Sunday, 18 August 2013

Hair shirts and self flagellation

I am an enthusiastic proponent of reform. I believe we must change how we operate and the methods we use to engage people with our work.

I am on the record in support of open selections and am encouraging the Management Committee and the Executive Council to select our new parliamentary candidate in T&M at an open meeting.

In Tunbridge Wells we have gone a step further; the Local Government Committee unanimously endorsed my plan to advertise for potential candidates from the wider community and to hold a ballot of all residents in a trial ward to select the successful applicant. If these reforms extend our offer, bring new people into the fold and help renew our organisation, what possible reasons are there to oppose them, other than reluctance to change?

However, in the mad rush to reform, we need to take care we do not sacrifice the one major trump card we hold; in much of Britain, especially the south and in those seats we must win, we still have our finger on the pulse of middle Britain.

After our poor showing at Eastleigh, most commentators agreed that our local organisational demise in the constituency brought about by the loss of our membership and the eradication of our local government base, was a major contributing factor to our failure. Yet Matthew Paris, writing in The Times, said that we should admit defeat, close down local Associations, transfer membership to a national database and select all parliamentary candidates by open centrally organised primaries. Personally, I could think of no better way to ensure the problems that handicapped us at Eastleigh are replicated nationwide.

If your politics are viewed solely from a national perspective I can see why such a plan would appear attractive, and I suspect the Labour Party high command would like it too. No more demanding activists, no more Walter Wolfgangs or Ben Harris-Quinneys, no rank and file or grass roots making unreasonable demands for ideological purity.  Yet it is these trivialities, and the need for leaders to state their case and win their arguments, which keep political parties grounded and provide legitimacy.

My opposition however is not for any of these reasons, it is far more mundane. If we lose our local organisation and fight elections solely by direct mail, regional phone banks and via the media, we hand a massive advantage to whichever party seizes the opportunity and retains its local base of activists.  Admittedly, most people never change their vote, and those that do are more influenced by the national narrative than the local campaign, but I would guess that there are 100+ seats where the margins are so tight that the local campaign exceeds the margin of victory (or defeat).   

Yes, we need fundamental reform, but in this 'my shirt is hairier than your shirt" self-flagellation we are in danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. If membership is in terminal decline (and I suspect that it is) let it whither naturally on the vine, whilst using the breathing space to build a viable alternative.  If we can convince 3,000 voters to pay a token £1-£3 each to "register as a friend", and they then help our campaigning, we will have achieved something very significant indeed; we would have found a way to reverse decades of decline.  

In fact, I am going to suggest to one of my Associations that we mailshot a carefully selected 2,000 voters and ask them to do just that, to test the viability and likely response.

But however we change, it would be a tragedy if we don't retain our roots and understanding of the communities we seek to serve.  If we were to lose that connection we will have learned little from the lessons of Eastleigh.

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