Why I'm on the outside

Membership of the Labour Party is, improbably, once more increasing. But the party must change if it

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Something very odd is happening. People have started joining the Labour Party again. It's a trickle rather than a torrent, but around 1,000 people a month are now being recruited. Although the trend in membership is still down, party officials are delighted that the rate of decline appears to be slowing. Many are lapsed members returning to the faith. There has been a decided upturn since the Labour party conference in Manchester, I am told. Thanks to the internet (most now join Labour online) the party has also been able to gauge why people are signing up by asking them a series of simple questions before they submit their application forms.

According to this straw poll, the two main reasons for joining are, one, that they are impressed by Gordon Brown's handling of the economy and, two, that they believe there is a real danger of the Tories getting into government. I suspect the second reason is the more pressing. Despite Labour's recent recovery in the polls, the most likely outcome of the next election is a Tory victory. This is a chilling prospect not because they are necessarily a less progressive party (in many areas of criminal justice policy, for instance, they are distinctly more liberal than the government), but because they are so evidently unprepared for power. As their reaction to the recent economic downturn has shown, the Tories still do not look like a fully formed party of government.

At the same time, the Labour Party has begun to look like a fighting force again. Its media operation has a clear message about the choice the British electorate faces at the next election. On one side stands a Labour government with a ten-year record of investing in public services, which has already shown itself prepared to intervene to protect people against the recession. On the other is a Conservative Party pledging a £1m tax cut to the wealthiest and offering no serious economic alternative. In a statement to the New Statesman, a Labour Party spokesman said: "Many people say this is why they are joining Labour now. They may have an issue with one aspect or another of Labour government policy, but when push comes to shove they see the potential election more as a choice [between Labour and the Tories], not a referendum [on the government] and want to lend their support. Anyone who believes in social justice can see the risk of letting Cameron's Tories slip into Downing Street is too dangerous to go unchallenged."

There is something in this. But the politics of the lesser evil will not be enough to win the Labour Party the next election. This was the mistake the party made in the strategy it adopted to fight the recent London mayoral elections. It must not repeat this error by standing on the platform: "You may think Gordon Brown is bad, but wait till you see what the other guy has planned for you." The experience of seeing Ken Livingstone losing to Boris Johnson should show that it is not sufficient to raise the spectre of Tories in power.

There is another, still more compelling argument for joining the Labour Party. For the first time in more than a decade, the party is absolutely desperate for activists and might actually listen to what they have to say. The paradox is that the Labour Party didn't need a mass membership when it had one. Three elections were won with relative ease against an opposition that had lost the appetite for the fight. In 1997, the 400,000 people who carried their Labour Party membership cards with pride were an irrelevance. This was something the Blair leadership repeatedly made clear as it bypassed Labour conference and constituency parties by the use of an increasingly centralised model of policymaking. The same dismissive attitude applied to backbenchers and, latterly, the cabinet itself. By the end of 2007, Labour Party membership had more than halved to 176,891. Nearly 5,500 people left the party in 2007 alone, even though there was a deputy leadership election held in that year. Ironically, every one of those members now matters. In the key marginal seats, every leaflet posted through every door and every phone call to every floating voter could make a difference. The Labour Party can no longer afford to take its members for granted.

I was once a member of the Labour Party. I left in July 1994, for no good reason other than I thought the election of Tony Blair would be a disaster (such was my political insight that I thought John Prescott would be a more fitting heir to John Smith's legacy). Throughout the Blair years I never felt able to return to the fold.

I remember an evening in November 1997 standing at the bar of the Red Lion pub on Whitehall, the famous Westminster home of political confidences and leaks. A close aide to a cabinet minister, himself a man who had worked for the Labour Party through the long years of opposition, was expressing his relief that he still had a job. The Bernie Ecclestone affair had just crashed over the government and this particular special adviser had been convinced that it would lead to the premature resignation of Blair. Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One, had given £1m to the Labour Party. Later, the government had exempted Ecclestone's sport from its ban on tobacco advertising.

"I don't know how we got away with it," he said. "We've only just started as a government and already we look as bad as the Tories." Eleven years on and the Ecclestone affair may yet inflict serious damage. The speaker of the House of Commons is now investigating a complaint from two Conservative MPs that the then prime minister, Tony Blair, misled parliament about the affair.

I distinctly recall my disappointment at the speed with which Blair's Labour fell from grace. At no point did it resolve its unhappy relationship with the ultra-rich. The Ecclestone affair; Lobbygate; the first Peter Mandelson resignation over his home loan from Geoffrey Robinson; the second Mandelson resignation over his relationship with the Hinduja brothers; the whole sorry saga of the "cash for honours" investigation into loans from wealthy individuals. That's not an easy record to defend and many believed Gordon Brown would be a break from all that.

Recently I have begun to think about rejoining the party, and apparently I am not alone in harbouring such freakish thoughts. So what's stopping me filling in that online form? I think it's best expressed in terms of two statements issued by the Prime Minister in recent days. On Tuesday evening I received an email from Downing Street from the Prime Minister's office with the subject line: "PM words on Russell Brand/Jonathan Ross".

Gordon Brown was plainly shocked by the obscene calls the Radio 2 pair made to the 78-year-old actor Andrew Sachs about his granddaughter. "This is clearly inappropriate and unacceptable behaviour, as is now widely recognised." He noted that the broadcasting regulator Ofcom was investigating and said it would be up to the BBC, the BBC Trust and Ofcom to take action.

The moralising tone of the statement chimed with the decisions early in the Brown premiership to scrap super-casinos and announce a review of 24-hour drinking legislation. This was Brown at his least attractive and most judgmental.

More seriously, the Brand/Ross statement came just 24 hours after the Prime Minister's latest defence of Peter Mandelson's friendship with the Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a man banned from entry to the United States, who made his money from Russia's aptly named "aluminium wars". Quite apart from anything else, it is deeply humiliating for the Prime Minister to be forced to defend his Business Secretary's relationship with an individual so closely allied to the Kremlin and Vladimir Putin. Brown's fate is now umbilically tied to his former adversary after he was forced to say that all Mandelson's dealings with Deripaska as the European Union's trade commissioner were "above board". Between the two statements, I cannot be alone in sensing the whiff of hypocrisy.

It's all very easy to talk tough about overpaid stars of the media such as Brand and Ross, but when will a new Labour leader learn that relationships with billionaires and oligarchs can also be "inappropriate and unacceptable"?

This article appears in the 03 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Israel v Hamas