capable of winning elections. But of equal, if not greater, importance is its drive to build a healthy, democratic, mass-membership party. It is on the latter of these that Millbank fell sadly short, to the detriment of sustainable success at the polls.
The improvements Millbank brought to our campaign strategies are not to be sneered at. Rather than attack the use of spin, polling, and focus groups, we should recognise that their emergence came fifteen years too late, not just for the party, but for those we seek to serve. The move to Millbank, and the professionalisation of our campaign machine, helped us regain our competitive edge against the Tories. Putting ideological divisions aside, we have to remember how things would be if we rejected all Millbank stood for.
Rather than the effective telephone canvassing operation we have now, local organisers would have to look up each voter on the register in phone books, as they did in 1992. Instead of a key-seat strategy which targets resources where it counts, we would have a complex, unresponsive and unworkable network of committees. Finally, instead of an elections unit which hasn’t lost a Westminster seat in a by-election since our return to power, we would have the travesty of safe Labour seats, such as Bermondsey, being lost to the Liberals.
The adoption of negative campaign tactics, prior to 1997, was particularly singled out by opponents of the Millbank regime. They seemed to believe that Labour should ‘turn the other cheek’ when the Tories played dirty. The rapid response unit, the rebuttal unit, the attack unit and the infamous Excalibur are vital tools that ensure not just that we win the debate, but that the debate is fought on our ground.
Despite Millbank’s success, its failings came in its inability to operate a dual branding of New Labour. The results in 1997 and 2001 demonstrated that the values communicated in the New Labour brand resonated with the voters. But Millbank has failed to develop a differentiated and internal branding of New Labour, where individual members matter more, where the party is inclusive and where new ideas are allowed to flourish and develop freely.
The problem isn’t that members don’t recognise the constraints on government. Indeed, it is right that we should be frustrated with the pace of change. It is what defines us as progressives. The problem is that the communication channels are simply not in place for a proper dialogue between members and government. Without this, being a member offers no more than being an ordinary Labour supporter.
At fault is Millbank’s implementation of the National Policy Forum and a complete failure to reform our grassroots structure. People join the Labour Party to make a difference, to contribute to change. This was always going to be at odds with an old Millbank that saw new ideas as dangerous and destabilising.
The NPF needs to be a proper forum for debate and it needs to be demonstrated how the grassroots can individually have a difference on the outcomes. Presently, the process is far too centralised and any idea that debate exists is not even acknowledged. By filtering out what it saw as opposition, Millbank merely removed essential feedback to the government from members, which resulted in embarrassment on a number of key policy issues. Moreover, it saw debate as dangerous, rather than the essential fuel for the progressive century, and this betrayed their lack of trust in members.
Even more important than the need to maintain a membership for the graft campaigning during elections, is the need for a modern social democratic party to put the development of new ideas at the core of its mission, in order to sustain itself in office for the long term. By improving and decentralising the political policy-making process, perhaps the oligarchy that existed in the old Labour Party can finally be put to bed, and the ideas that will deliver the progressive century be allowed to flourish and grow.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.