We need to change Labour so we can change the country

The party has to look and sound like the communities it represents – and regain the trust of voters

Tom Watson@tom_watson
Sunday 16 August 2015 16:46
Tom Watson: 'We need to harness the energy and enthusiasm of existing and new members alike'
Tom Watson: 'We need to harness the energy and enthusiasm of existing and new members alike'

We may be witnessing a new chapter in British political history. The Labour Party now has more than 600,000 members and registered supporters – a base that no other party can compete with. It is a mass movement that could sweep Labour back into power in 2020.

But for that to happen we need to harness the energy and enthusiasm of existing and new members alike to build a real political movement with a strong base in every community. That’s a task the next deputy leader of the Labour Party will have to help our new leader with and it’s one I would relish if elected.

Politics is broken in this country – it’s too remote, too posh, too male, too white. If we want to reconnect with voters, we need to look and sound like the communities we seek to represent. We want to change our country, but we have to change our party first. I believe we need more MPs from manual and clerical backgrounds, a pool of talent Labour has drawn on throughout its history. One reason that has become more difficult is the cost of seeking selection to Parliament is now prohibitively high. I’d like to address that by introducing a bursary scheme that will give financial assistance to those who need it. Money should never be a barrier to standing for Parliament.

Labour also needs to look at its local government base, another of the foundations upon which our electoral recovery will be built. Our councillors are the backbone of our party, but I want to know why the majority of them – 62 per cent – are male, because I want to change it. The total number of male councillors across all parties is 68 per cent, so we do better than our political rivals, but we need to improve. If I’m elected deputy leader, Gloria De Piero, our shadow women and equalities, minister will chair an inquiry into how we increase the number of Labour women councillors. It will also make recommendations about how we make sure more of those women occupy the most senior positions. There are currently 127 council leaders and executive mayors in Labour-controlled areas, but only 23 of them are women. I don’t want to exclude men from our party, but I do want to include more women. We can’t call ourselves a mass movement until we do so.

It went almost unnoticed in May when we ceded control of the Local Government Association to the Conservatives after heavy defeats in local elections. The only way we can win those seats back is by regaining the trust of local communities, street by street and road by road. If I’m elected deputy, the first call I’ll make is to Arnie Graf, the American political activist who knows more than anyone else about community campaigning.

Arnie has helped Labour before but I want him to come back and finish the job he started. I want the Labour Party to be the A-team of British politics; people around the country need to know that if they have a problem, it’s the local Labour Party that will show them how they can fix it. That means organising our communities, not just surveying them. If some of our members lack the expertise to do that, we should offer them training. I visited 109 constituencies in the run-up to the general election – dozens more since then – and I know that issues such as cuts to local bus services in semi-rural areas or broadband black spots in coastal town matter hugely to voters. So they should matter to Labour too.

Creating a movement that is responsive to its members is absolutely essential if Labour is to win again. I don’t just want to consult members on policy. I want them to initiate it. There are ways we can do that. The Labour Party rulebook is 83 pages long and it was written for another age. Constituency Labour parties are still organised on geographical lines. I’d like to test digital party branches that allow members to participate in meetings remotely. They could even send digital delegates to annual conferences.

We need a digital revolution in the Labour Party. Labour’s front-bench team should engage more regularly with Labour Party members who organise themselves around communities of interest. Our members have much to teach us. I’ve taken part in hustings across the country over the summer, and I’ve met dozens of people with digital skills and knowledge who want to help the party but don’t know where to start. Labour should carry out a national skills audit so it can make use of the talents of all its members.

The challenge is clear. We need to change our party so we can change our country. Let’s show Britain what Labour is – a mass movement that works for people in their communities, challenges injustice, looks and sounds like Britain and welcomes all newcomers. Let’s harness all of the talents in our movement and show the country that’s the Labour way of doing things. That’s how we run the Labour Party and that’s how we would run our country.

Tom Watson is MP for West Bromwich East and a candidate for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party

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