Thursday, 21 May 2015

This party has to change

“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.”
- Albert Einstein

The Parliamentary Labour Party’s second-lowest postwar ebb (its 1983-1987 nadir was the only time it has been smaller) is not a time for us to adopt a “steady as she goes” philosophy. We’ve been there, after 2010.

The same economics, literally, because the team behind it was the same. The same poor – or absent – decision-making. The same sense of drift (usually leftwards, because that is the party’s comfort zone).

In many ways, Milibandism was simply Continuity Brownism and we should therefore scarcely be surprised that it achieved a similar result. Worse still, we may not have even reached the bottom yet: the political direction of travel is clearly still downwards and will continue to be, until/unless a big change can be made to happen.

But while we listen to a hundred reasons why Labour lost, most of them perfectly correct, we miss something underlying. Yes, we had the wrong leader. Yes, our scoring on the economy was mostly awful. Yes, our policy offering was a rag-bag of quite-good and not-so-good tactical ideas, which lacked a mission, a coherent and credible overall theme. Yes, Scotland. Yes, UKIP. Yes, yes, yes.


How did we get here? How did we get to doing all those things wrong?

We have to go deeper.

The fundamental building block of parliamentary democracy is the political party. You cannot secure power without one. It is the motor which drives the train. And it is the health of this organic, living, breathing thing which ultimately determines the outcome of the politics.

Political parties could learn a lot from companies. No, not because we are all right-wing free-marketeers now (although that association might be a convenient excuse for some of us to dismiss the comparison out of hand).

No, it is in one particular sense: companies are agents of economic Darwinism, just as parties practise political Darwinism, like it or not. They have to survive in a competitive marketplace. Beliefs and values are vital, essential, but they are not enough.

In politics, too, there is a brutal survival of the fittest, which we in Labour sometimes prefer not to notice. As the Liberals found out to their cost in the early part of the 20th century, no party can afford to be complacent about its political success.

A good leader is important, but so are all the people in an organisation. They inform its thinking and its ideas. And so, an unhealthy party will make unhealthy decisions, no decisions or decisions by default. It will select the wrong leaders. It will repel outside influences and turn in on itself.

Some such parties will recover, under the right leadership: others will eventually succumb to those inexorable Darwinian forces and self-combust.

The unpalatable truth is that that is exactly the kind of party that Labour has become: an unhealthy one. We want to change the country but, in order to do so, we first need to relearn how to change ourselves. Physician, heal thyself.

The Labour Party needs to take a look at itself as a party, a local organisation across the country; not as many MPs see it, as a monolithic vehicle for developing policies or securing office. It needs to look, not just at why it lost in Scotland so badly, but – perhaps more deeply worrying – why UKIP came second to it in so many northern mill towns.

Yes, we can talk vacuously about “engaging” with “communities”. But we had better think harder about the nuts and bolts of what makes us tick as an organisation.

Our party needs to look at its processes, its meetings, its candidate selections; down to its very ethos. Why do we so often give the impression that we feel morally superior to other people? Why do we accept conventional wisdoms on policy rather than think for ourselves? Why do we not see that an unthinking identity politics is slowly corroding our beloved party and our ability to think outside our boxes?

Why do we often happily shoot the messenger, rather than listen to an unwelcome message? And, in particular, why do we believe that Tories are evil, rather than merely wrong?

What is our strategy for changing all that?

Indeed, it is quite possible that the Tories themselves may beat us to the punch at party reform. Robert Halfon, a thoughtful MP to the left of his party, recognises its flaws and is determined to rebuild it, as ConservativeHome notes. He could well succeed.

We, on the other hand, talked a good game in 2010 and then embarked on the limpest of limp reforms, “Refounding Labour”, which barely scratched the surface of the party’s need for reform. It was only when the debacle of the Falkirk selection brought chickens home to roost that Miliband realised his house was on fire.

Trouble was, by the time he had reformed its funding and union links in March 2014 – a genuinely brave and radical move, in truth perhaps the only lasting one of his entire leadership – a general election was looming and there was no time to do more.

There is now. A proper, bottom up reform of the party is what we now have five years to achieve. On the basis of that change, we can make ourselves once again ready for government.

The immediate challenge, yes, will first be to find a leader who sees the magnitude of the task in hand.

But we will not solve our underlying problems, cannot solve our problems, until we first change our way of thinking.

This post first published at Labour Uncut

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