Labour needs to change its structures if it is to face the challenges ahead. David Miliband explains how
The genius of modern societies is the way they release individual creativity; the danger is growing shared risks. Gordon Brown has rightly said that the next general election will be the first of the global age. To win again, we need, as he has emphasised, to address both sides of the coin.
Labour has a duty to lead the response to the major changes of the past 20 years. On the one hand, there has been huge individual empowerment – power dispersed, hierarchies flattened, great institutions suddenly accountable and old taboos broken. On the other hand, we have seen enormous collective risks – from an interconnected global financial sector to drugs to climate change to international terrorism. Progressives have the best chance of addressing these pressing needs, since we understand that a successful society is created by people with the power and freedom to pursue their goals, but that an individual stands on the shoulders of society.
Thatcherism ultimately undid the Tories for a generation, because it liberated economic dynamism without finding a way to build social trust or protection as a buffer against those very same forces. Our challenge is to sustain and spread forces of individual empowerment more equally, while enhancing rather than reducing capacity for collective action to tackle shared risks. The Government’s white paper, Building Britain’s Future, has begun to achieve this by shifting our focus from targets and standards to rights and entitlements for parents, patients and communities.
As we look forward to the manifesto, we know the scale of our electoral challenge means we need to be more creative, innovative and forward-looking than ever before, empowering and protecting people by using the Government leadership, market dynamism and civic mobilisation that is necessary to solve any big problem. New Labour has been strongest when it has combined Labour’s social democratic and radical liberal traditions. On the green recovery, public service reform and Europe this is the recipe for the future as well.
But we also need to learn the right organisational lessons of the past decade. If Labour is to lead this change, it needs to be a different kind of party. Not different in its passion and purpose, but different in its structures and role. The traditional political structures of mainstream political parties are dying and our biggest concern is the gap between our membership and our potential voter base. We need to expand our reach by building social alliances and increasing opportunity for engagement and interaction with our party.
There are important lessons from abroad. Rightly, people look to Barack Obama’s election campaign. Its network of two million supporters was remarkable. By scrapping party membership fees and allowing members to set their own subscription level, Obama removed barriers to participation; through effective use of technology, he provided channels for debate and kept individuals informed of his campaign; and by enabling people to self organise he had 3,600 people trained in community organising as “Obama Organising Fellows”.
But the presidential system in the United States is not ours and there is an example closer to home. Pasok, the Greek socialist party, was the only European socialist party to fare well in this year’s European elections. Pasok has also gone furthest in party reform, opening up the party so that more than 900,000 Greeks, out of a population of
11 million have equal rights as members or “friends”. The party has quotas for male and female representation, open primaries to select party candidates for local elections and has developed “Every Day a Citizen” – an organisation dedicated to citizen engagement. Such engaging and deliberative party structures enable Pasok to tap into the energy in communities and multiply the force of a national message through local, authentic, and committed advocacy, with resultant electoral success.
In Britain, Labour’s first port of call for expanding our reach should be a new relationship with three million-plus affiliated trade unionists. We can forge a new relationship with them by virtue of their signing up to the political fund of their union, making them a much closer part of a genuine Labour movement. This link with ordinary trade unionists is a gateway into the real lives of millions of people. They can bring us early warning of things going wrong, and new ideas for how to put them right.
And we can go further in other areas, too. We say we believe in corporate social responsibility; why not pledge that a part of our fundraising will go into social action by the voluntary and charitable sector? We say we want to listen to our voters; why not adopt a system of registered voters, as in the US, to create the basis for primaries?
Labour should adapt these ideas to tap into the energy in communities, ensuring we reflect the problems of the future, the power structures of the future and the people of the future. The renewal and modernisation of our party will be a key element of our fight for a fourth term. I hope that together we can respond – ideologically and organisationally – to the challenges of the next decade and ensure it belongs to Labour.
David Miliband is the Foreign Secretary and Labour MP for South Shields. More details of these ideas can be found in his John Smith Memorial Lecture at www.davidmiliband.info