Wanna be in my gang?
"Basically, it is about coming up with simple answers when someone asks 'so, why should I join the Labour Party?' Being able to answer 'So you can vote for a leader who is anti-war', 'because it will help our campaign for animal welfare [or the equivalent]', 'because they listen more to members' or 'because they are the only ones who are trying to improve our local area, and you can help make a difference' would be an improvement on where we are now."
I think there's merit in some of this. I also think it's interesting that some of his suggestions are vaguely reminiscent of the thinking behind elements of the current Labour Party's Let's Talk, Big Conversation, Policy Forum and Supporters Network initiatives which represent the highlights of the various attempts to revive Labour's membership structures. He'd hate me for saying that though!
"When I was a councillor, I always found residents' associations much better than branch meeting to report back, answer questions and find out what Labour supporters' priorities were (I never did very well at getting people to join the party, even those who were happy to deliver leaflets, knock on doors etc.) "
"I'd have thought a lower membership fee, and particular kinds of support for people already involved in groups such as school governors and community or residents' groups would be part of this,"
But I must disagree with his analysis that it is a rightwing position to say that better local leadership and organisation would make the difference, whilst it's a leftwing position to say a change in political leadership on a national level would make a difference. From which he goes on to say that a toned down version of the latter would in some way make a difference.
Whilst I can endorse some of the other suggestions he puts, the central argument of his post, essentially that throwing a few bones to the oppositionalists within the party would make all the difference is simply not going to work. That position makes a number of assumptions which the facts just simply don't back up.
For a start, the rate of departure of members from the Labour Party is far far higher amongst those people who joined between 1994 and 1997 when Labour membership rocketed as old Labour dragons were slain. The big picture also looks at Labour membership in the wider historical context and the wider European context. Membership is not startlingly lower than it was when John Smith was leader, let alone Michael Foot. Indeed the decline under Harold Wilson between 1964 and 1979 was, in comparison, truly frightening.
Secondly I just don't accept that if the government "gave way" on just one issue a year it would get a massive increase in support from disgruntled former members. I know that there are people who have left because of issues that have upset them. I respect some of their positions. Some I simply don't respect. But as I've already pointed out, the fall in Party membership under Wilson (who, for example, didn't send British troops into Vietnam, or effectively challenge any old Labour sacred cows - not that I'm saying in and of itself that should be an aim of a Labour Prime Minister.) was frightening. And, under Wilson, the Labour Party conference and membership had a considerably stronger grip on the manifesto than it does now.
The reality is that some people simply cannot cope with being in a party of government. That might be for very good reasons. They may well be completely wedded to an ideology that no succesful government could demonstrate any commitment to. They may be psychologically more comfortable criticising the particular with reference to the universal, or acting as the voice of the voiceless or unjustly treated. That's all fair enough. But no governing party can cater to their whims. It's simply not possible.
It is a fool's errand to spend your time throwing bones willy nilly to try to keep all of these many and varied interest groups happy. Don Paskini's analysis presumes that there is a corps of "real/old Labour policies" that can be taken off the shelf to assuage the gripes of a united, disaffected, body and ideologically homogeneous ex, or soon to be ex, members. Insofar as there has ever been such a dogmatic brethren it has been a pernicious and destructive influence that no sane party leadership could ever wish to pander to.
But the reality is that, most of the time, it has been a myth. Nobody with any familiarity with any of them would argue that Michael Foot, Linda Bellos, Derek Hatton and Tony Benn ever had much in common. And they were all high profile figures on that "traditional left" of Labour between the mid 1970s and mid 1980s who are supposedly so disenfranchised and disillusioned.
Leaving aside the fact that, in most people's view, a policy that disillusions that quartet is quite likely to have something going for it I think it would be very difficult to have any kind of electorally and politically succesful, genuinely Labour, genuinely effective on behalf of the poorest in society policy that would keep those, and their followers, happy.
I just don't think it is a plausible answer
The way to stem the flow of members that, in historical terms, is seemingly inevitable for governing parties is not to play gesture politics. And, frankly, this is a problem for the whole of British politics and not just for the Labour Party. The Conservatives spent 18 years in government and, for 13 of those years they had far more popular support from the country (from the evidence of general elections) than, it pains me to say than the current government, and yet their membership suffered an even more catastrophic collapse (again, before Black Wednesday).
So what are the things that can be done to maintain party membership for governing parties?
Well, that's another story, but this post is long enough as it is. having said why I disagree with the Don's analysis I'll return with my own positive suggestions later. But suffice to say I don't think those who have left the Labour Party in recent years would be satisfied with a few scraps from the New Labour table. I don't think chasing after them with a few forlorn gestures that likely as not will alienate a whole other set of members is going to turn the clock back.