This year marks 60 years since the loss of the 1955 election and the subsequent publication of the Harold Wilson report into Party Organisation. Labour’s organisation was at ‘the penny-farthing stage in a jet-propelled era’ was the conclusion he famously reached.
The report detailed the dilapidated state of organisation, which had been demoted in importance compared to ‘the more glamorous task of policy making’. Organisation in many marginal seats had become practically non-existent, canvass rates had barely reached 50% in most constituencies and Labour’s membership was ageing. In Wilson’s opinion, 35 seats had been narrowly lost ‘primarily through poor organisation.’
His answer was to professionalise: hire properly paid organisers; reinstate regular canvassing across the country; and campaign between, not just during, elections. Through his chairship of the NEC’s Organisation Sub Committee, Wilson drove through his proposed reforms and committed Labour wholeheartedly to Voter ID, building a campaign infrastructure and canvassing in those long years between polling days.
That commitment has lasted. Organisation and membership mobilisation was a key priority in 2015 – we had more activists than ever, and thanks to the foresight of Labour’s General Secretary Iain McNicol we had more paid organisational staff than ever, too. We managed to have 5 million conversations in the last months before election day.
And yet, 60 years on from Wilson’s report, we suffered a similar loss. We’re now undergoing a similar period of soul searching, as we confront the challenge of how Labour can win again.
The Fabian Society’s new research programme ‘Facing the Future’ speaks to this challenge, and considers how we rethink our purpose, modernise our organisation and win back the trust of voters.
The Fabians work coincides with a major piece of work our Deputy Leader Tom Watson has been tasked with. Over the coming weeks and months, Tom and NEC members will be leading a thorough, democratic discussion across all sections of the Party about how we need to reform. I’ll be contributing my thoughts to Tom’s consultation based on my experiences of ‘ground war’ campaigning in 2015.
Firstly the importance of face to face conversations with voters cannot be overstated. We had some of our very best results in seats where we had high levels of quality Voter ID data, such as in Wes Streeting’s Illford North. But as campaigners we need to focus on the conversations themselves, not just the canvass. Often we asked the three target questions and walked away – our interactions were too transactional and sometimes too narrow. In part, this was because many of our canvassers felt they lacked a coherent message from the leadership, and so didn’t engage.
When we did hear interesting and important things on the doorstep, we didn’t have sufficient mechanisms to feed them back to the leadership and then respond to what we were hearing. That must be rectified for 2020, so the concerns, suggestions and thoughts that our campaigners hear from voters are fed upwards and help shape our national campaigning,
We also need to find better ways to fully involve our membership. There is no doubt Jeremy’s leadership has generated interest and excitement. In my Leicester South constituency our local Party has doubled in size and goes from strength to strength, while nationally more than 380,000 people are now Labour members. I know how important it is to increase our numbers campaigning on the ground, so this membership increase will be a cause for celebration in every committee room and from every organiser.
But our membership must be more than just an army for door knocking. We need to encourage members to give more. Many members already give their time, their shoe rubber and their money, but we also need members to give their skills and expertise. The problem is that the Party has no mechanism for tapping into the huge skill base we have across our membership.
Peer-to-peer sharing isn’t a new idea – the sharing economy is growing throughout the world as people with similar needs or interests connect and share assets like time, space and skills. Introducing this principle into our party is both practical and in line with our values. When in need of help with a leaflet, website design, or fundraising strategy, we need to get better at linking members with other members across the county to share such skills.
Through sharing the expertise of our members, I believe we can become the most highly skilled of any political party in the world – with each member having access to the skills of everyone else. The possibilities of such a connected membership are manyfold, both within the Party and extending into our communities. The days of socialist Sunday Schools are long gone, but if we are to adopt a stronger community organisation approach in the future – and I think we should – then sharing skills could be crucial.
Responsiveness, membership development and connectivity are just some of the areas we need to work on to better equip our party for the 2020s and beyond. Harold Wilson was fond of quoting Keir Hardie, and it seems pertinent now: “Perfect your organisation, educate your followers, look to the register, spread the light and the future is yours.” Let’s take advantage of this opportunity to perfect our organisation and spread the light, so the future is indeed ours.
Jonathan Ashworth is the MP for Leicester South, a member of Labour Party NEC and Shadow Minister Without Portfolio.