A Far Fetched Resolution

I’ll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far-fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end up in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council, a Labour council hiring taxis to scuttle round the city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers. I’ll tell you.. You can’t play politics with people’s jobs and with people’s services.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Wanna be in my gang?

Don Paskini has thoughfully discussed some of the simple things that he believes could be done to encourage more people to get involved in the Labour Party.

"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!


For example;

"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.

6 Comments:

  • At 9:05 am, Anonymous Tim said…

    Eeeh, now.

    I know it's not done to mention it, but British combat troops - special forces - were involved in Vietnam. Wilson simply didn't bother to draw this to public attention.

    Also the massive increase in membership in 1994-1997 had a lot to do with a new leader and it looking like we were going to win the election, which are not straightforwardly the same as "slaying Old Labour dragons". Most of them were slain in the 1980s.

    "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"
    In fairness, no one is arguing anything of the sort.

    "The way to stem the flow of members that, in historical terms, is seemingly inevitable for governing parties is not to play gesture politics"
    Building Council houses is not "gesture politics". Not declaring war on countries is not "gesture politics". That something has always been true in the past is not a reason to regard it as nonetheless problematic.

    "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."
    Trying to keep many and varies interest groups happy is what the Party's high command call "sustaining the 1997 coalition" and according to the Prime Minister is a key part of New Labour's electoral and political strategy. There is an argument that all Don is suggesting is that it should be done in a slightly different way, ideally with a lesser tendency to be perceived as arrogant.

    "The reality is that some people simply cannot cope with being in a party of government."
    Of course that's true. Do you honestly believe that that category of people, within the 1997 Labour Party, is exactly the same number of people and the same individuals who have either left or (equally problematic) become less active since 1997?

    "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"
    This is simply not true. The 1979 Thatcher government, until the Falklands, was the most unpopular ever. For much of the 18 years the Tories did have a lead in the opinion polls, but very seldom as impressive as the ones which Labour has usually had since 1997.

    Ho hum.

     
  • At 11:49 am, Blogger Pickles said…

    >Eeeh, now.

    >I know it's not done to mention >it, but British combat troops - >special forces - were involved in >Vietnam. Wilson simply didn't >bother to draw this to public >attention.

    That's hardly the point is it? I was drawing folks' attention to the fact that directly attributing the decline in membership to the Labour PM's support for an unpopular US-led war doesn't stack up since Harold Wilson was seen to have kept the UK out and suffered a far more catastrophic decline in membership for entirely unrelated reasons.

    This implies that at the very least there are doubts about the causal assumptions the Don is making.


    >Also the massive increase in >membership in 1994-1997 had a lot >to do with a new leader and it >looking like we were going to win >the election, which are not >straightforwardly the same >as "slaying Old Labour dragons". >Most of them were slain in the >1980s.

    Again, this is besides the point. I wasn't saying that it was the slaying of dragons which caused the increased membership, just that the increased membership was startling considering Don's thesis that throwing bones to the left is the route to acquiring members - since there was plenty of dragon slaying going on (no rise in income tax? tick! Match Tory spending plans? tick!).

    I was also pointing out that those people who joined en masse between 1994 and 1997 were hardly likely to be the *most* likely to be put off by New Labour triangulation among party members. And yet they were by far the *most* likely to leave. Completely contradicting the Don's theory about the causes of members' disillusion.


    >"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"
    >In fairness, no one is arguing >anything of the sort.

    But for the throw the left a bone theory to work it's just got to be the case - otherwise you'll just please a tiny fraction of "the left" with each gesture, and we're only allowing one a year according to the Don!


    >"The way to stem the flow of >members that, in historical >terms, is seemingly inevitable >for governing parties is not to >play gesture politics"

    >Building Council houses is >not "gesture politics". Not >declaring war on countries is >not "gesture politics". That >something has always been true in >the past is not a reason to >regard it as nonetheless >problematic.

    Indeed - it is problematic that we are losing members. I don't for one minute think that allowing the 4th option for council housing would result in the most minor flicker in membership figures. I really don't think anyone with even the slightest acquiantance with the facts can seriously believe otherwise.

    But more importantly I think that *where the government to try this strategy of giving in on one big issue a year* it would *lose the election* because it would *look ridiculous*.

    More importantly the recipients of the government's benevolence would, quite rightly, move on to the next issue to be disgruntled about because the problems they have with the government are not a shopping list of complaints but a totally contradictory analysis of the problems and challenges facing Britain.

    Issues like council housing and the war are problematic in and of themselves - but so are a great many issues.

    What makes those issues key is that they've come to symbolise a wider critique that some people have of the government. My point is that actually this "critique" of the government is not one critique but myriad different ones that will never all be listened to - the only thing they have in common is that they start "the problem with the government is..." and end with a list of the policy gripes du jour - those policy gripes are not the sum of the problem these people might have - but they are symbolic of them. You can't actually meet them as it'll end up like some political whack-a-mole game where new gripes keep popping symbolising a deeper problem which is the some Labour party members are just unhappy with the fact that the leadership a. isn't them and b. Doesn't share their individual view of the world. No leadership could share the views of such a diverse and ideologically committed group of people as Labour members simultaneously all the time.



    "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."

    >Trying to keep many and varies >interest groups happy is what the >Party's high command >call "sustaining the 1997 >coalition" and according to the >Prime Minister is a key part of >New Labour's electoral and >political strategy. There is an >argument that all Don is >suggesting is that it should be >done in a slightly different way, >ideally with a lesser tendency to >be perceived as arrogant.

    That simply wasn't the Don's point. The Don thought that more arrogance was necessary - he thought that the country should be arrogantly used by the party as a plaything by picking one big policy decision a year that affected the country and letting a hard core of disaffected Labour activists make it, and he thought that disgruntled Labour activists should be treated like children and told they could only influence one policy a year.

    >"The reality is that some people >simply cannot cope with being in >a party of government."
    >Of course that's true. Do you >honestly believe that that >category of people, within the >1997 Labour Party, is exactly the >same number of people and the >same individuals who have either >left or (equally problematic) >become less active since 1997?

    Not far off. But in so far as there are those who left because the party has ceased to represent them rather than that a governing party is not a place they can ever be happy then I think this is as true on the right of the party as on the left since 1997, I think it is also inevitable since there are always going to be policy dilemmas that simply don't allow the leadership to please all the people all of the time.


    >"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"

    >This is simply not true. The 1979 >Thatcher government, until the >Falklands, was the most unpopular >ever. For much of the 18 years >the Tories did have a lead in the >opinion polls, but very seldom as >impressive as the ones which >Labour has usually had since 1997.


    Tim, Labour is currently in the low 30s in the opinion polls and got 36% of the vote at the last election. It may be due to the rise of 2.5 party politics but Labour's sheer number of potential members is smaller than the Tories throughout most the 1980s and early 1990s as both their popular vote at the general election and opinion poll popular support was, in absolute terms higher. This means nothing electorally - but it is relevant when comparing party membership trends. I.e. They should not have had a decline like we have had - but they did, and some.


    None of your objections actually meet the central disagreement I had with Dan, and they aren't really factually all that strong either.

     
  • At 2:18 pm, Blogger donpaskini said…

    I'll reply properly on my blog later, but just a quick question.

    You say "those people who joined en masse between 1994 and 1997 were hardly likely to be the *most* likely to be put off by New Labour triangulation among party members. And yet they were by far the *most* likely to leave."

    Luke A says that the biggest fall in membership was around the time of Iraq - do you think the post-1994 joiners were disproportionately likely to leave over Iraq, and if so, why?

    Take care

    Dan xxx

    p.s. Your link to my post doesn't work. This was annoying as I was trying to remember what it was that I had written. The thing about giving in once a year to the left was a flippant way of making a point about publicing dropping or changing some controversial policies which the membership don't like - I don't actually think we should have a new clause 4a or something in which members get to pick one policy each year to veto.

     
  • At 3:01 pm, Blogger Pickles said…

    "The biggest fall" is massively ambiguous.

    It is perfectly legitimate to state that on the one hand the membership fell rapidly in the period around the time of the war in Iraq whilst at the same time stating the the vast majority of the fall in membership since 1997 happened before it.

    There may well have been a steady decline over 6 years followed by a surge at around spring 2003.

    This could easily be followed by a further steady decline.

    Indeed this would be the pattern I would expect to see if there were a graph presented at this stage.


    For the Iraq war to have been a cause of anything more than a subsection of membership decline then the "surge" would have had to be massive. It just wasn't.

    You could attribute the steady decline since to people having lost faith as a result and therefore being more likely to drift away etc. But that wouldn't explain the significant (more significant) decline pre-war.

    Interestingly it's worth noting that, from what evidence I've seen throughout the entire period 2000-2006 the numbers of people joining the party were fairly steady too.

    (Can't fix the link til this evening - but will do. Cheers for pointing it out)

     
  • At 4:45 pm, Blogger donpaskini said…

    I used a number of facts from the discussion about membership on Luke's blog:

    *Luke says Hackney CLPs lost c. 1,000 members between 2000-2005, going from about 2,400 to 1,100 members between the high point in 1997 and now. These were mostly not active members and some of whom didn't even vote Labour in the locals but Green.

    *Nick says we lost 33,000 net members in 2003, but the sharpest drop in membership was after the stitch-ups of Ken and Rhodri. [whereas Luke says the biggest fall is around the time of Iraq], and also that the number rejoining has increased in the past couple of years following greater priority put on this by the centre.

    Is there any other data which either supports or contradicts those above?

    Dan xxx

     
  • At 5:19 pm, Blogger Pickles said…

    I think you should take public membership figures with a massive grain of salt.*

    I also think that these facts don't really tell us much: for example -

    33,000 isn't massive for a start - since most public estimates put the drop at about 200,000 members it's about a 6th of total lost members in a year, in 9 years of fall. If you assume a uniform 1/9th (about 22,000) a year split of the fall then you're basically talking about an extra 11,000 lost in the year of the Iraq war compared to other years. The war took place relatively early in the year, and we don't have a month by month breakdown - nor do we know whether those members who left over the war left immediately, simply let their membership run out and so so.

    But bear in mind 2003 was also bang in mid term, plausibly a year when membership decreases most. (membership rises sharply during general elections as a rule) and that other things happened that year - the top up fees white paper was published, foundation hospitals appeared on the radar, Gordon and Tony started squabbling more openly and so on. There's all kinds of reasons that people may have left in greater numbers that year - and the 11,000 figure just doesn't leave much room for all of them to have had a massive effect.

    It is certainly the case that in terms of people actively resigning their membership rather than letting their subscriptions run out it has, to my knowledge, never exceeded the number of people joining in a single month or year.

    This will form the basis of my case that membership *retention* rather than recruitment is the real challenge - and that membership retention is partly about policy debate and involvement, granted, but that actually this isn't as simple as your analysis suggests - i.e. just giving in to organised campaigns within the party which exlude the vast bulk of members as much as the Party's own structures do.

    *There can be very big variations as to which year you announce that someone has left the party. For example the party has long had a rule of thumb that you remain a member for 6 months after your subscription has run out - for the purposes of having "continuous" membership to vote in selections and so, to avoid people forgetting to pay their subscriptions and then not being able to vote or stand for a whole year or whatever afterwards.

    With the rise of direct debit membership this caused, I believe, in the years we're talking about all kinds of fluctuations in the declared figure that has to go to the NEC which had very little to do with real membership trends. For example, when people had to hand in a cheque every January to join, then it was reasonable to just knock them all off the list in June if they hadn't paid up, but continue counting them as members until then - but I'm not sure this is done any more.

    I know that this sounds like a bit of a convenient get out, but there does seem genuinely to have been a level of confusion about how comparable membership figures are over this period.

    An additional thing to look out for: the figure for each year is given to the NEC, but the date at which it is given to the NEC is not the date from which the membership is calculated. So matching up the dates to political events is always difficult.

     

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