Rebuilding Political Parties – Lessons from UK Labour

By Peter Hain

I’ve been a member of the Labour Party for over 30 years.  I have seen some of the best our Party has to offer – a clear vision for a better, fairer world and a commitment to work hard to achieve these goals.  We have been a great force for positive change and development for many years.  I am incredibly proud to be a member of the party that introduced the minimum wage, fought for women’s suffrage and made the National Health Service a world leader.

But despite our efforts and achievements, over the last 10 years we have seen a steadily declining membership.  Notwithstanding the post-election surge where over 10,000 people joined in the week following the election alone, less and less people are joining political parties and less and less people are voting.  From a high of 84% in 1950, we have seen a steady and continual pattern of decline in voter turnout to a new recorded low of 59% in 2001[1].  Party membership has not fared much better, over exactly the same period political party membership has fallen from 4 million members for Labour and the Conservatives combined to under half a million for the three main parties by 2005.  Currently just 1.3% of the electorate are members of any political party[2].  Political parties seem to no longer be mass movements but have become the domain of the passionate minority.  It’s hard not to wonder if there is a link between these two trends and, if so, what we need to do to redress it.  This is not just a failure of the Labour Party but a problem that all parties must address if we want to be relevant in the years to come.

There are things I would change about our Party, things we could improve.  This is not just about policy and what we say, though that is of course an important element, but also about how we are structured and how we relate to our members and supporters.  This has been borne out in the many submissions we have seen so far to the ‘Refounding Labour’ consultation process.  From long-standing members and new, old and young, the constant refrain has been that we need to do more to engage and to reach out to voters, supporters and members.  Too often we are seen as an insular group, suspicious and unwelcoming to newcomers, and one that fails too often to listen to the opinions and ideas of its members.

One of the key lessons to be learnt from the 2010 election is that, in those places where we worked closely with the local community, embedded ourselves as part of the local political and social landscape, Labour candidates bucked the national trend and held their seats.  Birmingham Edgbaston is a great example of this – a local campaign that worked with many people in the community and reached beyond just party members to find volunteers and support paired with a MP who had a well-deserved reputation for hard work.  And there are many other examples that we can learn vital lessons from: Blackburn’s non-political residents meetings, Hammersmith’s long-term campaigning, or the hard work of local council candidates in Southwark to reconnect with the community and start to build a local party.

We need to find new ways to engage with our members and ensure that their voice, opinions and experience are heard.  In the age of social media in particular, it is simply unforgivable to fail at this.  We have so many new and easy ways to talk to people from twitter to online webchats that can enable us to carry on real conversations with our members and are a great addition to the more traditional forms of communication.  This also means being serious about listening to what they have to say.  Our members are the vital backbone of our party – they take our message to the voters during elections, our candidates come from their ranks and they are the foundation on which the rest of the Party rests.  If we fail to value and respect them, they simply will not continue to be members and without them the Labour Party cannot remain a strong force for social justice.

Beyond this we need to look at our membership structure.  The old divide of members and voters is perhaps too restrictive.  If we can find ways to step out this process so there is a clear path from voter to member that involves a few more steps, such as registered supporters or associate members, I believe we can encourage more people to get more involved.  Giving people a chance to see what the Party is about and how it works before they have to decide whether or not to join may help to make membership more attractive and a more natural next step in their political lives.  And while the cost of membership may not be the biggest barrier to entry, asking for money as the first step of engagement is perhaps not the best way to encourage people to get involved.

We should also be open to new ideas about how we work as a Party.  While the constituency party structure, with its attendant meetings and delegates, may have made sense 50 years ago it may not be the best structure now.  Many of the responses we have received have focused on how meetings can be ‘boring’ and too rigid.  While this structure may work in some places it is not necessarily the best model for all.  We must, as a Party, be willing to act as facilitators by helping local parties to find the best structure and models that work for them.  The most visible public face of the Party is local parties and local campaigns so if we fail to empower and encourage them, we are failing to relate to so many voters.

This is an important moment for us.  We have a chance to remake our Party in a way that is fit for the modern age; one that can fight elections but also one that can speak to people and be a place where they speak to each other.  We can be a mechanism and facilitator for our members and the wider public to campaign for social justice and change.  This is a big challenge but it is one we can and must rise to.


[1] Radmila Loncar (2010), ‘General Election Turnouts Since 1945’, The Guardian, 6 May,http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/may/06/general-election-2010-turnout-since-1945

[2] John Marshall (2009), ‘Membership of UK Political Parties’, Library House of Commons, 17 August,http://www.parliament.uk/documents/commons/lib/research/briefings/snsg-05125.pdf.

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