Back in the day, when the Tories were in opposition and trying to work out how to defeat Gordon Brown, there was a brief flurry of interest in the idea of repairing Britain’s grand, old political parties by making it easier for people to join as “friends” or associate members. Steve Hilton, then the Tory leader’s shoeless guru, was hot on this stuff. His hotline to David Cameron buzzed with talk of “open primaries,” in which anyone could rock up and vote in party selection contests. The prize supposedly lay in making the Tories a mass-participation party again, with a whole new category of member. In the age of the direct debit or online micro-payment, shouldn’t it be possible to use the same techniques deployed by mass membership organisations – such as the National Trust – to reinvent a party?
It was all (very) mildly exciting and some of us (puts hand up, shamefaced) wrote pompous pieces backing these initiatives. It seemed obvious even then, seven or eight years ago, that the old parties had had it. Hilton and a few others were doing some fresh thinking. Well done them.
The practical concerns of old hands who suggested there might be a problem were swept aside. What, they asked, is to stop opponents of the party joining up to have fun and cause havoc? And might hardliners join in huge numbers skewing local selections and even national leadership contests? I remember Phil Johnston of the Telegraph making this very point to me on the fringes of an editorial conference years ago.
Luckily for the Tories, it turned out, the efforts at internal reform failed and there was no surge of newbies. There were some open primaries and the results were mixed at best. The “friends” programme was a complete flop, after much money was blown on an expensive newspaper advertising campaign, although it had a useful spin-off years later in the creation of the Team 2015 initiative that allowed Tory headquarters to recruit teams of volunteers online who could then be bussed in to a constituency at short notice to undertake work on the ground.
But the flurry of interest in party reform had a long tail. Widening access and aping the ease of digital sign-ups became a niche subject that fascinated Westminster wonks. Understandably, Labour was looking for ways to increase participation, after the command and control model of the Blair-Brown years, introduced out of necessity, broke down. It had initially been highly successful, of course. Party membership soared in the early years of New Labour before declining as the compromises of office took their toll.
The Labour high command – and Ed Miliband in particular – became interested in reviving party democracy and broadening the base of those taking part. Individual trade unionists were to be signed up as affiliate members. And a new category of membership – a £3 fee – was introduced. At the time I thought something like: “There you go, there are no new ideas in politics. I’m getting old. That’s Steve Hilton’s friends membership being picked up and done properly by Labour. It’s a funny old world.”
We know what happened next. The expansion of the membership base has turned into a slow motion disaster that may even spell the end of Labour as a realistic party of opposition, never mind government. Among Labour members, hard left beardie Jeremy Corbyn has a 32 point lead over his nearest rival, according to a shock new poll for YouGov, published by The Times. New members – from the impossiblist soft-left and sinister hard left – have signed up in huge numbers. Corbyn’s rallies are packed with youngsters who want to party like it’s 1983.
I still think this is not necessarily, straightforwardly positive for the Tories. It could lead to a splintering of Labour, with the birth of a new social democratic party. In the chaos of the EU referendum, the Tories may also split. Meanwhile, the national debate – on tax, nationalisation, finance, foreign affairs and business – will be skewed because a gravitational pull leftwards will be exerted. Mainstream broadcasters will have to give airtime to ideas that sound superficially attractive to the hard of thinking.
But you would have to be an idiot not to see that in the short term at least Corbyn as leader makes it Christmas every day for the Tories. Already, Labour grandees are at war on Twitter. Just wait until serial rebel Corbyn tries to enforce a three line whip on moderate Labour MPs.
Think how all this will look in places such as Nuneaton and elsewhere, across those great swaths of the South and Midlands where Labour needs to win seats. It will look to those sensible, aspirational voters who rejected left-wing Ed Miliband as though an arrogant Labour party has not listened to what they were telling it in May. It will look to millions of normal people who don’t read the Guardian as though Labour has gone completely nuts.
The suggestion on the Left that this is fine because Corbyn will win back Scotland looks bogus too. The SNP is a fearsome political machine that can afford a few Trots – who joined in the excitement of the referendum – peeling away and going back to a Corbyn-led Labour. The SNP has a broad-based vote, and although it talks Left and is Left in its basic assumptions, it thrives because it is a national movement exploiting and stoking the desire of many Scots to assert difference and distinct identity. Left and right barely comes into it.
Even if a Corbyn leadership does win back a few Scottish seats, it is nothing compared to the numbers the party needs in England to stand a chance of winning again. How much will the Corbynistas – the new members attracted by the thought of nationalising industry and taxing the life out of the economy – who tend to equivocate on subjects such as ISIS, appeal to the voters who won it for the Tories last time? Not one jot.
What a spectacular mess Labour is in. What a shambles. What a tragedy. What a story. And to think that Steve Hilton is partly to blame.