Sunday 16 May 2010

Harriet and NEC should #askthemembers about the leadership contest we need

The Labour NEC meeting on Tuesday, one week after Labour left office, expects to set out the timetable for a leadership contest.

Ann Black blogs on LabourList there are "two main options" for a contest that ends in July, and one that ends in September. Peter Kenyon earlier suggested three options would be considered. (I am not aware of any public information on what the NEC options are). My own view is that there is a very strong case to hold the contest through the Autumn to give us the healthiest debate and most opportunities to reach out and engage.

Everybody knows this contest will be one of the most important parts of Labour's renewal for several years. What will matter is not only who wins, but how the contest is held. How is Labour planning to maximise the opportunity to engage more people into our party's debates, and share ownership of that mission throughout the party? Or will a good deal of that great opportunity be missed?

So to Tuesday's NEC: What would be more valuable than setting the timetable and process would be a short pause to ask the members, canvassing widely and openly for members' views on what approach, ideas and timetable would enable us all to engage as many people as possible with Labour's debate and future. Even a fortnight, in the right spirit, could make a difference, though four weeks would be better for CLPs to fully engage and respond.

It was immediately clear at Saturday's Fabian conference that the party is fizzing at every level with ideas about how we could do that. I also expect that we will hear much more about how important and valued Labour's footsoldiers were in the campaign. Everybody will talk about how we open up, democratise our party culture, and show members, activists and supporters that their views are really valued.

Here's the first big chance to show that means something. After all, tens of thousands of us have received emails as Gordon Brown, Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, other ministers, party officials and supportive celebs keep in touch to encourage activism, ask for funds, and let us hear what the leadership thinks.

Should that communication always be a one-way process? Or does the party leadership, governing body and HQ want to ask us all about something that really matters to our party's future?

Harriet Harman has only been acting leader for a few days. So it is understandable that there does not seem to have been any structured attempt at all to find out what party members think about how we maximise the opportunities of this contest, or to gather, facilitate and encourage a swarm of new ideas about how the party can use it to reach out and engage.

I am sceptical that all of the innovation and expertise on this front can be found around the NEC table. (The party has recently become a little more open to this kind of engagement, with its opennes to examples of ideas "from below" like labourdoorstep and MobMonday, and screening Against All Odds party political broadcast. But the scale of cultural shift needed remains very large. The party and NEC need to show it can happen on major, politically salient issues - like how we run the leadership contest, and how we rethink the party's internal democratic structures again).

That the party is fizzing with ideas about the opportunity the contest brings to engage many more people was a recurring theme of Saturday's conference. My Fabian predecessor Michael Jacobs, liberated from six years in 10 Downing Street and the Treasury, made an important challenge to affiliated bodies including the Fabians and others in the party to take responsibility for ensuring that we did not just have a "top down" leadership debate - where candidates talk from on high to members - but made a concerted effort for members to shape debates too, and to ensure we engage progressive audiences beyond the party. There were many comments in a similar spirit throughout the day - how to encourage more democratic and a more open party culture.

That is certainly something we shall try to take up, whatever the timetable we end up with, and on which I welcome further views.

Let's hope the party is thinking hard about this too.

If it is, then before the NEC sets the process and timetable, it should #askthemembers about how the leadership contest can help to spark the change we need.


PS: Despite very little chance to discuss it yet, "slow down and get it right" was the dominant view at Saturday's Fabian conference and in online discussion: anybody fearing a 'civil war' might be impressed by an idea which unites Compass and Denis MacShane, Tom Watson, Chuka Ummuna, Jim Knight, me from the Fabians, Left Foot Forward, Alex Smith of LabourList Tristram Hunt MP and A very public sociologist among others.

I can't claim this snapshot is necessarily representative of party opinion as there has been little chance for discussion. Almost nobody has publicly advocated a snap July contest since the Coalition was formed.

Some counter-arguments have been put by NEC member Peter Kenyon strongly favours the NEC September proposal, who has also stressed the administrative timing and costs of other planned membership mailouts and ballots, going as far as to argue against using conference for what he strangely calls "a wannabee strutting gig" which would be "apeing the Tories" (ie, making public debate about the party leadership accessible to the widest range of party and public audiences!). He tweets "I say stick to the rules". For our first leadership contest in 15 years, party members are looking to the elected governing body to set fair rules for a contest timetable which does all it can for the party's recovery and renewal.

Clifford Singer, who created the great MyDavidCameron site, also talked about the opportunities to recruit members and engage others too. He is among the ex-Labour members thinking of rejoining the party, telling Saturday's conference that "I left so long ago I can't remember what it was about now".

"Any Labour supporter with a brain knows that the last thing we need is a rushed leadership election - which probably means that what we will get is a rushed leadership election", he said.


Anonymous said...

October looks good to me, giving lots of time for debate, and we have practiced parliamentarians in place, whom Harriett can augment/modify as required.

We can oppose very effectively now, and develop our future as the leadership contest continues.

It may well be sen as a sign of maturity, and also deflect the public from any positive policy the Cons/Nat-Libs may wish to present.

Harriett will be well suited to pointing out the CUTS, which will more adversely affect women I suspect.

Anonymous said...
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Alex C-D said...

Whenever it is, a TV debate between the candidates is a must.

Zio Bastone said...

I’m intrigued that screening political advertising indicates more openness to ‘below’. It’s true that at least two such PPBs used images of struggle, activism and achievement to engage the ‘traditional’ vote: ‘Never liked New Biological Labour? Then why not vote New Original Non Biological Labour? As good as it always was.’ But when these clips were placed on You Tube (they are, I think, still there) adverse comments were blocked. So much for any real engagement with ‘below’.

And I see from today’s Observer that David Miliband has also gone for the parody vote: ‘New Labour,’ he declares, ‘isn’t new any more. What I’m interested in is Next Labour,’ which he defines as ‘Labour listening’, by which he means Listening Labour, presumably along the lines of the fatuous Big Conversation.

As to swarms, Toni Negri has had quite a bit to say on how these seem to work, not all of it in Italian or French.

Sunder Katwala said...


It was quite a small point. It was referencing not the content but specifically that after the video was screened at conference, there was a campaign from activists, using twitter, to have it screened as the party's next televised party political broadcast. The party then did that.

That seems a similar type of responsivenees to engaging with and being seen to value eg the labourdoorstep activity on the official site. Hence "a little more open" and "major, politically salient issues".

Zio Bastone said...

Sunder, that’s faux na├»ve. Your point was about ‘below’ and there’s a clear difference between ‘My door is always open,’ as those soft skill managers who provided one of the cues for sofa government used to say, and the sort of structure which instantiates open debate. Acting on activists’ positive response to an exercise in visual nostalgia (the sepia clunking fist of past activism segues into Sure Start, or do I mean Start Rite?) isn’t about either ‘below’ or openness; it’s about capture and re-production and about treating those who responded as a sort of focus group. There’s also a clear distinction, to rebut your other comment, between how mobile phones were used at the time of Tiananmen Square or the use of Twitter as part of the Green Revolution and treating the Obama campaign as an aspect of MLM.

One further point, also related to listening: I note that you haven’t (yet?) either substantiated or withdrawn your accusation against Liberal Democrat negotiators that they lied in saying that New Labour were intransigent on three key points.

Sunder Katwala said...

I was trying to make that distinction myself. Being "a little" more open in that way is a small step in the right direction, but the scale of the cultural change to do that substantively

There are conflicting accounts of the negotiations. To some extent, there will continue to be so. I am confident from my information that "insisted on keeping ID cards" is nonsense - but if I eg source that to Adonis who is in the room, you can point to an LD MP who says he has heard differently. There are few impartial witnesses. So you may have to wait for less partial histories. But you will not see that point reflected in independent attempts to report from all sides; nor do I think it is something LD negotiators will continue to claim now they have dealt with the party management issue. The broader "Was Labour in a condition to deliver" point can do much of the same work.

It was very obvious to Labour where major LibDem red lines were. Everyone knew ID cards was symbolically and substantively crucial: I made the point in looking at coalition deals in the New Statesman 18 months ago.

Brown's resignation was one supposedly rather more difficult point, which was immediately offered, and then publicly made by agreement/request. Other issues of support for fuller PR than AV, or legislating for AV before a referendum so it would be the system if the government collapsed before the referendum were much more difficult.

Zio Bastone said...

Where we differ is that I think the difference between true and false openness is primarily qualitative, whereas for you it’s primarily quantitative: one more heave.

When we consider the aborted LibDem/NL negotiations we have a similar difference.

We both recognise, I think, that this is a Megarian situation in which the Cretans and their interpreters speak the same language. But then you simply wave all that away, to say, in effect, ‘I do still know I’m right,’ before, as so often, preferring to place your focus on issues of ‘party management’. And that, frankly, is the standard New Labour frame: of its own discourse as well as of that of others.

I, by contrast, am much more interested in how the LibDem/Conservative coalition may (just possibly) instantiate precisely the sort of structural openness I was talking about, in which debilitating ‘party management’ doesn’t have full purchase, in which choice and dissent (from within the coalition, from within the two parliamentary parties and from amongst their grass roots members, New Labour having come up, in the meantime, with seven more ‘fizzing’ and deeply thought suggestions for what it should call itself) start to operate in potentially useful ways that aren’t foreseeable or controllable by either Cameron or Clegg or by any other leadership combination: the next five years as a sort of balloon debate in which you can’t throw anyone out but actually have to talk to one another, albeit through gritted teeth.

That’s not even envisaged by New Labour as far as I can tell. I note with dismay Ed Balls’ focus group reading of ‘immigration’, with no attempt to parse what such an ethnically labelled concern may actually articulate, the idiot use of ‘insurgency’ by various top-down New Labour spokespeople and the toytown avant garde of Next Left Question Time questions such as, ‘Should we encourage disaffected LibDems to defect or to cause dissent in their own ranks?’

All of these miss the point rather impressively. Or so it seems to me.

Sunder Katwala said...

On Labour, I also think it is qualitative, not quantitative. I was simply seeking to very lightly praise very small steps in passing, while noting they were not substantive. So I don't think its one more heave: I think its broken as a party structure and culture. We might well differ as to what should count as substantive but gradual progress, beyond those small sofa tokens.

On the Coalition: it might well have some of the possibilities you note. It might also (for backbenchers, activists, members) be rather more remote. What you describe will I am sure have to happen for real in Cabinet Committee and Cameron-Clegg bilaterals. The participants will be pressured from below and outside, but it may seem rather distant except on some defining cause (tuition fees, the sovereignty bill, military action on Iran). Phillip Cowley expects less Parliamentary dissent, which seems very plausible, though you might counter that the dissent that there is might be more effective.

I wasn't trying to airily dismiss your view. My reading of the Lab-Lib blame game is that Clegg preferred a Tory deal when he saw the result (because of the result: I think his Orange Bookness makes him agnostic about the Tories not pro-them) while his MPs no doubt had a mix of views; and that both sides knew (before they began as well as from noises off) that Labour would have struggled to deliver a stronger deal than it sought to make. It would be absurd to offer and carry out the resignation of the party leader while clinging at the very last to ID cards, which half the Labour Cabinet wanted to ditch and missed their chance.

Zio Bastone said...

One further shot at the dartboard then I’ll stop.

No joy in smiling tyrants. Sofa tokens are like affective language; not inadequate steps along the way but actually substitutions and diversions: ‘Thank you all for filling in your questionnaires. And now, for your increased safety and comfort, we are abolishing your free bus pass,’ and so forth.

And isn’t the remoteness to which you rightly refer really the obverse of all that? One’s growing sense that the leader’s smile is fake: de jure coalition with a de facto sense that these-are-not-my-people, by backbenchers, activists, members and supporters of both parties. Precisely because the current structure is inconsistent and (by necessity) open to change, alienation can produce not just the sort of dissent which is either ignored or swiftly absorbed from above so that things may stay the same but real and determining paradigm shifts from below, irrespective of specific votes and/or causes.

Nor do I think (pace Ian & Nina Graham) that useful structural instabilities of the sort I’ve tried to identify, that the chances for real debate are much diminished by the fact that Clegg and Cameron are both the products of Very Posh Public Schools. Effect and intention do not always coincide. The reverse may well be the case.