Walk down an average British street and you are more likely to meet a member of the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds or the Caravan Club than a member of a political party. Both of these apparently esoteric outfits boast more recruits than the UK’s parties combined.
With 189,531 members at the last count, Labour remains the largest party, but this is far below the 405,000 achieved in 1997, let alone the peak of 1.015 million reached in 1952. Those members that remain are disproportionately concentrated in London (around 40 per cent), leaving many local parties outside of the capital moribund and rudderless.
Through the reforms approved by a special conference earlier this year, Ed Miliband has gone some way to address- ing these defects. By requiring affiliated trade unionists to ‘opt in’ to donating to Labour and to become associate members, he has recognised the untapped potential of these ghosts in the machine. With the creation of the new category of registered supporter, he has also provided a route into the party for those unwilling to become full members, while the adoption of a genuine one-member-one-vote system for future leadership elections will ending the privileged status of MPs.
But the reform process largely ignored a more fundamental problem: that having paid their first subs, eager recruits find themselves alienated by formulaic party meetings that can be dominated by unrepresentative cliques.
If Labour is to overcome these defects, it must become a movement again, rather than merely a machine for winning elections. As the much-missed Arnie Graf argued, this means campaigning and organising around issues and empowering members as individuals, rather than identikit leaflet deliverers. In reforming itself, Labour should draw inspiration from decentralised and pluralist groups such as 38 Degrees and London Citizens that have proved capable of mobilising broad support for progressive causes. The planned devolution of power to city and county regions should be accompanied by a concurrent shift of power towards regional and local party branches.
Selecting Labour’s next London mayoral candidate through a closed primary is a good sign of progress, but Miliband should also be prepared to do this for parliamentary candidates. The common internal objection is that this would act as a disincentive to full membership by allowing‘supporters’ to participate, but few join the party for this purpose alone. By raising the profile of selection contests, primaries could help to encourage greater engagement from members and non-members alike.
A bigger, stronger Labour party would be capable of Obama-style Get Out The Vote efforts with five or even ten times the 60,000 activists that participated in the 2010 general election. But a party of hundreds of thousands of supporters could also help deliver change in communities in the form of living wage campaigns, pay day loan crackdowns and neighborhood clean-ups on an unprecedented scale.
Beyond community campaigns, a mass movement party could be a powerful ally for Miliband’s vision of‘people powered public services’with a skilled volunteer corps able to serve on parent-teacher boards, as worker representatives on pay committees and establishing tenants residents associations.
Finally, a government that actually listened to its members concerns would be far more in touch with the British people as a whole. After all, Labour canvassers were hearing concerns about housing, Iraq and immigration before they became fashionable Westminster topics.
Whatever the outcome in 2015, further party reform will be crucial to Labour’s long- term success. The New Labour years were characterised by the gradual hollowing-out of the party, one of the key factors that led to defeat in 2010. Learning the lessons of that failure means remaining Labour for a new era of pluralism and grassroots politics.