Rebuilding Our Party From The Ground Up

Written by LDF

Topics: News

by Ed Balls MP / Original article appeared on

We must seize the chance of this leadership election to renew the Labour Party from the ground up and re-engage with the communities we are elected to serve. Political aims, vision and policies aren’t enough unless Labour can also be a community-based political party rooted in the communities we represent.

There are three tests of how well our politics are rooted: are we ensuring our representatives better reflect the people we serve? Are we building membership in those communities? Is our policy making coming up from the ground through Conference to the leadership?

All of us who have been at the top of the party now need to accept that we currently don’t pass any of these tests, and our next leader must set out how to do so.

Party members are the heart and soul of the labour movement and we need to reverse the over-centralisation of our party structures and decision-making to give greater involvement and responsibility to our membership and affiliated organisations. Bur reforming and rebuilding our party will not happen overnight. It will take time and require real dedication and commitment from the new leader.

All women shortlists have allowed us to break through a culture that didn’t support the selection of enough women. That culture still exists in Parliament and Harriet Harman is now leading the debate on how we address that – as we must to deliver the goal of 50 per cent women in the shadow cabinet and, over time, in the PLP too.

But this must be more than just what goes on in Parliament and at the top of our party. It is also about more than women’s representation. We must do better for all of those who are under-represented, including Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) groups, the disabled, and people from poorer and disadvantaged backgrounds.

The work of Emily’s List and more recently others like Bernie’s List and Dorothy’s List have shown the effectiveness of investing in people’s talent.  We must learn from this and create our own fund as a party to support people from under-represented groups to stand at every level for the party.

That’s why I am proposing the establishment of a Labour Party Diversity Fund. For every pound we raise as a party, from whatever source, we should set aside a given percentage for investment in the fund. Even just a few pence in every pound could make a real difference to those that need help to stand, and would give a voice to those who struggle to be heard.

Having given a leg up to these candidates we must then ensure that it is local people, and only local people, who select our candidates. There is no point in supporting local people to stand if they are then bumped by an imposed candidate.

It is also important to rejuvenate our traditional sources of support on the ground. In our early years in office there were endless stories that we were considering ending the historic trade union link. At times we also seemed to denigrate the vital role of local government, even though our councillors are the bedrock of the Labour party in many constituencies. And we must remember that the trade union movement is not just a source of financial support, it is also a huge and largely unexploited base for community campaigning.

That’s why I have written in recent weeks about how we must defend and strengthen the trade union link, rebuild our base in local government and support our youth and student movement to become bigger and stronger.

Having invested in our foundations we can then look at party structures.

As we debate the how we should strengthen the role of the Party Chair – backed by regional vice chairs – let us agree that we should have a full-time dedicated youth officer and that we properly integrate the leaders of our Party in local government, the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament into our decision-making structures as part of the NEC. Our MEPs, in particular, have a more significant role than last time we were in opposition and we need to properly integrate them into our shadow ministerial teams.

We also need to make sure we get our campaigning resource out into the constituencies and local communities where they are needed – and choose our candidates early for the local elections and general election too.

But most important is to look at party membership.

Over 20,000 new members have been recruited since the general election and I support extending the £1 youth membership rate to members of affiliated trade unions joining the Party, so we can recruit many more.

I had over 40 party members working day after day in my General Election campaign. At least half of them had not been to a GC in the last year. We also had over 80 supporters who volunteered to deliver leaflets or come out canvassing. But they did not want to pay the high cost of membership and take the pledge.

We also have to recognise that lots of our members don’t participate in the way we need them to either  – and that’s not just about boring administrative meetings. So what do we need to do to change?

We have to look at what members get for their subscriptions.  People who join the Labour Party need to feel they have a real say. Once you’ve decided to take the plunge and join you would hope and expect to talk politics and not just instantly be asked to deliver a handful of leaflets.

So I believe we have to change the way we make policy. Too often our party leadership has made decisions at the centre and then sent them out for “consultation” once policy had been hammered out between union leaders and the party elite.

The National Policy Forum was set up to engage the party in policy-making, but too many members feel it has been used as a way of managing them and making for an easier Annual Conference for the leadership.

The last Warwick meeting included a victory for members, led by young people on the NPF themselves, campaigning for votes at 16. They used the process to secure a manifesto commitment. Not only were they let down, but the whole process was undermined when this policy was watered down to just a free vote in our election manifesto.

Sadly this is not the first time this has happened and the result is a large degree of cynicism about the whole process. Warwick also ended our policy discussions with members in 2008 – two years before the election took place. No wonder we lost touch with what members were thinking.

The National Policy Forum is still too focussed on these big national meetings which tend to be dominated by ‘deals’. We simply swapped the fixes and wheeler-dealing of the old party conference for the NPF.

This has to change. It needs a culture change at the top. The Labour movement is not there to be managed, it is a talent with a potential which should be unleashed. I strongly believe that the role of Annual Conference must be enhanced – not just as the sovereign body over rules and policy – but the place where we debate the big issues facing our country and how they affect working people.

As well as enhancing Conference, we need to strengthen the role of the National Policy Forum, regional policy forums and our local party meetings too so that party members no longer feel like their role in policy making is cosmetic.

My experience in the last couple of years, in my own constituency, is that if you take the risk of talking to the public about policy you develop a shared understanding and better policy. We should get out of the comfort zone of party seminars and do public meetings with voters.  In my constituency we did these kinds of meetings on the economy, immigration, crime and GP services. Voters turned up in their droves. It was sometimes hard going, but we recruited new supporters to pass on the message that Sure Start, the minimum wage and tax credits are only there because of what we did.

As a Minister I often learned more from listening to parents, teachers and school staff than from officials. For example, talking to parents of disabled children influenced me massively on what needs to done for this group and allowed me to see first-hand how parents are shaping services at local level.

This in turn tells me we also need a party policymaking process which does not just talk to party members. We need our policymaking to involve local union branch meetings and voters as well, because a policy making process that leaves out the public is like a business that doesn’t listen to customers.

So let’s put the NPF to work. As constituency representatives have pointed out throughout its life, it is a great opportunity, but one that we haven’t used properly.  We should be finding ways to resource them to lead policy thinking in their regions by both using the collaborative power of on-line discussion and good old fashioned open meetings.

These should be regional meetings that start with questions from party members rather than being constrained by what is prepared by the centre or by shadow ministers’ set piece speeches.  They should be the local and regional debating chambers of the party that then set the agenda for our policy debates at Annual Conference – talking about what members not leaders want to talk about.

It would be an irony if, having said the Party needs to listen more and open up, that I then offered my own detailed prescription and asked members if they agree with it. I want to hear from party members and supporters about how we should improve this process.

Over the summer I will publish more details on how we could do this through my campaign website. I will need as many comments and contributions as possible so we can agree effective reform. And I will also be meeting with members of the National Policy Forum, with councillors and with trade unions to get their ideas.

This is my starting debate in redesigning policy making so it is rooted in our communities. Policy making should be open and transparent.  It should not be elitist, or a negotiation at the centre.

The National Policy Forum is a big unexploited asset. Let’s use it properly – not to manage Annual Conference but to re-invigorate Annual Conference as the debating chamber for working people in our country.

Original article appeared on

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