Parliamentary business was dominated this week by debate over whether or not Britain should hold a referendum to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Despite the claims of the Iwantareferendum campaign that 88% of the electorate do, the majority of MPs voted against the idea. Inevitably it was the first issue aired on BBC's weekly barometer of local opinion, Question Time - on balance there were as many voices in the audience arguing in favour as against. There was real evidence of an understanding of what representative democracy is all about. We elect our MPs to decide for us. Our choices at the ballot box reflect our values. As Ed Miliband MP who was on the panel for Labour said there is nothing in the Lisbon Treaty that changes fundamentally the relationship between Britain and the European Union.
I wondered how many of those in the 'audience' were members of a political party and, especially, the Labour Party. It's conceivable given the way the QT audience is invited that some were. Without wanting to labour the point (no pun intended), it is an example of the importance of vibrant local Labour Parties. Local people with a deeper understanding of our democratic system and its mainstays, namely our political parties, should be seen by the Leadership as valuable assets.
There are too many in our society who believe that members are a dying breed. Well, not if Save the Labour Party, a ginger group inside the Labour Party, which I chair, can help it. But this does raise the question of the relationship between MPs and local parties. There's been a lively debate over on the authentic Luke Akehurst blog about Christine Shawcroft's shortlisting in the Nottingham South PPC selection. This has raised questions about the state of the local Labour Party, and whether or not the outgoing MP (Alan Simpson) as failed in his responsibilities to maintain it as a vibrant force. Disparaging allusions have been made by Luke about his sitting MP in Hackney North (Diane Abbott). She used to be mine too.
But for the last three years my wife and I have been living in a Tory-held constituency. We don't have the luxury of a Labour MP to represent our interests, or even a Labour-councillor - members of the Corporation of London claim to be non-party political. But we see this as a political opportunity. What we know is that we have just got to get on with developing a distinctive Labour political narrative for the City ourselves.
In the forthcoming London Mayoral and Greater London Assembly elections we need to get out every Labour voter we can. This is a further reason to conclude that the Labour Party needs to rebuild from branch level upwards. Let's suppose we succeed, and the Party recruits lots more paid-up members. People who join political parties are not passive. They want a say. More members could impose increasing demands on Labour's elected representatives at all level. The greater the local understanding about representative democracy, the more honed the double-edged sword facing our elected Labour representatives.
Cutting to the quick, could it be that Labour's future as an ethical, solvent, democratically-run membership party is going to require our elected representatives to raise their game. Will they have to learn how to be accountable to local communities, through the local Labour Party? Local parties will have to learn how to recruit and retain members. Does that mean that MPs must be out canvassing all the time? Or does it mean that local councillors and local members (if any) should take the lead? Or does a more considered compact need to be entered into? It would be helpful to be able to start a dialogue about where responsibilities begin and end.
Given the working hours of elected representatives as well as party members, there has to be a sensible division of labour. But there should not be any doubt that if the Labour Party is to win a 4th term and regain seats in local, regional and the devolved nations Labour needs to rebuild its branches. Nor should there be any doubt that the main responsibility for that renewal will be ours - the grassroots. I wonder how we can get this on the PLP agenda.