4 March 2021

If Starmer wants to win over the nation, he must start with his own party

By Ben Glover

If Keir Starmer wants to make Labour great again he must first resolve one big central conflict: how to win over the country while keeping the membership, to whom he owes his job, onside. That’s going to be an almighty struggle when the latter look little like the former.

We know from Tim Bale and colleagues’ authoritative study that Labour members are more affluent than the average voter. Almost eight in ten are middle class – the ABC1 social grade in academic speak. They’re much more socially liberal and anti-Brexit. Again, around eight in ten Labour members backed a second referendum and were in favour of the UK remaining in the single market and customs union post-Brexit.

But hasn’t Labour always been a ‘Hampstead-Humberside alliance’? In some respects, yes. Yet its members – who skew more Highgate than Hull these days – haven’t always been so powerful. Ed Miliband’s ‘one member, one vote’ reforms began this trajectory. Though aiming to reduce union power and reconnect Labour with the public, in paving the road to Corbyn it achieved anything but. Indeed, the great irony of Corbyn’s leadership was that the empowered membership he craved pushed him towards a more pro-Remain stance, no doubt playing a role in the loss of the ‘Red Wall’.

There are early signs that Labour members are unlikely to be receptive to many of the changes required to return to electability. Witness the response earlier this year to a leaked strategy document calling for a more patriotic Labour, widely denounced by many on the left as flag-waving nonsense. Or the mini-furore when shadow minister Jonathan Reynolds’ discussed the merits of a more contributory benefits system, a credible and pragmatic step backed in recent years in pamphlets for the Fabian Society and the TUC, hardly Blairite hotbeds. If moderate steps like these elicit such backlashes, how can we expect the membership to respond to the bolder action needed? Probably not well, especially when three quarters of Labour members think the last manifesto’s policies were ‘broadly correct’.

Given this, Sir Keir faces a choice. He could sideline the members, as Blair did through a number of centralising reforms. These were driven by a desire to replace existing structures with “a single chain of command leading directly to the leader of the party”, as the late, great New Labour strategist Philip Gould described, believing this was “the only way that Labour can become a political organisation capable of matching the Conservatives”. This could allow the leader to bypass the selectorate and engage directly with the public; essentially the Conservative party’s model, given the weakness of Tory members and the autonomy enjoyed by its leaders.

The weakness of the Tory set-up is obvious: it centralises power and fails to draw on the wisdom of the crowd, the great advantage of any truly democratic process. What’s more, such changes would no doubt be strongly resisted by the Labour membership: a difficulty given the powerful role they now occupy within the party, as outlined above.

Given this, the only real alternative is to head in the other direction: empowering the public, not members, in Labour affairs. To truly democratise the party, not the selectorate-empowerment sought by Corbynistas; the Campaign for Real Labour Party Democracy, if you like. Some on the left will oppose this, favouring party democracy over popular democracy. Yet this will be a difficult position to maintain. How can you believe in democratisation while wanting to exclude all those without a direct debit to party HQ?

Labour should first open up its policy-making processes to the public. Technical innovations mean such engagement can be done on a large scale and at a relatively low cost. The party should harness these developments to bring the party into the twenty-first century. For inspiration Labour should look to Taiwan, where the government’s ‘vTaiwan’ platform allows the public to deliberate on contentious issues and forge common ground. Online engagement should be complemented by in-person events once the pandemic has retreated. Keir and his shadow Cabinet should hold town hall meetings up and down the country, advertised widely and open to all.

But what if no one shows up? Do the public want to spend their time contributing to Labour policy development? Framed like that, probably not. But we know that well-designed, inclusive and accessible democratic processes can get real traction from the public. Take Emmanuel Macron’s ‘great national debate’: combining online and in-person participation, he toured France speaking to the public in intimate settings for 92 hours in total. In all, the process garnered over 1.9 million online contributions and has been cited as playing a role in his partial political rehabilitation. Yes, Macron is a head of state not a Leader of the Opposition, but Starmer should be happy with a fraction of that direct engagement from the public in Labour decision making.

Alongside sending a clear signal to voters that Labour is listening to the public – desperately needed after five years of Corbyn – it would also resolve a central dilemma for Sir Keir: how he should be spending his time. As Rafael Behr has rightly argued, pointing to government failures isn’t enough. Yet, as CapX’s editor has argued, it is also too early to be laying out policy in heavy detail. A period of radical, democratising party reform would show the public Starmer is serious about listening to the public, not just Labourites.

If this all sounds a bit like David Cameron – a lover of ‘open selections’ and party reform, at least in his early days – there’s a good reason. Sir Keir’s detoxifying mission is remarkably similar to the former PM’s. That process ended in coalition and will forever be deemed only a partial success. Yet such an outcome for Labour today would surely be deemed a triumph in light of recent electoral performances.

And though Cameron’s democratic innovations ultimately fell by the wayside, they played an important role in shifting cultures with the Conservative Party and the ‘mood music’ which surrounded his party. Carried through properly, similar reforms could have a long-lasting and profound impact on Labour. Without them, Starmer will find it even harder to reboot and his party will remain adrift from the rest of the nation.

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Ben Glover is Deputy Research Director at Demos. He writes here in a personal capacity.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.