Political parties are always at risk of forgetting their real function of providing national leadership and instead turning inward into an internal struggle for power. Ed Miliband is therefore right to insist today that the Labour Party concentrates full time on re-engaging with the public, winning back lost voters, and promulgating a vision to revitalise the enthusiasm and excitement of the nation. That is a very demanding objective, and he’s right too that any deviation for personal or factional ends cannot be tolerated. And it will depend on two fundamental conditions being fulfilled.
The first is that party members have got to identify with the party’s goals and in a very real sense feel ownership of the project, however little they may realise their influence can be. That requires a reinvigoration of debate and action at constituency level which is firmly embedded in the needs and aspirations of local communities. Why after all do people join the party in the first place? Clearly because they want to be involved in public affairs at whatever level, local or national, and to be able through working closely with similar others to have an impact on the local scene and maybe also a cumulative and collective impact at the national level too. That will only happen when the party gets stuck into local campaigns that matter to people and is seen to be a force actively fighting for what people really care about.
That’s why Ed’s right that Labour’s National Policy Forum should debate public petitions that command the largest number of signatures and that non-party members including sympathetic NGOs should be able to speak at party conference. It’s also vital, if party members and supporters are to feel they carry weight at the highest levels, that conference is again taken seriously not just as a place of passionate debate but as a prelude to final decision-making, where its voting authority has been restored and is fully and properly respected by the leadership.
The second condition for the mass revival of the party is of course that it is seen to be articulating a powerful, plausible and attractive alternative to the mistaken and damaging policies of the government. It has to encapsulate a thoroughgoing and convincing analysis of what has gone wrong together with an explanation of the change in the fundamentals that will put it right – albeit expressed in clear and comprehensible terms. If the party’s current review is merely a rehash of the failed New Labour thesaurus, it will certainly not achieve the purpose required. What is needed is not a tweaking of a failed ideology, but a major rethink of the role of the State and the market, the accountability of power, and the redress of inequality and authoritarianism.