The Labour Party is an incredible institution – the largest mass membership party in Europe, architect of Britain’s welfare state and much more created since. It contains amazing, hard-working activists who make colossal sacrifices to campaign for a better life for all, particularly the most vulnerable.
But anyone who has been around this party knows that it is very far from perfect. Many of these problems are not new – some have been quietly growing for decades. Our members want better – and so does a country that badly needs us to be the best party we can be.
Here’s where I think the most serious problems lie – and how we can start to fix them.
Democracy and accountability
At its best, our party is an inspiring example of democracy in action. At local level, all positions are elected by the local membership. We have structures to ensure parity of gender, as well as representation of black and minority ethnic, LBGT+, disabled and other members of underrepresented groups.
The National Executive Committee should be the body through which the party membership exerts its will. Far too often, however, successive leaders have viewed positions on it as their own personal fiefdom, fielding “slates” of favoured candidates they hope will do their bidding. I believe a more independent – yet still supportive – NEC is better. They should back our next elected leader, but also hold them to account.
That’s particularly important when it comes to our internal structures – the complaints system, the selection of candidates, the very systems by which we elect NEC officers and others. The truth is, not all of those are working – and we will need to fix them to win in 2024. There are far too many horror stories, including from Parliament and party headquarters where our practices should be best. Instead of trying to silence those who speak out, we must learn from them and improve.
Promises of reform have often come to nothing. The most recent Democracy Review called for more elected positions on the NEC, but none of that has happened. The last election saw alarmingly undemocratic practice when it came to selection of parliamentary candidates. Popular local figures were left off short and long lists, candidates favoured by the powerful prioritised and sometimes just imposed. None of this is unique to the most recent leadership – but the party membership are right in wanting things done better.
These are battles we can win. In Vauxhall last year, my local party fought for the right to choose its own MP. We must do the same across the Labour Party.
Processes and culture
Talk to anyone with experience within the party, and its failure to address sometimes appalling behaviour will come up very quickly. No one who has either made a complaint nor been on the receiving end of one has anything good to say about the process. The backlog of cases is enormous. Some become politicised far too quickly – and at worst, how they get tackled as being down to the relative power of those involved.
We’ve seen that with the anti-Semitism crisis – no one should be in doubt that many of our Jewish members have been made to feel profoundly uncomfortable, sometimes worse. Other forms of racism and harassment have also often gone unaddressed. Online and verbal abuse and bullying are far too common. As someone I deeply trust within the party said: “We really have to start being nicer to each other.” That means a culture that rewards good, honest, civil and supportive behaviour – and systems that tackle those who hurt our comrades.
While some issues have been more apparent in the last two years, our party has a history of sometimes toxic behaviour, particularly bullying, that goes back through New Labour, Militant and beyond. It stymies ideas and stops us getting the best from our people.
As a progressive political party, we should be at the best practice end of the spectrum when it comes to our internal systems, and we are nowhere close. I believe we can fix that, and quickly – so we can move on to the fights we truly need to have.
Refocusing to win
Clearly, there are many lessons we must learn from the 2019 campaign and its result. We have May local elections in many places, and a democratic mountain to climb to win power in four years time. No one should think that will be easy, but we need to get that process started now.
The more radical we want to be, the more voters will want to see how those policies are grounded in realism. The crises we need to address are many, and almost all may be notably worse by 2024. We need solid, concrete proposals to tackle inequality, housing, health, education and climate crises. That requires innovative, deep thinking with the scale and ambition of the Beveridge Report that built the welfare state after 1945. And it needs the political machinery to sell that vision of a thriving, inclusive fair society in which all can play their part.
The Green New Deal of 2024 must meld compassion, credibility and common sense – and concrete strategies on everything from automation to devolution, international tax reform and social care. Right now, our policy structures are not good enough to do that as well as we need – and we must make them work.
I believe that if we put our own house in order first, we can deliver on that vision. But that work must start now – click here to read what my priorities would be as a new NEC member.