Four big ideas to refound Labour

The party has to remove the straitjacket of its 90-year-old rulebook and wake up to the modern world

Last week, the Labour Party published its consultation document on party reform. Written by Peter Hain, Refounding Labour is a fine report. Without pre-empting any of the eventual decisions, it sets out clearly the predicament that the party faces and the glimmers of light from the last election, and touches on the modern world of political activism on which the Labour Party is still to catch up.

Despite a bounce in membership of 50,000, the Labour Party still has under half the membership it had in 1997 – or just one-fifth of its 1950s peak. Affiliated union membership has also shrunk – from 6.5 million in 1979 to 2.7 million today. Activism among that diminishing pool of members has fallen, with the exception of phone canvassing and donations, which have risen slightly.

But not all is bad. Against this backdrop, the Labour Party pulled a 1992-style parliamentary outcome from its worst vote share since 1983. In places like Birmingham Edgbaston, Westminster North and Tooting, Labour bucked the national trend and held on to marginal seats. Analysis has shown, according to Hain, that "the seats doing the most local work had results that defied the trend". Indeed, Labour recorded a 37 per cent increase in voter ID compared to 2005.

Into this mix, Refounding Labour discusses the lessons that are to be learned from online and offline civil society groups such as 38 Degrees, which from a standing start during the expenses scandal has grown to a membership of over 400,000, and London Citizens, which successfully co-opted Boris Johnson to the "living wage" cause. The report also reflects on the hundreds of thousands of school governors, community service volunteers and Women's Institute members who give their time for social change.

Less is said about the world of political activism, where two significant changes have taken place since Labour came to power in 1997. The first is the rise of the media-savvy, often single-issue campaign. Jubilee 2000 and Make Poverty History's victories in the development spheres were matched in scale, if not in outcome, by the Stop the War Coalition and the Countryside Alliance.

Second, technology has increased the reach and power of campaigning groups. The Robin Hood campaign for a European-wide tax on financial transactions has organised almost entirely online with active Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and a launch that used a YouTube film featuring Bill Nighy. The work of 38 Degrees stopping the forestry sell-off was all co-ordinated online.

As Hain says, "The Labour Party's basic structure is essentially that adopted in 1918 . . . Society has moved on since 1918, but Labour's institutions and practices haven't always kept up." To truly wake up to the 21st century and counters the pockets of resistance in 2010, the party must use this opportunity to make some fundamental changes. We offer four big ideas to refound Labour.

1. Give local Labour parties the tools to self-organise

The Labour Party has a diffuse, localised structure that is one of its greatest assets. But local organising is often stifled by adherence to the rulebook, deference to older members and a preference for process over pounding the streets.

The central party has an important role here. First it must give all members, and not just CLP secretaries and chairs, the tools to self-organise. Individual members can already use the party's online phone bank to make calls to voters, but the same should be true for door-to-door canvassing and organising fundraisers.

As is already taking place through websites like Labour Values, an online toolkit should be put together to help members emulate successful efforts around the country to increase levels of volunteering, use email and Facebook to contact voters, and develop community organising techniques. But this should not be a one-way street.

As suggested by Peter Hain, the Voter ID incentive scheme should be rolled out nationally to give local parties added resources and freedoms as they increase membership, voter contact and community activity.

2. Use technology to give members and supporters a greater role in policymaking

During Labour's time in government, party members often felt ignored by the leadership on policy. Indeed, Peter Hain accepts that the National Policy Forum has not been "without its problems". The old approach of passing motions at local meetings, compositing at the national level and voting at conference owes its existence to the norms of a previous age. Of course conference should remain a place for debates and networking, but policy can now be formulated using the extraordinary powers offered by ICT.

Labour should invest in a portal allowing members and supporters up and down the country to submit policy ideas for consideration. These could then be voted up or down – as with the like and dislike buttons on Facebook – with those receiving the most support being debated and deliberated by the NPF and shadow cabinet to ensure consistency, legality and cost control. Those activists who proposed the original ideas could then become evangelists in their communities for the agreed policies.

The final manifesto would be one that enjoyed the support of both the membership and the shadow cabinet, who would see through its implementation.

3. Expand membership to Labour supporters

In order to buck the European trend of declining party membership, the Labour Party should reach out to the widest possible group of supporters. All those recording strong support for Labour during canvassing sessions ("L5s", in the jargon) should be invited to join the party on an honesty box basis.

Members should be able to join for £1, which is now the norm for under-27s, but would be encouraged to set up standing orders or direct debit worth some fraction of their salary – say, 0.2 per cent. This would mean that those on median income of £23,000 would pay £46 per year – roughly the same as the current rate – while MPs on £66,000 would pay £50 more than they currently do. Wealthy members would pay a lot more.

The party should then use its longer email list to make specific requests for small donations, as in the US. Requests should be tailored to the interests of party members so that a supporter expressing concern about education would be asked to contribute cash, for example, towards national efforts to lobby coalition MPs who oppose Education Maintenance Allowances. Using these approaches, the party could vastly increase the £7.3m it raised from members in 2010.

4. Take advantage of the coalition's offer to fund 60 Labour primaries

Since Barack Obama's victory against Hillary Clinton in 2008, Labour members have been debating whether or not to adopt primaries. A recent LabourList poll found support for the idea of 34 per cent to 50 per cent among members. Nonetheless, it would be wrong to impose primaries on parts of the party that do not want them.

Instead, Labour should take advantage of the Coalition Agreement's pledge to "fund 200 all-postal primaries over this parliament, targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years". Labour is entitled to 60 of these contests and should offer the opportunity to local parties that want to take the plunge. Only through experimenting will Labour find out if primaries can further engage members of the public, as has happened in the US and Greece.

Conclusion

Peter Hain's consultation contains more than 50 questions – often covering areas of granularity. There are, no doubt, many small changes that can and should be made to ensure that the Labour Party becomes a better organisation. But big changes are also necessary to improve its chances in the future and mark a break from the past. These four ideas must be adopted if the party is to remove the straitjacket of its 90-year-old rulebook and wake up to the modern world.

Will Straw and Nick Anstead edited "The Change We Need: What Britain Can Learn from Obama's Victory" (Fabian Society) in 2008.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”