As the deadline for Refounding Labour submissions passes, we present highlights of Progress’ contribution.
Opposition provides Labour with a window of opportunity to focus on internal issues and ensure the structures and culture of the party are fit to win again. Progress believes it was essential that Labour professionalised its communications in the run-up to the 1997 election. But controlling what the party does has overwhelmed other potentially important aspects of engaging members and external stakeholders.
Refounding Labour should aim to rectify existing problems while remembering that the goal of the party is to secure power. Over recent months, through our programme of regional events and our online survey, Progress has solicited the views of our members. On the basis of these, we have drawn up the following proposals. Copies of the full submission are available at ProgressOnline.
Putting the community at the centre of the party
For over 10 years Labour has been saying that the community should be the party’s main focus. Refounding Labour has to try and make this a reality. The reason is simple: the more that voters have face-to-face contact with local Labour representatives and members, the more likely they are to support Labour at an election.
Labour should look at best practice in places such as Birmingham Edgbaston where the CLP’s continuous campaigning has created a huge base of Labour-supporting volunteers.
Working with organisations such as Movement for Change could help local parties who want to change their culture from meetings to campaigning locally. Encouraging all branches to build up email lists of local residents would help to focus their effort towards communicating with local people about social events, policy forums or campaign days.
The notion of a supporters’ list should be localised, with branches being given permission to charge local supporters a small amount which goes directly into their branch funds, while the national party gets access to supporter data so that it can market membership and campaigns.
The views of the community should also be made a central feature of Labour’s policymaking process. Emergency motions which are sent to annual conference, for example, could be admitted if they have 2,000 signatories to a petition from the local community, showing that the local party had reached out and that the issue has political salience. Local parties should hold at least one meeting a year to allow the public to debate the party’s priorities.
Engaging members and stakeholders at all levels
Party membership needs to be a two-way process so that members are not just asked to donate money and deliver leaflets, but also get something out of membership too.
The party should consider offering one free training session a year as part of a Labour academy with courses which cover everything from speech-writing, to Labour history, to learning English, as they are doing in Birmingham Hodge Hill.
A marked change on Labour’s ‘control culture’ could be demonstrated by Labour presenting a ‘wiki’ manifesto to the British public. Through our current – and hopefully vastly improved – methods of policymaking, countless individuals and organisations will engage in what we present to the electorate. This multitude of voices should be on display, transparent and presented to the voters as the people’s manifesto. The manifesto would link key policies to a named advocate, who could be anyone from the leader or appropriate minister to a branch, CLP, National Policy Forum commission, union, socialist society, external campaign organisation (such as the Votes at 16 coalition), NGO (eg Breastcancer Breakthough) or a private company (eg Sheffield Forgemasters).
To encourage innovation, where party rules prevent certain initiatives, local parties should be allowed to apply to the general secretary to ask for special dispensation to run a pilot which would be closely monitored for its benefit and outcomes.
Labour needs to do far more to engage members of trade unions affiliated to Labour. More unions should be encourage to follow the Unison model of the modern trade union link where members are allowed to join either a Labour affiliated fund, or a general political fund. This would also offer protection against any moves by the coalition government to frustrate union giving to the party. Local parties should be encouraged to contact local affiliated union members in their area and involve them in branch meetings and campaign events.
Nomination meetings at a branch or CLP level for national positions such as party chair, deputy leader and leader, should be open to all members to attend, not just delegates.
In leadership elections, all members in all sections of the electoral college should be able to be canvassed by each of the candidates. It is indefensible that parts of the electorate can have communication controlled by a few people.
Selecting candidates who represent our communities
Research by Will Straw for Progress has shown that the average CLP has 280 members – a very small percentage of the local population. Moreover, a median of just 40 party members vote in the final round of parliamentary selection contests. While steps have been made towards ensuring Labour candidates reflect our community, Labour still cannot say that our elected representatives fully do.
It is time to look at opening up the way we select MPs through a form of closed primary. This could preserve the sanctity of members to choose the shortlist, while opening up the actual vote to a list of registered Labour supporters. Not only would this help to identify Labour support, but it would also engage supporters with Labour. We recognise, however, in the light of the coalition’s gerrymandering of the boundaries, the need to introduce such changes with sensitivity and care.
One way of introducing primaries could be to introduce a requirement that, if the constituency party has not ensured that at least one per cent of the Labour vote at the last election are party members, and the candidate selection takes place within a year of the general election, then the decision goes to a primary. The minimum threshold for a CLP to avoid an automatically triggered primary should rise in each year of a parliament by 0.5 per cent, meaning, at year four, a local party would need to have transformed two per cent of its vote into members. This would provide an incentive for members to recruit new members so that the selectorate is big enough to be representative of the local population. It would also help prevent the last-minute ‘parachuting’ in of candidates.
The ‘selections committees’ that are part of the new process being trailed for the 26 ‘island seats’ should be abolished immediately. They allow between six and 10 people, who must already be members of both the general committee and the executive committee, to shape the outcome of the selection and radically reduce the choice available to local members.
In seats where Labour candidates are in a distant second or third place, and local parties need a two-term strategy to boost the Labour vote, they should be able to innovate. Part of the solution is to take a long view by introducing selections for ‘long-term candidacies’ in seats that the party believes are not on our frontline of targets for 2015. The process would initially work like any other selection. However, after the election the candidate, should he or she be unsuccessful, is automatically reselected via a trigger ballot, similar to how sitting MPs are currently reselected.
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