More thinking aloud…

Unlike some  – and that’s not a set for a dig, Neil – I have to confess that I’m entirely sanguine when it comes to the manner of Gordon Brown’s ascension to the leadership of the party.

Yes, a contested leadership election would have been much more consistent with the party’s democratic traditions, but in the absence of credible challengers from any other wing of the party I really can’t see that John McDonnell’s failure to make the ballot actually makes that much of difference in the grand scheme of things.

Sorry, but in terms of party democracy, there are much more important things to tackle.

We need to rebuild and reinvigorate the grass roots membership of the party, and more importantly, do so in a manner that enables us to construct a meaningful relationship between party members/activists and our elected representatives.

What has done most to damage party democracy during the Blair years is the all too obvious mistrust that the Blairite wing of the party has harboured towards the constituency section and the grassroots membership, which has been perceived throughout as a repository of dangerously off message left-wing ideas.

One only has to look at the position paper put out by Hazel Blears in support of her challenge for the Deputy Leadership to see this in action. She devotes three pages of the document to outlining her views on ‘Building the Labour Party’, which is, itself, rather an odd turn of phrase to use when referring to an 100+ year old organisation, and much of what she has to say concerns itself with the suggestion that CLPs should mutate into community development NGOs and the value she perceives in semi-detached networks such as the Labour Supporter’s Network – one has to wonder quite what the membership figure for LSN are at the moment, I’ve never seen any published.

One of the more telling comments in her paper is this:

Our activities will be transparent – local communities will be encouraged to take part in selecting candidates, in helping with elections, in discussing policy, and in debating with local representatives and ministers.

Okay, so a bit of help on the doorsteps come election time is always welcome and one cannot quibble with consultations on policy and between local communities and elected representatives at any level, but taking part in selecting candidates? Is Hazel suggesting that prospective councillors, MPs and MEPs should take part in US style local primaries as part of our internal selection procedures?

This seems little more than a variation on the same old frustrating theme we’ve heard from the Blairite camp over the last 10 years – the one in which CLPs and activists cannot be trusted to select their own candidates without being watched over by the party machine for fear that we might put forward prospective councillors, and especially MPs who, heaven forbid, might show a disturbing and unwelcome propensity for doing things like ‘thinking for themselves’.

Such concerns might have has some foundations in fact back in 1995/6 but are things still still the same today, but for the odd isolated pockets of what, for want of a better word, one might call the ‘Old Left’ tucked away in a small number of Labour heartland constituencies?

I don’t think it is.

If one looks at the evolution of the Bloggers4Labour network over the last couple of years – and its worth noting that on its own this network is far more extensive that anything the Tories can put up – one has to say that there’s little evidence to gleaned from it to suggest that the grassroots of the party are firmly in the grip of the old-style left wing. Centre-left, certainly, and to some degree to the left of the Blairite wing of the party but by no means to a degree that would advocate or support dragging the party out of the centre-ground towards where a significant part of the labour movement stood during the early 1980s.

Bloggers may not be entirely representative of the grassroots as a whole, but if one looks at the B4L network one finds pretty much all strands of Labour opinion represented amongst its members and, more to the point, one finds finds a clear will to engage seriously in politics and policy to a far more extensive degree that one tends to find in the loose blogging ‘collectives’ associated with other parties.

The shift in emphasis from presentation to policy that’s expects to come with Brown’s ascendancy to the leadership is one that I suspect will suit most Labour bloggers down to the ground – not because we’re all ‘Brownites’ but simply because there is a genuine appetite within the Labour Blogosphere to discuss and debate real politics and the nitty-gritty of policy-making.

Yes, in all probability- well, certainty – the course that the parliamentary party will be charting towards the next general election will already have been set by Brown and his aides/supporters and will start to unfold over the talismanic ‘first hundred days’ as Prime Minister – so, in that sense, the lack of a contest has deprived us of chance to debate policy.

But so what?

Many Labour bloggers have done little else but talk about policy over the last couple of years and what matters in the long run is whether or not any of the debates, discussions and ideas that have been spawned, developed and thoroughly worked over come to work they way into and influence the ongoing development of Labour policy beyond the first raft of Brown-led initiatives.

There may have been little or no scope for party members to try an influence policy at this stage, but that’s not that much of an issue. The transition from Blair to Brown was always going to be a evolutionary rather than revolutionary move with no real prospect of  the party moving significantly to the left – for all the Blairite-wing seem content to hold this up as their favourite bogeyman. What we’ll see from Brown is a continuation of many of the policies that have been developed over the last 10 year – and rather more emphasis on some of the successful economic work that been rather downplayed under Blair. Some of the more idiotic and ill-thought out Blairite ‘initiatives’ – one can barely consider the policies – will fall by the wayside. If nothing else Brown should move quickly to rein in the Home Office and put an end to dumb-ass press release Friday’s by placing a much steadier and more diplomatic hand on the policing and security tiller.

But most importantly of all, irrespective of the detail of policy, what I’m looking for from Brown is something that I think he can deliver that Blair never could due to his lack of real roots in the party, a sense that Labour’s policies in government belong to a distinctively Labour narrative understanding of the world of the kind of progressive society that the party wishes to create and support in future. Blair, whose approach to political theory and philosophy amounted to little more than treating the massed canon of progressive (and sometimes not so progressive) thought as a political pick n’ mix counter to shore up ideas rooted in little else but shiftless tabloid populism, could never deliver such a coherent narrative thread.

Brown, who has real roots in the party and comes from a solid Presbytarian background as influential, in its own way, as Welsh Methodism has been in the development of the Labour movement, should be capable of providing just such a narrative thread and I think it vital that he quickly establishes such a narrative, which will go on to inform and shape future policy development and, to a considerable extent, the kind of input into the policy-making process that might stem from activists.

With that firmly in mind, the absence of a wide-ranging policy debate tied to a Leadership contest is not something I see as a drawback – it may well be beneficial in the long run for the party to have avoided such a debate, which could easily have proved divisive had it taken place without the benefit of understanding the kind of Labour narrative under which that Brown intends to take the party forward.

Getting back to Blears and questions of engagement with the grassroots – and to give her a little credit as well – she does suggest a need to beef up the role National Policy Forum – with the usual unedifying caveats about measuring ‘representation’ in terms of population demographics – which would be a welcome innovation. But again, the emphasis rests firmly on engagement through defined hierarchical structures and in closed and carefully managed environments what to suit, overwhelmingly, the interests of the PLP, rather on direct engagement in the kind of freeform discussions and debates that routinely take place amongst bloggers. Its all very well talking about trying engage the ‘facebook generation’ but to do that effectively politicians have to take a leap of faith and talk to us inhabitants of the electronic frontier on out terms and within our established social mores – which inevitably means facing off with the MSM and fighting back against the established media culture which, for too long, has done little else but prevent politicians engaging in open and constructive debate and promote a dumbed-down political culture obsessed with trivia, personalities and scandal to the exclusion of meaningful public and political discourse.

Blears tops off her position paper with this:

Tomorrow’s Labour Party will be a focussed election-winning machine. But it will also be a sociable, enjoyable, fulfilling place to be for its members. It will reflect the full diversity of our communities. Voluntary activity will be rewarded by personal development as well as communal benefit and social progress. The Labour Party will be a modern party at ease and at home in modern society, and ready for whatever the future may hold.

Enough with the bloody managerialist misson statements already, lets just stick to something along the lines of…

The Labour Party is a progressive, democratic socialist, political party that exists to promote social justice and equality for all.

Simple. To the point. And does what it says on the tin.

4 thoughts on “More thinking aloud…

  1. Unity, Blears has been peddling that kind of political happy-clappy stuff for years see this article by Madeleine Bunting from 2004:

    “It’s easy to laugh at the idea pioneered by Hazel Blears, the Home Office minister, to run Alpha-style courses for Labour party members to restore their idealism. Easy to scorn the idea of set texts, including key speeches by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, being studied by the party faithful ahead of the weekend workshops. Blears claims it has worked wonders for the members who have already attended the first two and she wants the programme rolled out across the country.”

    Either she’s channeling the politics-as-social-network of the 1950s, or she wants New Labout to be a cross between a book group and the Brownies.

  2. I have to admit to being slightly attracted to the idea that we could become a bit more visibly active in our communities outside the realm of trad politics. In part it’s why I like blogging, which allowed readers to see me as a bit more than a suit when I held office.

    Too often we’re seen as being in politics for our own good rather than for others and the traditional activities we undertake aren’t working as well as they once did in either galvanising voters or recruiting members. Time at least to think about whether we might need to change some of the way we work and the way we appear.

    That said I’m not into opening up selections – join if you want a say in who we put up for election – and I find Hazel’s personal style a bit grating so I can’t see myself voting for her.

  3. I should point out, Andrew, that I’ve worked in the community development for the last ten years or so, and so have considerable experience of both the potential and pitfalls of working in local communities.

    It’s not a bad idea, in principle, that we should be more active and visible locally, outside of election periods, but it does require both careful thought and careful planning in terms of execution.

    One of the main subtexts of the interface between politics and the voluntary/community sector, nationally, is that most of the contact tends to take place between politicians and a small and unrepresentative range of large NGOs and charities based in London whose experiences and views are nothing like the reality of what goes on in the field, especially outside London.

    Over the last ten years I’ve seen first hand, raft after raft of hare-brained community initiatives spawned in offices in Whitehall that, at best, have a marginal impact of local communities and, at worst, simply disrupt established community infrastructures and breed resentment.

    Its rather like the whole business of charities and NGOs running public services – it might sound great in an office in London, but the reality is that outside the capital there are maybe half a dozen organisations in each local authority area with the capacity to deliver such services, if that.

    From working in the field for so long, I can do nothing but oppose the suggestion that delivery of public services should be devolved to charities, not on principle, but simply because I know from experience that the vast majority of such organisations are just not fit for purpose when it comes to delivering services to the expected standards, especially in terms of management/governance capacity.

    That’s not saying that there aren’t NGO’s who could do a good job, simply that there aren’t anywhere like as many out as some would have us believe.

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