Wave goodbye to branch meetings and say hello to virtual Labour

`For the vast majority of those not in a political party, political activists are strange people'

THE LAST two decades of the 20th century have been a hard slog for Labour. Slowly and at times painfully we have renewed and regenerated our party. We realised that making a popular and professional appeal to the public was a proper expression of our politics, not a betrayal of them. As a result we moved from the margins to the mainstream, from opposition to power.

The challenge is now different. Of course, to gain a second term we need to remain New Labour, maintaining the country-wide coalition of support that gave us our huge majority in 1997. We will do that by remaining a party of the centre as well as the left, of business as well as the trades unions and of the haves as well as the have-nots.

But we have to dig deeper for our success. Our organisation needs to be more than a smooth electoral machine and efficient call centre. We have reinvented the political platform our party stands on; now we must build a grass-roots political movement fit for the 21st century, to carry it forward. We will do this in a climate where political loyalties are becoming less strong and voters more cynical, where patterns of work and family life make Labour's "meetings culture" even more irrelevant, and where the traditional routes into Labour membership continue to decline.

Yet it is our membership, more than ever, that is vital to our success. Successful political battles are not just fought in the air, with great soundbites, brilliant photo-opportunities and rapid rebuttal. They are fought on the ground, in face-to-face contact with communities of voters, building networks of influence and representation. We shall be weak if we are thin on the ground. Active members are a party's lifeblood. They are ambassadors and champions. They need to be attracted and retained; they need to feel at the centre of the party; they need to feel valued for more than their subscriptions. They need to enjoy being a member of the Labour Party and motivated by it. In short, the challenge for the 21st century is to reinvent what it means to be a Labour Party member.

If anyone doubts this, you have only to look at what is happening in some of our heartlands. In contrast to the key marginals where our activists are on permanent overdrive, there is a somnolence in other seats where elections have traditionally been won without a fight.

Recent European, Welsh and Scottish elections have delivered massive shocks to the party's local organisation because this has not kept pace with changes to institutions and the electoral system. The result has been a serious haemorrhaging of electoral support from Labour. This demonstrates the need for parties in our heartlands to become more broadly based and deeply rooted in the communities they seek to represent. Our methods of fighting elections will have to change even more in the future.

The ways, days and places we vote are likely to change. Elections will take place over two or three days. People will be able to vote in the supermarket or the library. They will be able to live in one part of town and vote in another - or in another town altogether, with the assistance of modern communications technology. Conventional canvassing and "knocking- up" will be a thing of the past.

Labour in the 21st century will need new ways of campaigning. The way we have targeted wards and constituencies will become more complicated, because in places whole cities and boroughs will come out to vote for directly elected mayors. Any direct-access democracy, through referenda and citizens' panels, will force Labour to adapt its own methods of contacting the electorate. If the Westminster electoral system ever changes, as Lord Jenkins has suggested, this will deliver a further shock to the system.

These changes are not a threat but an opportunity to build the party's strength. We should start at the beginning - with the recruitment of new members.

For the vast majority of those not in a political party, political activists are strange people. Most people do not know anyone who is a member of a political party, let alone know what membership means. So what do we do to introduce ourselves and this alien concept? We turn up on a cold, wet night, sometimes out of the blue, and ask people whether they want to sign up. And what is our main reassurance? "Don't worry, it doesn't entail knocking on strangers' doors, night after night, in all weathers!"

We need to become better at wooing people into the party. To encourage people to cross the threshold from voting Labour to joining Labour we should blur the line between electoral support and party membership. We have to persuade people, over time, that joining us is as normal as voting for us, so we should start by setting up a registered Labour supporters' scheme. Using information technology, the party can store and use information about its supporters' base, drawing them into a range of political and social activity as they wish, informing them of the Government's actions and using them as a sounding-board in policy development as well as for fundraising. When party preferences are becoming more fluid, this will be a means of deepening political loyalty.

If we are to succeed in drawing more people into full or active party membership, the present structure of branch meetings, general committee meetings and executive committee meetings should be reformed, and not replicated at district, county and European constituency levels.

No one joins an organisation to hear the minutes of the last meeting (well, hardly anyone). Yet, for many in the party, completing the agenda of a meeting is their definition of political achievement. Of course, there are some activities that are legally and organisationally necessary; but couldn't branches become campaign teams, constituency-wide meetings be open to all members to discuss policy, plan campaigns and socialise, and an executive be elected to run the administrative affairs of a constituency? Nothing short of a revolution in the culture of local organisation is needed.

In her address to the conference, Margaret McDonagh, the party's information age general secretary, announced that every member will be given their own e-mail address. They should be able to receive and comment directly on publications, with submissions and suggestions going straight to the heart of the party rather than relying on resolutions wending their way through a labyrinthine branch structure. With wider use of e-mail and greater access through digital broadcasting technology, every party member could be wired up early in the new century.

To re-think the concept of party membership and what we understand by political activism is a huge challenge for Labour modernisers, requiring double the imagination and partnership with the grass roots than during the modernising crusade of the decade that has just gone. Then, we were salvaging our electoral base. Now we are having to reinvent ourselves.

The democratic health of the country depends on our party refusing to become another of Britain's forces of conservatism.

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