MATTHEW LEE is not convinced that party branches, as currently organised, bring any added value to Scottish Labour
I was talking to a friend of mine yesterday. He’s a Labour Party member, has worked for an MP, and is generally interested in all things political. But he rarely attends meetings any more, and hasn’t campaigned in a good while either. While chatting, he posed a very simple question: “What do Labour Party branch meetings achieve?” I struggled to answer his question because, in the main, the answer is “nothing.”
The Labour Party’s basic unit of organisation – a term which neatly demonstrates outmoded thinking – is the local branch. I was a branch secretary for more than two years. I tried hard to increase membership and participation, but I was never quite clear what branches actually do. They might be a mechanism to hold councillors to account – if councillors turned up to meetings; they might be a way of getting people onto the doorstep – if a culture of campaigning exists; they might even be a way of feeding into the policy-making process – if people are properly aware that such mechanisms exist.
In reality, branches are nothing more than talking shops: the same six or seven people turn up, chew the cud about potholes, and then maybe deal with some trifling bureaucratic issue. Then they all go home. Then they do it all again next month. If the people I know from various CLPs are to be believed, this is an almost universal experience of branch meetings. What value, therefore, is derived from the current branch structure? I’d say very little if any.
Local parties should be reasonably small but also outward looking, active and open to new members. Instead, most branches are tiny, inert, rarely campaign and unwelcoming to newer members. The most recent Refounding Labour update has suggested that “there should be no default structure in the rules – but there should be options for organisation which were appropriate to different circumstances and from which a CLP could choose.” In short, CLPs will have the go-ahead to scrap branches but, if for some reason branch activity is healthy in a particular area, then it will be fine to keep using that structure.
I would suggest that branches – or whatever the basic unit of organisation will be called – should be bigger than they are currently, should have development plans with membership and campaigning targets, should be asked to suggest ideas for the Scottish/National Policy Forum process, and be open to supporters who are not yet members. This would create a larger pool of people within local parties, would provide members with strategies and targets for increasing their activity, and would allow people with Labour values, but are not members, to come along to meetings and campaign – letting them set the pace and scale of their involvement with the party.
I would also argue that the time has come to base CLPs on Holyrood rather than Westminster boundaries. Holyrood seats are smaller – and will become relatively even smaller after Westminster boundary changes – meaning that branches can be done away with while retaining a local focus. Given that the Refounding Labour document promotes flexibility, it would even be possible to have a single “branch” based on half a Holyrood constituency-based CLP. Organising along Holyrood boundaries does not only make organisational sense, but also sends out the signal that Scottish Labour takes devolution so seriously that it is willing to organise itself according to Scottish Parliament boundaries.
Our branch structures are no longer fit for purpose. They represent an organisational model based on how people lived in 1918. A lot has changed in the nearly one-hundred years since the Labour Party was constituted, and it is high time we caught up with social change. The election results in “traditional” Labour areas mirrored the decline and near-collapse of local structures. The only way to reverse this trend is to scale up the size of branches, give members a blueprint and targets for campaigning and recruitment, a commitment to let them contribute to policy-making, and to open up the Labour Party to people who share our values but have not quite made the leap and joined up.
A modern, open, outward-looking Labour Party can win elections; a lethargic, stultified and workshy Labour Party is doomed to more election defeats.
Matthew Lee is a former vice chair of Strathclyde University Labour Club and a Young Labour Representative on the Scottish Policy Forum. He was a Parliamentary Assistant for two years and remains an active member of the Co-operative Party. Follow him on Twitter at @matthewlee2.