A call for the Labour Party's new Leader to get a grip from former Tribune editor, NEC member and co-founder of the LabOUR Commission Mark Seddon on Left Futures earlier today prompted me to make a suggestion.
One way of bringing Alan Johnson down to earth (and virtually every other Labour MP) is to look closely at the state of his constituency labour party (CLP).
Be patient, grubbing around in the grassroots throws up all sorts of dirt or nutrients depending upon whether you love gardening or not.
As currently constituted there is a disconnect between many of the smallest units of electoral representation - a local government ward, and the current Labour Party structure. This is the result of a number of factors over the last 20 years. The establishment of a national membership system - cutting out local branch collection of subscriptions and the human interaction that accompanied it. In the financial arrangements that accompanied that development in the early 1990s a share of membership subscriptions was returned to parliamentary constituency parties. Neither of the CLPs of which I have experience automatically transfers any of that money back to its branches. The branches themselves may comprise more than one electoral ward.
One of the reasons my relations with fellow Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance colleague on the NEC (2008-10) Ann Black deteriorated was a profound disagreement about the electoral ward as the appropriate basic unit for Labour Party organisation. I strongly believe in this idea(l). She considered it completely impractical.
The subject deserves more time and research, then debate, than can be achieved through this blog post. But a submission to whatever commission is set up by our new Leader to consider such matters is in the works.
In the meantime here is a starting point for anyone interested in exploring the state of the party on the ground. The results of the 2010 Labour Leadership election are available here. That table shows ballot papers distributed and is therefore an accurate proxy for paid up membership in each CLP as at the cut-off date of 8 September 2010.
To take a particular case as suggested in my comment on Mark Seddon's post, Alan Johnson is MP for Kingston Upon Hull West and Hessle. His CLP as off the cut-off date had 159 full paid up members residing in the following electoral wards Boothferry, Derringham, Hessle, Myton, Newington, Pickering, and St Andrew’s. That compares with 246 in Hull North and 221 in Hull East.
This numbers it should be remembered are after the national party increased its membership by some 20% to just over 170,000. The electorate of Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle at the 2010 election was some 68.900. By way of comparison my own CLP has three times as many members per eligible voters, neighbouring Islington South 4.5 times more, Bethnal Green and Bow seven times more and so on.
The City Council is under Lib-Dem control, though for how much longer. Here we go the nub of the future party, Labour is already doing well in local council by-elections. it should make major gains in May 2011 without any significant party restructuring. The issue/challenge remains how does the Labour Party rebuild the electoral coalition with voters that delivered majorities in the House of Commons and hold their confidence? My view and that of fellow travellers in ginger goups like Save the Labour Party, now joined by the post-Obama converts, Labour Values and M4C is, that among other things, we have to have the capacity to reach out locally.
This requires more than just building a mass membership and reaching out. It involves ensuring members have a proper voice that is listened to and representative of our communities. Members rights to be sleepers (ie pay their subs and do nothing) have to be respected. We need to share information about how members are served, what proportions are willing to campaign and in what way.
This is not a substitute for targetted election campaigning. But there is a need for consideration being given to how elected respresntative in local government can stand on their record and not on the receiving end of the electorate's frustration with central government. That can only hope to be achieved by having a vibrant party on the ground willing and able to fundraise and fight for every vote in every election however lowly.
IMO that would be easier to achieve with a Leader willing to actively promote rebuilding electoral ward by electoral ward right the way across the United Kingdom.