Their power has been usurped. Constituency policy motions are ignored and the constituency section of the National Executive Committee has become a safe haven for shadow Cabinet members with a high enough media profile to be recognised in one person, one vote elections. Omov is an admirable principle, but in the absence of a parallel, participatory, internal democracy, it has all but destroyed Labour's activist base and created an empty shell of a party.
Power has been centralised to an unprecedented extent. Policy is now made from the top down, with at best retrospective endorsement sought at annual conference or through the new quarterly policy forum. Conference resolutions (for example on defence policy) are ignored and the NEC is used to do the leadership's bidding.
But to identify this unhealthy imbalance is not to demand a return to the high noon of activist-leadership battles in the late Seventies or early Eighties. Nor is it to preach the negative oppositionalism that has often characterised (and weakened) the left. Activist fervour detached from voter reality is no answer: the grassroots may have won the party 15 years ago, but the country was lost.
Now Labour faces a different problem, which may also prevent electoral victory. It is fashionable to pretend that activists don't matter. Appealing over their heads through television to the atomised voter or the individualised party member is the answer.
Of course, activists are wanted at election time to deliver leaflets or knock on doors in the wet and cold. They are also urged to respond to endless phone calls for credit card donations. But the rest of the year they are expected to put up and shut up.
So why join the party at all? It is hardly surprising that activity rates have fallen sharply, that branch meetings are badly attended and general committees barely quorate. Young members are an endangered species. Membership has plummeted and turnover is high: one-third of party members do not renew after the first year, a fifth after the second.
Proposals for a cut-price mass membership party should be implemented. But they don't breed activists. Indeed they are not meant to: the model is of a passive membership, coming to social events, maybe the occasional rally, responding to fund-raising drives, and of course casting the odd vote in a ballot from Walworth Road.
Of course, the majority of party members simply want to support the party, not to be active. They are vital recruits. They must be welcomed and their views constitutionally respected. But others want to be activists. These are the people who will be interested in policy-making, in socialist debate, in campaigning. If they are thwarted, they won't join or they won't stay.
The empirical evidence supports the case for a campaigning Labour Party. The left does not have the benefit of a sympathetic media. It needs to get its arguments across directly on a one-to-one basis in what Antonio Gramsci called 'civil society' - in the neighbourhood, the workplace, 'non-political' groups, the family, among friends and acquaintances.
If alienating party activists has seemed to Labour's leadership a price worth paying to win new voters, it is a false trade-off. Unless Labour's active members are enthused, they won't be able to convince anybody else.
Further, socialist change is not possible if pursued exclusively from on high. A Labour government will require the support of extra-parliamentary movements (such as trade unions, community and single-issue groups) and popular opinion if it is to overcome the many forces hostile to it. It also needs to be held accountable by movements that can provide a valuable countervailing pressure against that from the City or the civil service.
The downgrading of activists has been accompanied by an abandonment of a radical cutting edge. Yet this, too, has been costly. It is often suggested that Labour can win only by diluting its socialist instincts and playing safe. But the proverbial floating southern voter is not impressed by soft-focus smiles with no substance. Nor does she/he respect Labour leaders who dodge questions about support for railway signal workers or appear to want higher defence spending or lower taxes than do the Tories.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom of the spin doctors and their media cronies, most voters admire parties for standing their ground. Soft-pedalling on policy may have the negative virtue of not making enemies. But it does not inspire voter commitment.
In their important study, Labour's Last Chance, Anthony Heath, Roger Jowell and John Curtice confirm that distinctive, radical policies are needed to mobilise the voters. As they demonstrate, the electorate has actually moved leftward towards public spending on services and investment in infrastructure. But it needs convincing that Labour's economic programme can deliver rising prosperity.
In this there is a coincidence of interest with Labour's core vote, which does not identify with a yuppie, credit-card party. There is a real danger of Labour's working-class base being driven to abstention. Far too little attention has been paid to this trend in the 1992 defeat. Well-off voters actually swung to Labour, but the party's core vote remained unimpressed and, in the case of working-class women, swung away against the trend. Although Labour cannot win with its core vote alone, it cannot win without its full-hearted consent.
Labour leaders cannot succeed by keeping their heads low and hoping the Tories will lose. There is a tide against the Government, but it is not overflowing in Labour's favour; the mid-40 per cent in the European elections was not enough for outright victory, given the habitual swing back to the incumbent party.
The biggest single obstacle to a Labour victory is that voters know what the party is against, but not what it is for. Labour has to win the battle of ideas. It needs to offer an ideological alternative to post-Thatcherism: a consistent critique of the failures of free-market mania and the new right agenda, and the need for a socialist alternative that is not centralised or statist, but empowering.
This must include democratic direction of the huge resources of finance capital towards industry and the real economy, instead of towards asset holders and speculators. The case should be put for active government intervention in the economy to make it generate wealth efficiently. Positive policies on full employment, a minimum wage, universal welfare benefits and redistributive taxation are vote winners. This is not because they are soft options that give no offence. They are recognised by most people as vital components of a high- quality, successful modern economy.
Similarly, while it is correct to avoid being pinned down to tax or spending commitments two years before an election, it is equally important to state general principles of a new agenda on taxation. Slogans about 'freedom and fairness' are far too bland, especially against a background in which the Tories will probably cut income tax.
Those on about pounds 50,000 and above must pay more (they've had some pounds 8bn annually in tax handouts since 1988). The remainder should pay no more income tax. But the low paid should have taxes cut to overcome the punitive impact of the poverty trap on the incentive to work and living standards. Tax loopholes should be closed and a wealth tax introduced. And the Tories must be challenged on indirect taxes, too. If we are to have VAT, it should be levied on private health and education (raising about pounds 1bn).
To some, it may seem curious and even irritating that Labour's grassroots activists are disenchanted at the very time when the party has a dynamic new leadership and is streets ahead in the polls. But having swallowed a great deal only to experience bitter defeat in the most propitious circumstances last time, the rank and file are restless. They want a positive, unapologetic, agenda-setting Labour Party. And they know victory is impossible without it.
The writer is Labour MP for Neath and chair of 'Tribune' newspaper.
This is an edited version of an article in 'New Statesman and Society'.
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