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20 January 2003

We need our bolshie members

Stephen Byers demands new ways of making the voices of Labour's rank and file heard in Whitehall

By Stephen Byers

I listened carefully to the Labour Party member. “I don’t know why I stay in the party,” he said. “No one seems to be listening and my views are simply ignored.” Another said: “It’s all become too top-down, with ordinary members ignored. Millbank decides the line and we’re all expected to follow it. That’s not what I joined the party to do.”

These are just some of the comments made to me by Labour Party members over the past few months. It is clear that all is not well within Labour’s ranks.

Labour governments lose office when they lose touch with party members: think of the 1951, 1970 and 1979 elections. The present concerns have not come about as a direct result of individual issues such as the government’s approach to Iraq. The problem is deeper. It is about the role of party members and their influence over the development of policy.

Part of the concern comes from those who have never accepted new policy-making process. They prefer the old system, with resolutions put forward by individuals. If passed at ward level, they went to the constituency and then to either the national executive or the annual conference, where each constituency was restricted to one motion and one amendment. At the conference, a bizarre ritual would take place. At a composite meeting, totally new motions would emerge based on the words contained in the original motions. These were not seen or approved by individual constituencies but would then be debated, usually in three-minute speeches, before a vote was taken. This made for great theatre, but it was hardly the best way of developing policy and certainly didn’t make for inclusive and harmonious working within the party.

After the 1997 election, Labour moved away from this adversarial approach and aimed to involve more party members. Under the new procedures (called Partnership in Power), local, regional and national policy forums consider policy. The national conference endorses the resulting programme. All members have the opportunity of feeding in their views.

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At one level it has been a success. By 2002, the number of submissions had increased fourfold since 1998, to 1,600. But it would be a mistake – potentially a dangerous one – if we were to delude ourselves that discontent with the present procedures is restricted to those who opposed the changes from the beginning.

Party members who supported change don’t feel the present process is working well. Though the principles that underpin Partnership in Power must be retained, members need to know that their voices will be heard and that there can be debate on issues of substance.

This does not mean that party members should have a veto over government actions or policy. But it does mean that they are owed an explanation and are taken through the arguments.

Take public-private partnerships. Many party members feel that this is an area where they haven’t been properly involved in the development of policy. As a result, consideration of the role of the private sector has polarised. On one side are those who allege that any involvement of the private sector represents wholesale privatisation; on the other are those who believe that only the private sector can improve public services. The reality is far more complicated and we need a mechanism within the party that allows for a mature consideration of the issues.

Labour should value and trust its members. The overwhelming majority do not want a return to the feuding and divisions that so damaged the party in the 1970s and 1980s. We must be disciplined and united, but this must not be used as an excuse to stifle or deny debate.

Some commentators ask whether party members have any relevance in a world where it is said that elections are won or lost in the media and not on the doorstep. But we need members now as much as ever. I know that Labour members can be a bolshie lot, difficult and time consuming, but they are crucial to our future well-being. With an increasingly hostile press, it will become more difficult to get over our message. We will need to do it through the active engagement of the membership.

Only party members at local level can re-engage people and stop the spread of political apathy. Activists still have a vital role in campaigns. The success of Labour’s “key seats” strategy – directing activists to marginal seats – shows the importance of activity in shopping centres, at school gates and on doorsteps. Members can also be a source of support and encouragement during difficult times – as I found out when I was Secretary of State for Transport.

Reform and renewal are never easy. Leaving things as they are is often the soft and rather appealing option, in a political party as much as in public services. But Labour has not been scared of change in the past: think of the move to one member one vote, the changes to Clause Four, and the process that saw all members vote on the 1997 election manifesto. These changes played a crucial role in getting us elected in 1997. Now, nearly six years on, we need to reconsider the part played by party members, not just in developing policy and keeping the leadership in touch with people’s concerns, but as community advocates, far more outward-looking than they are now.

Voters aged 18 at the next election will have been three years old when Margaret Thatcher left office. For half their lives, Labour will have been the party of government. The danger is that Labour will be seen as the establishment, protecting vested interests and defending things as they are. The party needs to maintain and renew its political definition and direction. To do this successfully, party members will need to be valued and trusted.

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