Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Renewing Labour

We can draw lessons from the learnings of employee engagement when seeking to renew Labour party democracy, says NEC candidate Johanna Baxter, and help arm our members on the doorstep. 

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In the world of work it is widely recognised that employee engagement is a valuable tool for measuring the effectiveness of an organisation to achieve a happy, effective and committed workforce. Engagement builds on established views of the employment relationship by recognising that it is a two-way relationship in which both parties have needs and responsibilities.

It is a recognition that if an employer can establish a deeper relationship with their employees the likelihood of those employees being able to connect their role to the wider objectives of the organisation, and thereby be happier and more productive knowing that they are contributing to the overall success of the business.

Many companies do of course pay lip service to employee engagement – reeling off staff survey figures in negotiations with trade unions that bear little resemblance to the stark reality that exists on the shop floor. Those who do get it right reap the benefits in higher profits and lower staff turnover – not something to sniff at in the current economic environment.

The employee engagement organisation the IPA believes that ‘collective voice is a valuable enabler to engagement and developing an effective employee voice must be a central part of any engagement strategy’*.

At a time when Labour needs to find its collective voice once more the party would do well to look at its own engagement with members and stakeholders.

In Southwark the newly elected Labour council (which has recently taken over from eight years of a Liberal Democrat/Tory coalition) has recently set up a democracy commission to consider how it engages with its residents and other stakeholders. Not only is this designed to improve decision-making but also to develop a greater sense of participation and ownership amongst residents of the decisions taken in their name. This is particularly important at a time when the newly elected council is facing attacks from the Tory/Liberal Democrat administration in Westminster who are looking to cut the revenue support grant to local government by up to 40 per cent. It will ensure that residents know the rationale behind local cost constraints and are able to participate in deciding the key services that are protected.

Nationally the Labour party needs to develop its collective narrative in a similar fashion. Faced with drastic cuts by the coalition government – the novelty of which has yet to leave the minds of many an elector – we need to not only set the context for those cuts, ensuring that voters know they are based on ideology rather than circumstance, but also develop a clear narrative for opposing them.

The leadership election has provided some opportunity for this and Ed Balls has really grasped that nettle in providing the context for the government’s decisions, whilst also providing a clear Labour strategy to tackle them.

But we cannot restrict this simply to the economy. Following on from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq we need to develop a clearer narrative on our relations abroad. We need to look at some of the new challenges our country faces on welfare reform, pensions and green technology, amongst others, and develop radical solutions to those that reflect our Labour values.

But the party cannot do this if it continues to engage only a small elite at the centre. As in the workplace, the party needs to engage its members – emotionally and cognitively – if it is to rediscover its collective voice.

Our members are the advocates of our democratic socialist values. It is not good enough that they face a policymaking structure that is so complex and convoluted that even some of our more experienced activists give up trying to participate in it. But it is not politically sensible either. Members have an important role to play in shaping our narrative and delivering that to the electorate. So they must be consulted and presented with a range of options so their priorities can be identified and reflected in our policy.

Too many people believed that debating policy was what put people off attending party meetings, when in fact it is my contention that it was an overemphasis on bureaucracy and regulation, which stifled debate. All the members I know want to talk policy and politics because it’s that engagement that both arms them on the doorstep and makes them feel part of the great party that we joined. So we need to strip away some of the bureaucracy that burdens our CLPs. We now need our own form of democracy commission to radically overhaul our policymaking process. And we need to start listening to, and valuing, our members. 

Johanna Baxter’s leaflet


*IPA Guide to Workforce Engagement

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Johanna Baxter

is a member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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