Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why do people join the Labour Party?

One thing which amuses me is that when it comes to the question of how to boost the number of people in the Labour Party, people instinctively start playing the game 'how to advance my faction within the Labour Party'. So, for lefties, the solution involves the government changing its policy to be more leftie, and letting people like them [me] have a bigger say in policy-making, whereas for moderates, it is about local organisation and leadership [which is only done by real people who actually care about the Labour Party, not like those whingey lefties] and certainly can't be achieved by a change of political direction.

One of the brilliant things about the Labour Party is that each has some evidence to support their claims. Lots of people resigned from the Labour Party because of specific right-wing policies. Others joined up because of effective local campaigning, and live in areas where active membership has never been higher. Some resigned, or stopped being active, because branch meetings were so unutterably tedious, while others stopped being involved when their branch got merged with the neighbouring one. Some left because they felt that they weren't listened to, others never go to GC because they don't like to spend an evening listening to people whinging about the government, and are horrified at the idea that people in GCs should try to interfere with the most successful Labour government ever. And so on.

Such a range of views suggests to me that there might not be one single cause of falling membership, nor one single solution. Tom Watson has some sensible suggestions, here, So here, from my experience of recruiting people, are some suggestions for things which I would find helpful when trying to persuade people to join:

1. There should be a specific effort made to boost membership in solidly Labour areas, and this should be seen as a top priority for Labour representatives and party organisers.

There are some areas where we do badly in elections, but have lots of members. There are other areas where we get lots of votes, have a Labour MP, Labour councillors and so on, and a much smaller membership. 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.)

To get people to join, it is best if someone who they know and respect asks, and if there are specific benefits from joining (which there aren't really at the moment). 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, along with local social events, but it would be for each area to find the best way of persuading people who vote Labour that they should join.

One other benefit of this is that it helps make sure that there is a strong local party well connected in the community when the BNP or Lib Dems or anyone else start challenging in an area.

2. Lots of people resigned because of the Iraq war, so at least one of the candidates for the leadership election should be one of the Labour MPs who voted against the war.

Many people who left specifically over Iraq are not going to be persuaded to rejoin by someone who supported the war. If all the candidates on the ballot paper voted for the war, then they won't rejoin. Some won't rejoin even if an anti-war candidate stands, while others would join and then leave again if they lost, but at least some people will rejoin (or join for the first time) and then get and stayed involved.

3. Lots more people support, donate to and get involved in single-issue groups than in all political parties combined. We need a better response than 'they should realise that it is better to get involved with a political party than just a single issue group'.

In many parts of the country, Labour activists in recent elections have been supplemented by people who have never campaigned for Labour, or even voted for us, but who care passionately about the welfare of animals. When I first started going along to get involved in campaigns, I found that a common feature was that most of the people who I liked and respected most were also in the Labour Party. I suspect that now that we have been in government for a few years, many fewer people are joining us through these routes than did in the past. Investing resources in the single-issue Labour campaigns that already exist, setting more up where they don't exist or are moribund, and boosting their role in policy-making offers a reason for more people who care passionately about particular progressive issues to join Labour and get involved. We already have a version of this system, in which the voluntary sector tells the public that the government is being terrible and mean and nasty and should change on [specific policy area], and then when enough people make a fuss, the government changes its policy, and gets none of the credit for it. For some reason many ministers think that this is a brilliant system, so why not have internal campaigning groups in the Labour Party get the activists, get the public support and the credit when the policy changes?

4. Have the leadership occasionally change its policy when the members don't agree with it.

Imagine if in 1997 Tony Blair had done a deal with the lefties. They would support every single one of his policies, if in exchange he would agree once a year to drop a policy which the lefties opposed and instead do what they wanted. Whatever the policy implications, the result would have been that we now had a much bigger membership because people wouldn't have resigned over stitch-ups in Wales and London, Iraq and so on (we'd also now be building lots more council houses). Anyone who stills thinks that Labour is divided, run by the extreme left and in thrall to the unions has never voted for us and never will. Getting beaten occasionally because the whips aren't able to command a majority is embarrassing, admitting from time to time that you've changed your mind and listened is something which would make us more popular and give people a reason to get involved.

There's lots of other things which would help, but those are a few which I think would be most helpful. 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.


At 7:39 pm , Anonymous HenryG said...

An excellent and considered article DP.


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