On Saturday, Labour’s new leader must address several urgent problems. Making the party fit for purpose is one he cannot afford to ignore. The party machine as it is now was designed to support Blair in power, to command and control, to ensure that anyone selected for any public office was on-message, that any policy proposal presented for discussion at any but the lowest level was in line with the Leader’s thinking, that no unauthorised campaigning actvity took place. Party members were surplus to requirements except for their money and occasional appearances as extras on a film or photo set. A winning campaign could be managed from the centre, through the media, or so they thought.
Now we all know better. The importance of local campaigning, of door knocking, of direct, person-to-person communication was recognised under Gordon Brown. Late in the day, some effort was made to consult over the manifesto (a process managed by Ed Miliband) to give members some feeling of ownership. They did respond and helped Labour to claw its way back and prevent a Tory majority. But the party machine was unchanged – and no longer was it accountable to its leader. Gordon wasn’t interested – his mind was on other things.
Now the machine answered to anyone identified with the Blair project who insisted something was done. If Peter Mandelson or James Purnell wanted someone on a shortlist in Stalybridge and Hyde or Stoke Central, it delivered. If a council leader wanted critics removed from the council, it delivered. If someone somewhere thought that it was in the interests of Tony Blair’s favourite pollster’s 22-year old daughter, then a party official would obey an instruction to open a ballot box and rip up some ballot papers.
How did the party machine achieve this? How was it made fit for the purpose that Tony Blair had set it?
Whilst Margaret McDonagh was General Secretary, staff who could not be relied upon to do whatever was “necessary” were weeded out, and new staff carefully vetted. Many of those staff are still there, particularly in senior positions at head office and amongst the regional staff. They are the ones who rig and manipulate parliamentary and council shortlists, panels and selections, tell conference delegates to break their mandates, misinterpret or ignore party rules, and offer meetings and photo opportunities with Ministers in exchange for voting “the right way” in elections and other key votes.
Many party loyalists, at local level and on the NEC, are reluctant to criticise party staff. Like Luke Akehurst, they feel that:
Labour Party staff work ridiculously hard, often at evenings and weekends, to secure the re-election of a Labour government. They do this for pay that is frankly derisory, because they love the Party.”
But ignoring what has been allowed to happen cannot go on. The party machine is rotten and corrupt at its core, and out of control. As a senior NEC member (a loyalist not a leftwinger) said to me at TUC in Manchester, the party needs a clear-out from “top to bottom”. Many of these people are indeed hard-working, want the party to win and are “loyal” to at least some of the party leaders. The problem is, like in so many other rotten and corrupt bureaucracies, that they have lost the moral fibre to refuse to engage in the means to the end in which they believe. Few would justify what they do as Luke does:
Labour staff … should not be neutral referees. They should be able to promote the candidates and policies of the elected leadership of the party against their internal critics. Back in Morgan Phillips’ day as General Secretary or Herbert Morrison’s as London Regional Secretary there was none of this nonsense about neutrality, the party staff explicitly had a role in giving the left a kicking.”
The new Leader should ask the NEC to appoint a new General Secretary with a brief to clean up the party, clarify its political and moral purpose and protect the interests of its members. We need a party that is reinvigorated at its roots not silenced and squashed, that recruits new members, that campaigns on the issues that concern local people. Ray Collins, the party’s current General Secretarydid not create the monster but he has allowed it to survive. Bottom-up renewal starts with a top-down clean up.