Reforming the Labour Party: is Miliband Redistributing Power?

The true test of 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.

Why parties need to change, but not too much

Parties need to adapt to the changing ways in which people engage in politics, but they must also challenge  individualised consumerist politics and provide a platform for collective decision-making and accountability.

By Dr Danny Rye, Writer and Associate Lecturer at Birkbeck College

In a recent article for Labour Uncut, Peter Watt – a former General Secretary of the Labour Party – argued that traditional political parties are under threat.  Parties need to wake up to how the ways in which people engage (or not) with politics have changed.  In particular, parties need to use social media platforms to engage with members of the public beyond the narrow confines of a community of politicians or activists.  They need to seek invitations into and meet people in their worlds rather than making ‘clumsy attempts’ to entice them into traditional political settings.

This would require no less than a revolution, not just in the way that political parties engage with the outside world, but also how they are organised: for example becoming ‘flatter’, more ‘networked’, a new kind of ‘cyber party’ using web-based technologies to build relationships directly with voters.  This perhaps means departing from out-dated notions of ‘membership’ which suited the age of the mass class-based party, but is out of step with political engagement in the contemporary world (indeed, the Labour Party may have taken an important step towards this already with the launch last year of the Labour Supporters Network).

On the face of it, this is a sensible thing for parties to do.  Since the heyday of two party politics, we have undergone a social revolution.  People do not feel they need to be committed traditional political parties anymore: the social role they used to play has long been lost to the market (which is a problem all social institutions like churches, clubs and societies have faced) and allegiances based on class have dissolved, being replaced by a more fragmented identity politics, or by brands and consumer-oriented niche interests.  Similarly, political activity and commitments have shifted into the increasingly crowded market-place of single issue causes (like conservation or aid) and specialised interests, or relatively spontaneous ‘grass-roots’ campaigns such as those organised by 38 Degrees or Occupy.  In short, no one has to submit to the disciplines of party life because one can pick and choose which causes to support with no need for messy compromise or accommodation.

Underlying all this is a consumerist ideology, in which ‘free’ individuals make rational decisions based on their interests and desires.  The modern consumer-citizen can expect to get what she wants when she wants it, with little concern for ‘collective’ or ‘class’ interest, which belong to the drab paternalistic world of the past.  And if people do not need political parties to meet their interests, then all they are is a means by which the powerful and those that wish to join them seek to dominate others.  Why, then, should anyone else want to participate in them?  Indeed, why should parties as we know them even exist in a world where everyone potentially has their own platform?

I would argue that parties must have a future if representative democracy is to remain healthy.  Yes, they must change and adapt to the world as it is, but they must also provide a challenge to the individualistic and atomised politics, which ultimately lead to politics being dominated by remote elites.  Thus, any attempt to meet and engage people in ‘their worlds’ must not be to the detriment of three crucial roles that parties have to different degrees played (and should continue to play) in representative democracies.

Firstly, parties provide a structure for collective political activity and expression which individualised media and fragmented causes cannot.  In particular, the party provides an arena for debate and a system for making and influencing policy.  It provides clear rules and procedures and a context of shared values that gives focus and meaning to the process and its outcomes, even if that outcome is not the one desired by all participants.  Party members and activists I have interviewed as part of my own research have talked about how much they have valued being able to contribute to debates, even when they knew they would probably not get their way.  In attempting to attract more support, parties must not lose sight of this.  It is something that the fragmented politics of single issues and social media cannot offer.

Meeting the demands of all the fragmented competitive interests in society is impossible and  dividing people up into specific causes and atomised voices undermines the ability of people to act collectively.  If we cannot act collectively we run the risk of becoming dominated by those that can, or who do not need to: that is, ever more remote political elites and the powerful interest groups lobbying for a small slice of the policy pie. This leads the individual even less able to influence the context and content of politics, despite the opportunities they have to express their opinions and pursue their desires.  Parties can play an important role in educating people to understand this and providing them with a platform that is effective because it is collective.

Secondly, parties can and should provide some kind of ‘linkage’ between those that seek to govern and the generality of voters.  This, many would argue, is precisely the reason they must change.  However, the quality of this linkage is crucial too:  it is vital that action designed to make parties more ‘accessible’ and ‘relevant’ avoids the danger of hollowing them out even further.  Providing a more direct transmission belt between party representatives and the public could be an important act of ‘democratisation’ but the danger is that it bypasses the organised, collective power of a membership and replaces it with an uneven relationship between an elite with all the advantages and resources and a series of fragmented voices with no collective authority or power.  A democratic party organisation can supply that collective authority to speak to and challenge elites which a ‘network’ cannot.

Vibrant political parties that engage with supporters and give them real power can be vital to ensuring that the needs of real communities are reflected in the policy process, in other words to ensure that parties remain rooted in the places in which people live.  Of course, that means branching out into online communities too.  But however parties respond to the challenges of modern life, they must attempt to engage people not only by meeting them in their worlds on their terms, but also by challenging the atomisation of consumerist politics and drawing people into a greater sense of collective life.  Social media is part of this and must be used to help bring it about, but the medium must not become the message and it must not end up driving politics in a direction which is even more atomised and unequal.

This brings me to the third reason why so-called ‘traditional’ parties remain important:  stable, healthy party organisations with meaningful accountability mechanisms are a crucial check on overmighty leaders.  In our political system, parties are the means by which leaders are selected and their support sustained.  Whereas in some systems, parties are vehicles for leaders and can be discarded when they are no longer of use, here leaders are arguably vehicles for parties.  Thus they can be removed if they become detached, remote, or a threat to the political or electoral health of the party.  ‘Network’ parties in which political leaders communicate directly with the voters may allow leaders to circumvent the need for an active and powerful membership base whilst at the same time appearing to be more ‘democratic’.  This may make them more politically nimble and even more responsive to the public in some sense, but without proper structures of accountability and powers of recall, parties may be little more than empty brands, engaged with individuals on a superficial level: surfing the mood of the mass whilst providing no means to check the power of leaders and replace them from time to time.

Thus, in summary, whilst I agree with Peter Watt that parties must adapt to new realities, this must not be a pretext for abandoning the democratic role that old-fashioned organisations can play.  I do not suggest that parties as they are now perform these roles perfectly and at times there have been worrying indications that parties are responding to problems like membership decline by attempting to undermine the basis for it.

Parties are collective organisations trying to survive in an individualised age.  They are hierarchical broadcasters in an era of networks and interactive social media.  But whilst they must adapt to these changing modes of communication and engagement, they need to do so in such a way that provides a challenge to the individualism and atomisation that poses very real dangers to democracy.

E-mail:  d.rye@pol-soc.bbk.ac.uk / follow Danny on Twitter @dannyrye

 

The UK Referendum on Europe: Prepare for the By No Means Inevitable

By Dr Dermot Hodson

So the Prime Minister has finally agreed to a public vote on EU membership, or has he? Media coverage of David Cameron’s longsuffering Europe speech, finally delivered at Bloomberg HQ on 23 January, has focused on the Conservative leader’s commitment to hold a referendum by 2017. As is so often the case with political pledges of this sort, however, the devil is in the detail. At the present moment, there are at least three reasons why this referendum might not go ahead as planned. This blog post sets out these reasons before arguing that the Prime Minister nonetheless needs to change his rhetoric on the EU if he holds out any hope of turning around public opinion in the UK.

The Conservatives might not win the next general election (and Labour and the Lib Dems might hold their nerve).

The coalition agreement signed in May 2010 between the Conservatives and Lib Dems made no mention of an in/out referendum on EU membership and the two parties have not reopened this issue thus far. For this reason, the Bloomberg speech can be seen as a trailer for a future Conservative government rather than a jump cut for the coalition, with Cameron announcing that his party would, if it wins the next election, seek a ‘new settlement’ with the EU before asking the people if they wish to remain members under these new terms. Although some commentators have downplayed the significance of this commitment it goes well beyond the current requirement to put certain categories of EU treaty change to a referendum before they can become law in the UK. This requirement, which is set out in the European Union Act (2011), refers only to a referendum on proposed treaty changes and not on the wider question of whether the UK should remain in the EU.

With the Conservatives trailing in the opinion polls (even after their post-Bloomberg bounce) the opportunity to deliver this manifesto pledge might not materialise. A key question, therefore, is whether the two other main political parties will be forced to match Cameron’s commitment to an in/out vote. Ed Miliband’s initial response to the Bloomberg speech was to reject calls for such a referendum for now, but the Labour leader is already under pressure from the ‘euro realist’ wing of his party to recant. Nick Clegg also came out fighting against the Bloomberg speech, although his criticisms of Cameron rested uneasily with the Lib Dems’ manifesto pledge in 2010 to hold an in/out referendum in the event of a ‘fundamental change’ in the UK’s relationship with the EU.

EU member states might not play ball

The Bloomberg speech is premised on the view that a new EU treaty is inevitable either to determine the fate of the euro or ensure a ‘diverse, competitive, democratically accountable Europe’. This is by no means a foregone conclusion. As regards the euro, the consensus last year may have been that further treaty change was inevitable to resolve the on-going sovereign debt crisis but the comparative calm on financial markets in recent months has given pause for thought. A new EU treaty on the political underpinnings of the European project seems less likely still. Here Cameron’s speech glossed over the fact that the UK and other EU member states spent much of the last decade bringing Europe ‘closer to the people’ though a new European Constitution only for the people of France and the Netherlands to reject this project. Although most elements of the European Constitution were later salvaged under the Lisbon Treaty, EU leaders remain rightly wary after this debacle about seeking legitimacy for European integration through poorly understood treaty reforms, especially when referenda are required for ratification.

Should other EU leaders not take forward plans for a new treaty then the fall back position, according to the Bloomberg speech, is that the UK would seek a unilateral change to its terms of membership. Quite how other EU member states would respond to such a request is unclear. Harold Wilson, it is true, secured a renegotiation of the UK’s terms of accession to the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1975 but the cosmetic changes negotiated at this time stopped well short of the kind of new settlement that Cameron seems to have in mind. Also problematic are the potential knock-on effects from a UK renegotiation. In the mid-1970s the UK’s domestic difficulties with the European project could be treated by the EEC in isolation. These days there is more than one member state capable of unpicking key elements of the European legal order, with France and the Czech Republic among the potential members of this awkward squad.

That said, if the Conservative Party wins the next general election and makes good on its manifesto commitment, the expectation is that other EU member states would cut a deal with the UK to keep it in the European club. What is unclear at this stage is what such a deal would look like and whether it would carry any weight with UK voters. The wording used in such a referendum would obviously be key. Whereas Harold Wilson sensibly put the UK’s renegotiated accession treaty to one side in 1975 by asking voters ‘Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?’, Cameron is in danger of asking the more nebulous question of ‘Do you want the UK to remain a member of the European Union under the new terms of membership?’ Having committed to draw up legislation for this referendum within the current Parliament Cameron should take a leaf out of Wilson’s book by finding a formulation of words that focuses on the fundamental political issues at stake rather than the fine detail of future treaty negotiations.

The Conservative Party could yet implode

Why the Prime Minister picked this particular fight with the EU at this particular time is puzzling. It is certainly difficult to understand from an economic point of view; calling into question the country’s involvement in the EU single market was hardly the tonic that the UK economy needed in a week in which it emerged that GDP growth had turned negative for the third time since the global financial crisis. Nor does the Prime Minister’s move make sense from a geopolitical perspective. The unstable situation in North Africa at present makes it more important than ever that the EU speak with one voice on international issues, a fact that David Cameron has tacitly acknowledged by committing UK personnel to an EU training mission in Mali. There will be further tests of this sort ahead but such challenges will be unquestionably harder to meet if the UK leads other EU member states into another decade of institutional naval gazing.

Perhaps the most obvious explanation for the Bloomberg speech is a party political one in which David Cameron sought to silence Conservative eurosceptics by signing up to their longstanding demand for an in/out referendum. Some also see Cameron as attempting to contain the UK Independence Party (UKIP) by taking its leader, Nigel Farage, up on his offer not to challenge Conservative candidates in the next general election in exchange for an unequivocal commitment to hold an in/out referendum. The problem with this line of explanation is that the Prime Minister’s announcement on 23 January truly satisfied neither Tory hardliners nor UKIP.

Further backbench rebellions from Conservative Members of Parliament can be envisaged unless the Prime Minister commits to an in/out referendum sooner rather than later and agrees to hold a public vote even if no new settlement with the EU can be achieved. Boris Johnson, Cameron’s rival for the Conservative leadership, has already sown new seeds of discontent here by supporting calls for a referendum before 2015. Nigel Farage, meanwhile, has emerged stronger than ever from the Bloomberg speech by being able to claim credit for the Prime Minister’s referendum pledge while rescinding his offer of a pre-election pact with the Tories because of the contingent character of Cameron’s commitment.

Conclusion

A referendum on EU membership along the lines envisaged in the Bloomberg speech is by no means inevitable for the reasons discussed above. This does not mean, however, that David Cameron can delay political preparations for such a vote. If the Prime Minister is really serious about putting his ‘heart and soul’ into campaigning for staying in the EU under a new settlement then he has his work cut out. A Guardian/ICM poll published in the light of last week’s referendum pledge suggests that 49% would vote to leave the EU. Such views are not set in stone, however, with around 30% of likely ‘no’ voters describing their voting intentions as probable rather than definite. Changing these voters’ minds is critical for a possible future referendum and, even if this vote does not transpire, for winning back public support in the UK for the European project.

Some commentators have praised David Cameron’s efforts to set out a positive vision of UK membership in his Bloomberg speech. Self-evident though the Prime Minister’s remarks were on the EU’s contribution to peace in Europe they sounded less than convincing from a leader who couldn’t find the time to travel to Oslo in December to see the EU awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This argument will, in any case, carry limited weight with those voters for whom war in Europe is a distant memory. More promising in this regard was Cameron’s quiet questioning of calls to follow Norway and Switzerland into a free-trade agreement with the EU in place of membership, an argument that will receive a hearing if the Conservative leader turns up the volume about the loss of UK influence in Europe from such an arrangement.

In truth, however, the Bloomberg speech betrayed the shallow understanding of Europe that underpins contemporary Conservative thinking. Central to this (mis)understanding are two key beliefs: the first being that France, Germany and other EU partners are motivated by federalist fervour rather than, as is so plainly the case, national interest; and the second insisting that reforming Europe is a peculiarly British phenomenon when it so clearly is not. On the first of these points, Cameron wasted a glorious opportunity to slay the federalist dragon by making it clear that cooperation between EU member states occurs where national interests overlap and cannot persist for long when they don’t, preferring instead to portray the UK as an isolated pragmatist that ‘come[s] to the European Union with a frame of mind that is more practical than emotional’. On the second point, Cameron’s calls for a more competitive, flexible, accountable and fair Europe without weighing EU leaders’ efforts to achieve exactly that over the last twenty years was another serious misstep. At best, this insistence on re-drawing Europe on a blank page misses an opportunity to build alliances with other EU leaders over on-going reform efforts. At worst, it paints Europe in black and white rather than shades of grey, asking people to think of the EU as being entirely uncompetitive, inflexible, unaccountable and unfair only to wonder why they then won’t vote for continued membership.

Dermot Hodson is Senior Lecturer in Political Economy at Birkbeck. He is the co-author of ‘British Brinksmanship and Gaelic Games: EU Treaty Ratification in the UK and Ireland from a Two Level Game Perspective’ (with Imelda Maher, University College Dublin), which is forthcoming in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations. Thanks to Joni Lovenduski, Jason Edwards and Rosie Campbell for comments. The usual disclaimer applies.

A Change is Gonna Come? Learning from the Tories

By Ben Worthy and Mark Bennister

Source: Opinium Research

How do parties regain power? Perhaps Ed Miliband should look to his opponents for some tips. Tim Bale’s new book on the Conservative party offers some important lessons. As one of the oldest parties around, the Conservatives , leaving aside the wilderness years between 1997 and 2005, have shown themselves ‘willing and able to do whatever it took to return to office as rapidly as possible’. The secret of the party’s success lies in its now legendary ability to change.  Are there any signs that the Labour party is now doing the same?

Bale points out that there are several ‘classic’ drivers for party change- a new leader, a heavy defeat or a shift in the dominant faction. Ed has at least two of these to start with though whether there is a fiercely group of Milibandites who’ve taken over the party must be open to question. Aside from these classic ‘forces for change’, there are some ‘hidden’ pressures such as

  • the pressure to ‘make right’ past wrongs or ‘match’ popular policy
  • the ‘domino’ effect of a particular policy leading to others
  • responding to ‘external’ events

So has Ed set the scene for change? Has he kick started the process? Ever since Tony Blair had his ‘Clause IV Moment’ the media has looked for the key moments when an opposition leader has emerged or sunk. Ian Duncan Smith’s ‘quiet man’ speech sunk him. David Cameron’s husky dogs made him. Was Ed’s ‘One nation party’ speech to conference his starting gun for change?

We can perhaps see some of Bale’s ‘hidden pressures’ at work. The speech matched policy and may lead to other commitments. On spending Ed made it clear ‘there will be many cuts that this Government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to’ something Ed Balls also emphasised. Ed’s recent moves on other policy, such as his speech on Climate change or position on the banks or Leveson or Europe, may bring a ‘domino’ effect on policy producing many unexpected ‘knock on’ commitments.

The speech also showed signs of Labour making up for past wrongs. Ed spoke of how ‘we can’t go back to Old Labour’ but that New Labour too had its faults ‘because New Labour, despite its great achievements, was too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top, and too timid about the accountability of those with power’. Labour’s adoption of spending plans may be atonement as well as opportunism. There was also a great deal of responding to events ‘no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account’. Incidentally, the speech stole a big chunk of political space where the left of the Conservative party used to be.

So what could we see? The pressures for change are certainly there. We may yet see a Labour party with new faces, a new way of working and a raft of new policies. Positions are still unclear and Ed’s big policy review is still in process, as Grant Schapps delights in pointing out here.

Perhaps the big unanswered question is whether the changing party can also propel the leader upwards. Ed’s own ratings remain low (see the graphic above and here). The question, as Bale points out, is how central the leader is to winning elections. Does the increased ‘personalisation’ of politics mean that any changes in the party will be undermined by Ed himself?

And of course, it all depends on how much the Tories are prepared to change too.  One thing Bale emphasises is how much governing parties’ shifts are driven by their desperation to avoid an anticipated defeat.  With an election looming, Cameron may surprise everyone by jettisoning some measures that are supposedly set in stone and running with others that right now no-one would predict.

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London. Dr Mark Bennister is a Lecturer in Politics at Canterbury Christ Church University. He was previously a Teaching Fellow in British Politics at UCL, based in the Constitution Unit.

Red Ed versus City Boy: the link between party funding and reform of financial services

By Dr Ben Worthy

One question about the Great Recession is why political parties have not done more to reform the financial system that helped make it happen. It might, disappointingly, come down to money. 

Party Company (£) Friendly or Registered Society (£) Individual (£) Trade Union (£) Unincorporated Association (£) Trusts (£) Other donor types (£) 
British National Party  28,736
Conservative and Unionist Party 1,389,768 0 2,458,962 0 208,617 6,750 22,000
Co-operative Party 0 403,747 0 0 0 0 0
Green Party 0 0 12,500 0 0 0 0
Labour Party 179,088 50,000 418,223 2,560,274 160,208 0 84,646
Liberal Democrats 170,306 0 351,099 0 63,319 22,000 0
Plaid Cymru – The Party of Wales  58,456 
Scottish National Party (SNP) 145,845
The Socialist Party of Great Britain 0 0 0 0 0 26,758 0
UK Independence Party (UK I P) 0 0 37,485 0 0 0 0
Total 1,739,162 453,747 3,511,308 2,560,275 432,145 55,508 106,646

(Source the Electoral Commission)

This great piece from Johal, Moran and Williams points out the link between party funding and action, or more precisely lack of it, regarding reform of the financial services. Citing figures from the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, the article argues that one of the reasons why so little has been done to reform financial services post-crash is for one very simple reason: funding.

The Bureau’s investigation, on the eve of the Tories annual conference in Manchester, shows the proportion of donations to the Conservatives from the entire financial services sector has now reached 51.4% – up 0.6% from last year. This means the City’s financial influence over the Tories has deepened in the past 12 months.

You can see more details here and the workings out here.

What is also interesting is the Labour party. City donations to Labour under Ed Miliband have fallen away extraordinarily sharply: 

While the Conservative party is now reliant on the City for the bulk of its money, trade union funding now accounts for 91.3% of cash and non-cash donations to the Labour party’s central office, up from 59.9% in the year up to June 30 2010, according to the Electoral Commission.

As donations from the financial services sector to the Conservative party have risen, Labour’s support from companies and individuals has fallen sharply since Ed Miliband came to power. Between July 2001 and June 2010, private donations accounted for between 31.5% and 43.1% of party cash. Since July 2010, that figure has nose-dived to 6.6%.

So does the opposite hold true for Labour? Has Red Ed been freed up to urge banking reform because of the source of his money? But what will this Trade Union life support mean for the future?

Interestingly this data seems to show that each party, financially, fits the party caricature or negative stereotype. Each party is exactly what their opponents say it is: the Conservatives are beholden to the City and Labour is bound to the Trade Unions. The table above seems to indicate the patterns of funding polarisation are still constant as of the first quarter of this year.  The question may be whether David Cameron or Ed Miliband can afford, in many senses, to bite the hand that feeds them. Will either of them find that events or the need to break the stereotype force them to turn on their benefactors?

Dr Ben Worthy is a lecturer in the Department of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London.