Renewing the party

Political parties must ensure voters are more widely consulted if they want to thwart the BNP and st

The prospect of Gordon Brown’s leadership has brought a renewal of interest in Labour. He has said the past decade’s membership decline must be reversed, and the deputy leadership candidates all made calls to rebuild the party. This is a big challenge which requires reform not just of the organisation but of its role in the wider community.

All party memberships are dropping – Tory membership figures continued to fall, even during David Cameron’s first high profile year. There is a perceived malaise which is part of the wider disengagement in politics generally.

What's more, parties are the least trusted of civil institutions and are subject to increasingly active antagonism at elections. In 2005, more than a third of people, without being asked, were actively urging others to vote against a particular party; in 1997 it was just one in seven.

The central question is whether people see political parties as an important part of our democratic system or as a barrier to democracy and good government. Recent research for the Young Foundation shows the answer, perhaps to the surprise of many, is that people do understand the need for political parties and when asked if they believe political parties are good, bad or make no difference for a democratic system, those saying “good” outnumbered “bad” by 7:1. Half those questioned thought that political parties in Britain “enable people to have a voice”, though they are very critical of how they perceive parties to operate.

When then asked what changes would help to make political parties more appealing, the top three responses were, in order: involving people more in local decision-making; listening more to the public; and taking the time to talk to people about their organization and explaining their values. This provides a rich agenda for parties at national and local level: developing as more active forums for debate and deliberation; being more pluralist in culture and composition; campaigning more forcefully on community concerns; acting as a stronger bridge between local level issues and national institutions, policies and debate; and, critically, being seen and strongly supported by the party leaderships to play an essential role in between and not just during elections.

Labour’s Big Conversation in 2004 was a good initiative but it was a one-off.

Now, Brown’s determined devolution of power from the centre – on local government, education, health, crime and economic development – will bring more decisions within people’s reach. It is the opportunity for local parties to act more continuously as a forum for wider public dialogue, active consultation, involvement in decision-making and in holding local government or agencies to account.

[In recent years, however, the locus of mainstream political parties has become more centralized. Parties have moved away from the community and civil society, creating a vacuum which single-issue campaigns or sectional interest groups are filling. This is a particular characteristic of political parties in power when the imperative to support the government inevitably moves them towards the state and further from being either a voice or channel for local and regional viewpoints. Many in the Labour Party would recognise this description of our present position and Conservatives might accept that their party is only now emerging from the long shadow of 18 years in government.]

Two significant shifts are required.

First, membership is central but parties cannot renew their purpose and appeal only through the singular mechanism of membership. With the general decline in collective institutions and identities, the traditional form of political party association – pay to have your say – is too limited. Parties must encourage wider connections through supporter status, online networks, consultative forums, and more joint meetings, training and campaigns. New technologies and electronic communications can help but there is no techno-fix. What parties and politicians do, and crucially how they respond to public interest and views, is the key.

And second, parties must understand and encourage a wider definition of what it means to be politically active. Electoral Commission research shows that the vast majority of people are actively interested in the issues that affect them, their family and the wider world. They want to have a say in the way the country is run. Yet the perception exists that politics is something done by others in formal institutions.

Parties must seek to foster an appreciation that the broad political process is simply individuals seeing things they want to change, making allies, pressing the case and securing the necessary decisions to bring about that change.

The goal is to translate civic activism into a political activism that is not limited to the activities of professional politicians. The Make Poverty History Campaign showed the power of such links, and climate change concerns have a similar potential

No-one should underestimate the challenge in making political parties more interesting and appealing – too often one of the last places to go for anyone with an appetite for political discussion or action is a local Labour Party meeting. The stakes, however, are high. If the major parties fail to meet these challenges of renewal, then the recently rising appeal of BNP anti-politics and “none of the above” will strengthen.

John Healey is the Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne and was formerly housing minister, local government minister and financial secretary to the Treasury

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times