Labour’s Registered Supporters Scheme Should be Seen as a Success

by Dr Danny Rye

Since the 2015 election defeat the Labour Party has attracted many thousands of new members  and supporters, largely it seems as a result of the enthusiasm generated by the current leadership contest. What initially promised to be a very dull contest of triangulating centrists was electrified by the unexpected explosion in support for Jeremy Corbyn. As a result around half a million people or more will be eligible to participate in the contest to lead the party. On the face of it, this seems to buck a trend to which nearly all political parties in the Western World have been subject, that of disengagement and declining participation and membership. House of Commons Library figures suggest that in 2013 all significant parties in the UK – Labour, Conservative, Liberal Democrat, Greens, UKIP and the SNP – had collectively less members than those now taking part in the Labour leadership contest.

What has made this possible, of course, is a key reform to the party’s internal election process put in place under Ed Miliband which were a response to bad publicity over the Falkirk selection process (involving Unite apparently recruiting members en masse in order to ensure the adoption of their favoured candidate). The outcome of the ensuing Collins Review was the abolition of the party’s electoral college and its replacement with a system of one member one vote, including individual trade unionists who signed up as ‘Affiliated Supporters’ and enhanced with the enfranchisement of a new category of Registered Supporters, allowing individuals who registered by signing a declaration of support and paid a small fee to participate in the ballot for leader. This, the report said, meant ‘the final realisation of the … process that was begun by John Smith thirty years ago’ towards One Member One Vote in leadership contests.

One might think that the fact that the effect this scheme has had on participation levels would be something for those concerned with the state of participatory democracy to celebrate. However, there has been a growing strand of commentary in the British press and media (now thankfully being countered by some such as Tom Baldwin) which suggests that somehow the groundswell of supporters and members that have signed up to Labour since the election defeat in May should be seen as a disaster and that they are ‘killing the party’. Whilst the scheme is not perfect, this kind of response strikes me as overdramatic. Political parties have been struggling for decades to identify ways in which they can attract new supporters and members, largely without significant or sustained success. Although some ‘insurgent’ political parties have in recent months had some impact in terms of membership – UKIP claim well over 40,000 members, the Greens over 60,000, whilst the SNP claims over 100,000 – these (with the exception of the SNP in its specific national context) represent small numbers compared with the large memberships the main parties claimed in the past (3 to 4 million between them by some estimates), which have been in inexorable decline. Political parties seem to have been at a loss of what do about it. The Conservative Party, seemingly giving up on the idea of membership altogether, have even experimented with open primaries, allowing anyone to participate in selecting candidates for Parliament  which involve making no commitment to the party at all (although the resulting selection in Totnes of an independent-minded MP in Sarah Wollaston may have given them cause to think again).

Labour’s experiment with the registered supporters scheme in conjunction with a high profile leadership contest has been in many respects, therefore, a potential breakthrough. There has been much hype and hysteria about so-called infiltrators or ‘entryists’ from either the hard left or the right, including a Tory MP, and clearly the party might need to think about how it polices its borders, but a certain amount of ambiguity is going to be inevitable if parties are to be genuinely more open and engaged with the public beyond the usual, and dwindling, band of activists. In its favour, the scheme provides a simple and easy way in which people can indicate their support for a political party and their willingness to get involved on some level. It is thus a pool of potential new members, activists and donors. The fact that they have to sign up and pay a small fee to join up gives the party the opportunity, by widening support, to then deepen it.  Certainly not all of these supporters will make the leap into membership, perhaps even a majority will not, but the most important question for Labour is whether – whoever actually wins the leadership election – the party can hold on to enough of these new members and supporters and convert them into activists and participants.

It would be a mistake therefore to unravel the scheme completely, although some adjustment, for example to guard against systematic infiltration by hostile groups or individuals, may be necessary.  However, handled correctly, it could be a positive boon for the future of the Labour Party, firstly by bringing a wider range of voices into debates about the party’s direction and, secondly, by harnessing greater potential for electoral mobilisation and the growth of more committed members and activists, which was the point of the Registered Supporters scheme in the first place.  It might even be a model that other parties would consider emulating in order to arrest the decline in participation.

As I have suggested elsewhere, for the Labour Party in particular, the opportunity is to finally have a proper debate about what its response to so-called ‘austerity’ should be and to engage a wider movement of participants in that process can only be a positive thing.  A wider range of voices and participants in this debate, then, is surely welcome. Together, and with the involvement of many thousands of new supporters, members and activists, they might be able to produce a coherent, genuine and realistic response to austerity with popular appeal that is rooted in centre-left ideas and has the backing of enthusiastic grass-roots supporters across the Labour family. If so, this will be in no small part due to the life that the Registered Supporters scheme has injected into the party. That should be celebrated on every wing of the party and perhaps be watched closely by officials and analysts of political parties in general.

This post was originally published on the Political Studies Association website here

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Reforming the Labour Party: is Miliband Redistributing Power?

The true test of Ed Miliband’s proposals for reform of the Labour Party’s relationship with trade unions and candidate selection will be the extent to which they empower or disempower ordinary members and supporters.

By Dr Danny Rye, Lecturer in Politics, Birkbeck College

It may have been an immediate crisis that forced Ed Miliband’s hand but the consensus appears to be that, in his speech on 9 July setting out his response to the news that the trade union Unite had been manipulating the candidate selection process in Falkirk, the Labour Leader has been bold in proclaiming an end to the ‘politics of the machine’ that was, in his words, rightly ‘hated’.  His proposals to reform the Labour Party’s link with the Trade Unions and the means by which candidates for office are selected are potentially far-reaching.  Henceforth, members of affiliated trade unions will have to directly opt-in if they want to support the Labour Party (currently they are automatically enrolled unless they opt-out) and Labour will begin using primaries, in which all registered supporters can participate, as a means of selecting candidates, beginning with the selection for the London mayoral candidate in 2016.  There will be strict spending limits and a code of conduct for candidates to go with this.

If the point of Miliband’s proposed reforms, as he has suggested, is to ‘open up our politics’ then the test has to be the extent to which it empowers voters, ordinary members and activists.  On the face of it, requiring individuals to directly choose  to affiliate to the Labour Party as individuals would seem to be a blow in favour of empowering ordinary union members as political activists and against the dominance of elites (in the form of union leaders) making decisions on their behalf.  Furthermore, the proposal to select candidates by means of primaries (initially in London) in which registered supporters can participate, along with ‘strict’ spending limits and a code of conduct, would appear to spread power (in this case the power to select candidates) more widely than before. 

However, in order to make a proper judgement about this, we need a means by which proposals like this can be assessed for whether they are likely to be empowering or disempowering (and for whom). By lucky coincidence, this is precisely what I have been thinking about recently.  The following is an initial sketch of how this might be done. 

This kind of assessment can be made by thinking more carefully about organisations with political or social goals in the context of theories about and approaches to power.  In order to do this, it is important initially to make a distinction between two basic kinds of power:  a ‘negative’, constraining form – sometimes called ‘domination’ but which I will refer to henceforth as ‘disempowerment’ – and a positive, enabling form of power which can be understood as ‘empowerment’.  Whilst the first of these indicates means by which groups or individuals have had their power diminished in different ways (because they are prevented from acting, lack capacities to or are denied opportunities to do so), the latter is concerned with who have had their power enhanced and by what means.

These two key kinds of power can be examined in five different dimensions which in my assessment relate to the key dimensions of power operating in organisations with social or political goals. 

Each of these different dimensions of power directs attention towards different aspects of an organisation and serves as a means of identifying questions designed to illuminate how power operates within it.  Using these questions, analysts and students of organisations will be able to make their own judgements about the extent to which organisations of different kinds empower or disempower those who are participants in it, including their members, supporters, leaders, administrators and so on. 

The first dimension, which I call Individualistic Power, focuses on how people use the resources they have (money, information, connections and so on) to realise goals, aims and preferences they might have.  An individual has power to the extent that they are equipped to achieve these goals. The question is which (if any) individuals will be more likely than before to achieve their goals – such as becoming a candidate, or ensuring the selection of another –  as a result of these reforms, for example because they are provided with resources that help them garner the appropriate support or that others are denied the ability to ‘out-resource’ them.  Thus, it would be possible to argue that strict spending limits for candidates seeking a nomination and for the organisations supporting them could potentially open up the field of possible candidates and make it more likely that a candidate not supported by a big pressure group or union could break through.  In other words, it makes certain kinds of ‘machine politics’ less viable and thereby empowers individuals at the expense of organised internal interests.

Of course, the capacity for those individuals to achieve selection assumes that they have access to the appropriate arenas in the first place.  This is a point that the second dimension, Strategic Power, focuses on.  Someone may have a wealth of talent and experience to become a candidate and yet fail because they are denied access to the process in the first place.  Conversely, knowledge of the rules and the capacity to manipulate them in one’s favour confers on some the ability to circumvent barriers in one’s own favour and block opponents, in other words to exercise Strategic Power.  The question, therefore, is whether reform proposals will make it easier or harder for (positionally powerful) individuals to block or frustrate others from accessing the process (or further change).  It would appear that these proposed reforms make it less likely that well-organised interests like trade unions within the Labour Party can manipulate the selection process.  On the other hand, it does not necessarily diminish the capacity of the party’s leadership and executive to interfere with, manipulate or take control of selection processes.  This will really depend on how the new rules are designed.  It is one of the benefits of this approach that it provides relatively simple tools with which such potential outcomes can be identified.

Shifting focus from individuals, the third dimension of power, Bureaucratic Control, is one in which organisation itself can be understood as powerful:  potential candidates can be disempowered by bureaucratic routine and organisational imperative (like having to complete lots of paperwork or the requirement for certain qualifications or experience) or hierarchies may deny those lower down the freedom to act as independent political agents (by for example controlling the selection process from the centre).  More positively, organisation empowers individuals to act politically and act in concert because it generates capacities and provides organisational back-up that makes them more effective than they would be alone.  The questions that arise here are, firstly, whether reform will therefore free activists or members from organisational constraints and allow them to express and realise their political goals, and secondly, the extent to which reforms remove power from the hierarchy and redistribute it amongst ordinary members, activists and supporters.  Once again, this will depend a great deal on how the reforms are designed and implemented.  Certainly it appears that allowing trade union members a direct relationship with the party and bringing potentially more people into selection processes, both as electors and, through primaries, as potential candidates could achieve both these things.  Once again, however, the knock-on effects are currently unknown. 

One of the key sources of power in political organisations is the ability to make and influence policy.  This was emphatically not the subject of Miliband’s speech on 9 July and is unlikely to be so for the time being.  Some years ago Robert Katz and Peter Mair argued that party hierarchies and members were involved in a trade off in which the latter would be given more power over candidate selection in return for relinquishing their say in policy to the centre.  This arguably has already happened with the restructuring of the party’s decision-making structures during the early years of Tony Blair’s leadership, but what Miliband’s new proposals may also mean is a devolution of that power of selection away from members to a category of ‘registered supporters’.  Thus members have lost one power to the centre and another to the political periphery.  It is a version of what the leader’s brother, David, once described as ‘double devolution’.

With the fourth of these dimensions of power I move away from the formal party structures, rules and processes and towards aspects of party life that might often be overlooked in an analysis of power.  Constitutive Power is concerned with the culture of party life, and the everyday practices that go with it.  The everyday behaviour and customs that are usually taken for granted – like the conventions of language and speech that people follow – are important in shaping and producing the ‘practical consciousness’ of agents which are the basis of their everyday instinctive behaviour.  This kind of power, embedded in day-to-day practices, has a deep effect on the capacity of individuals to be effective political agents and is the means by which existing structures of domination are reproduced and accepted by those subject to it.  At the same time, however, actors can become conscious of these everyday practices through critical reflection, which means structures of domination can be challenged and recast in ways that invest in them capacities for their realisation as political agents.  The key question here, therefore, is to what extent will reforms affect party culture so as to facilitate the capacity for political (self) realisation i.e. does it invest members with useful political capacities?  The extent to which this question can be answered at this stage is moot.  However, a test for the success of these reforms will doubtless be the extent to which not just the rules change, but the culture and practices of the party’s internal politics which Falkirk has exposed.

Fifth, and finally, Disciplinary Control is focused on the minutely detailed techniques of control that are applied in areas of party life that are frequently overlooked in these contexts.  Often mundane, these are aspects of party life that nonetheless have an important role in how political agents are shaped and produced.  This, for example, includes the organisation of individuals into tasks and roles during election campaigns where the activity of individual canvassers and candidates is often carefully circumscribed, even down to the words used, at what time and in what place as well as the means by which activity is recorded, measured and assessed.  Discipline is also internalised through the imperatives of marketing and public relations which are so important to modern party politics. The appearance, gestures, words and looks of individual politicians and candidates in particular are carefully monitored, adjusted and corrected in line with expected norms.  But as well as being a clear source of domination this can also be understood as empowering and productive in the sense that it produces agents with the capacities to be effective actors in the current political milieu.  In modern politics, candidates will generally fail to advance or be elected if they are not in some sense ‘media friendly’ and conform to clearly accepted norms and expectations (such as certain kinds of clothes and hairstyles).  In other words it produces individuals with the right capacities – right down to gestures and voices – to succeed in politics.  To translate this into practical questions means having to ask two things about potential reforms: to what extent do they advance or set back mechanisms of control?  Does it mean more or less detailed organisation  and does it means more or less external scrutiny of individuals and, in particular, their bodies.  In this case, since primaries – even so-called ‘closed’ primaries – are likely to be more open to scrutiny, perhaps more likely to be covered in newspapers, blogs, social media and websites, it can only further expose candidates to the kind of surveillance and discipline to which professional politicians are already subject.  In this respect, it will perhaps be good training.  It is more than possible, however, that this will have an effect on the kinds of individuals that get selected in the first place and perhaps have the additional effect, therefore, of disempowering further those activists and members who are not appropriately attuned, whilst strengthening the influence of media, commentators and professionals.

In summary, therefore, as ‘brave’ and ‘radical’ as Ed Miliband’s reforms have been claimed to be across the political spectrum, the real test of whether they are truly empowering (and for whom) will depend on how the reforms are designed and implemented and how they work in practice.  It is vital to a meaningful assessment of these reforms that analysts are able to employ the right kinds of tools with which to examine them.  What I have set out here is my contribution to the development of such tools.

 

This post was originally published on 12 July 2013 by Birkbeck College’s Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life (www.csbppl.com).