Labour's new elected leader Ed Miliband promised a fresh approach last Autumn. Very welcome it was too. Last week his nominee to lead on party reform, Peter Hain started to talk directly to members. I was there. It was meant to be packed. Yet again the Head Office control freaks got it wrong. They don't know how to cope with sentient volunteers. This session was no exception. They arranged a conventional consultation meeting with volunteers, claim over-subscription for a room with 120 plus capacity and then find the no-shows left 27 seats empty as well as the aisles, and with ample room for more at the front, sides and back too.
Hain offered a few well-chosen words by way of introduction bound to raise the temperature among those who devote time to keeping the Labour Party alive on the ground in even the most unlikeliest part of the country, like yours truly in the City of London. Membership of political parties throughout western democracies was in decline, he claimed. I just noted, “Spouting bollocks about membership” in my notes. Party activity was being stifled by insufferable bureaucracy and procedures, he claimed. Really, how does anyone ever get elected without procedures, not to mention the law? Then he suddenly changed tack. Perhaps he saw me scowling at the back. He posed a few questions before inviting contributions: “Do we need to change policy-making? Is the electoral college right? He then announced the a consultation document will be issued towards the end of March, and concluded : “We have to change our Party.” Quite so. I decided to stay quiet until towards the end and focus on one question: Another consultation?
Within minutes, Hain must have realised that who ever had arranged the meeting and prepared the briefing was seriously out of touch with grassroots' opinion, skills and experience. Or at least I hope he did. Whether he feels free to do anything about it, is another matter.
There were some seven important issues for me arising from the contributions:
- a strong sense that our Labour MPs are no longer representative of working (class) people and their causes that the Party claims to champion, and that they should all make their minds up about restanding and in any case face compulsory reselection
membership rose in the period prior to the 1997 election, and is not inevitably in decline, but has to have a purpose beyond being a supporter
the present structures have a purpose
championing local issues to establish a reputation for doing something was vital to encouraging sympathetic community organisations to integrate into party structures
the Labour Party has yet to show any signs of learning from others, particularly the open source community about collaborative working, problem solving and conflict resolution (why wasn't this meeting being facilitated, one participant asked)
denying members a direct say in policy making had taken a heavy toll of member morale, and removed a powerful incentive for members to attend Annual Conference
And my question? My intervention was more of a plea with malice aforethought. Could the consultation be open and transparent? If millions in the open source community can manage it, surely it was time for the Labour Party to learn from those experiences and demonstrate its capability to reform itself?
In summing up, Hain conceded the Party was in much better shape than it could have been after defeat at the General Election last May. He addressed my plea directly: 'I will look into the practicalities”.
There are no technical obstacles to enabling an open and transparent consultation. Hain knows that. I supplied his office with the URL to CommentonThis, a tool developed by a My Society volunteer and offered to the Labour Party by me on behalf of Save the Labour Party, not in 2011, or 2010, but in 2007. That facility enables comments to a document/ or section of it to be posted adjacent to the relevant section and be seen by anyone else wanting to comment on the same document or section. Successive comments or redrafts appear like a separate blog alongside the consultation document. The only obstacles to the use of this on-line tool, or something similar are political.
I see this as a litmus test of Ed Miliband's leadership. Flunk this one, Ed, and we will know that you have surrendered to the control freaks who still dominate the Labour Party.