Now, here’s a thought …
This week we have seen a popular campaign of ordinary people overturn a government, using social media tools and mobile phones as the main weapons in their armoury. No, I’m not talking about Egypt I’m thinking about the campaign that led Cameron to suspend and review his ideas of selling off our forests and woodland. This campaign ignited around Facebook and Twitter and is a real reminder not all of those using these services are young! People from the right, left and centre of politics — not to mention those of no politics at all — were raging. This policy was not in any manifesto. It was not what people had voted for. It was wrong and for once an odd consensus asserted itself in record quick time.
You may not think this is, say, in the same league as the Poll Tax campaigns but I’m not so sure. The growth of Twitter and Facebook across all ages is remarkable and it will effect our politics in all kinds of ways we hadn’t expected. I wonder if Blair’s Iraq plans would have been pegged back if he had launched them today?
But while we might revel in the discomfort of the Tories and the Lib Dems the Labour Party in opposition will not be immune to this kind of influencing and campaigning. New media requires new responses. But also new media will give us new opportunities to develop a new and healthy dimension to debate and policy making within the Party.
I’m sure that no Leader wants to waste too much time early on worrying about Party structures. But do we have the structures to make the most of policy debate and reform?
There have been many Labour campaigns that have focussed on structures. The best of them have been concerned with these because they saw how these impacted on democratic debate. As one young campaigner at Compass residential put it “what is the point of Labour if it is not a democratic party, a really democratic party?” True for some to both the right and the left of the centre the point of structural reform might have been to deny debate, but in the main those campaigning for internal democracy were doing so because we believed it would lead to better policy and more effective governance.
The internal reform debate is still about better policy and better governance but now we also have to consider whether we have the right tools to do our trade. I’m struck by the very different reality inhabited by many of the young people who have joined our Party recently. They have come to politics as a result of a very different kind of communication medium. They have been inspired by the hi-tec campaigning of Obama and saw Ed Milliband’s campaign as an attempt to create a British variation of it. These folks do have energy and enthusiasm but I doubt many of them are really going to get involved in branches, constituencies and ECs. And many of them will want to talk with voters in new ways as well.
Bluntly, our creaking and old fashioned machine might not be up to the job. Consider the current policy review. Apparently the problem is not so much that of getting the ideas in, no the real headache is what do with all of the responses. How do we work with them? How do we debate the merits of different ideas and proposals? Surely we can’t galvanise politics by simply putting out tons of traditional paper?
The new technologies and social media tools probably hold the key here. Our discussion and debate needs energy and dynamism, something I don’t often associate with local meetings.
But, where is the focus on the reform or development of the Party Machine. The skill base of the ‘machine’ is based on the old world and doesn’t really address the new?
It is time for the new leadership to begin to lead this discussion, to show that they understand the need to be different and that they are set to update our machine and our structures. We have Byrne reviewing policy and Hain reviewing structure, but hold on there is something weird happening (or not happening).
At the top our Party General Secretary Ray Collins has been sent to the Lords. But he is still General Secretary and apparently thinks that he can do both jobs. How on earth can the GS cope with battles of legislation in the Lords and still have the drive and energy to reform and develop our Party machine?
By all accounts the Trades Unions are furious but by all accounts their preferred candidate is not all that impressive or energetic himself. But hang on, surely the leadership and governance of our Party is not just an issue for the establishment and the Unions?
I have no doubt that the vast number of Party members would agree that it absurd for the GS to try and continue to combine two very different roles. Equally, it is conceivable that they might want a say in who gets the job next, or at least a view of the kind of person that gets the job next.
Our finances are still in a mess and tensions mount both around Westminster and beyond. Ed Milliband is — I believe — right to want to avoid the patronage of the big donors. He is right to think of a new world of community-based activism that is driven by the micro donations of the many rather than the throw away cheques of the few. But it is time for us to start putting in place a structure for a modern age otherwise we are in danger of falling backwards
Ed can start by getting on with a search for a new General Secretary now with an open brief that meets the realities of the new age.