This strangulation of dreams is creating a phantom party

This strangulation of dreams is creating a phantom party
Polly Toynbee
The Guardian

The symbolism was too good to be true. No screenwriter could have devised so apt an image as the rough handling of an 82-year-old party member out of the Labour conference for shouting ‘That’s a lie!’ Some New Labour enthusiasts have scoffed at such a triviality getting front page display, but they deliberately ignore its graphic significance. This old man perfectly embodied a weak and depleted party that was not even allowed to debate the war it has been dragged into.

It hasn’t been necessary yet to forcibly eject all members from the party: half have already stomped off of their own accord. The hall in Brighton was emptier than for years: two thirds of MPs did not bother to attend and a third of constituencies failed to send any delegates. Regional officers sent favourite sons to fill seats for the rotten boroughs without genuine members. Election campaign reports reveal a party hollowed out, often a near empty shell where even ‘activists’ remain angrily inactive at home.
Who cares about the state of parties? Certainly not the 40% of the public who didn’t vote. Manufactured applause, archaic speeches and arcane composite motions make conferences look like some obscure religious rite behind an altar screen. Political parties are dying on their feet. The weird and eccentric remnant of the Conservative party which is now to choose yet another leader is in a far worse state. But Labour’s troubles also look endemic. Thousands join protest movements or single-issue lobbies, but why would anyone with passionate views newly sign up with the ruling party? Trust and enthusiasm are hard to rekindle under a leader grudgingly accepted as competent, but hardly a stirring idealist.

Consider just how empty Labour is now that it has lost control of heartland cities. In conference fringe meetings, fallen councillors plaintively lamented how they once had a Labour council and MP, and now have neither. With few councillors, local parties lose their roots and their reason for existing. Newcastle, Bristol, Birmingham, Bradford, Liverpool and even Doncaster, these bare, ruined Labour choirs will be joined in May by Camden, Hammersmith and Fulham, and other London boroughs once forever Labour. Lambeth, Islington and Southwark have already gone. Labour is disappearing in the real world.

The trade unions, once the backbone of TGMOO (this great movement of ours) may have had their last hurrah in Brighton. Their might alone voted down Labour’s health and pensions policies and worked in favour of legalising secondary strikes. Set aside the rights and wrongs of these issues: a handful of union barons out-voting constituency parties was hardly democratic. The unions themselves are hollowed out, emptied partly by years of devoting more resources to baronial priorities than to recruiting the lowest paid and most vulnerable.

Tony Blair will now reform the party voting system to stop union domination. He may also break the unions’ last real hold on Labour, as its financier, by opting for state financing of parties. This is a long necessary act to free all parties from the gross corruption of grubbing and grovelling for money from bizarre billionaires who want power and favours in return. But it also puts at risk Labour’s umbilical link to a working class that has not died, even if now it owns its own home and no longer belongs to union or party. It risks cementing Labour’s future as the party too much on display in conference hotel bars, brimming with careerists wanting to take the special adviser route to parliament, lobbyists, thinktankies, power groupies and eye-on-the-main-chance hangers on.

Democracy cannot survive on virtual parties, manufactured by professionals, devoid of roots. Labour is in danger of becoming a phantom party – a self-perpetuating oligarchy given absolute power by only 25% of the electorate through a perverted voting system that will, with a swing of the pendulum, deliver the same power to an equally unrepresentative Tory clique.

What was encouraging was the life and verve on the fringe in Brighton, where enough decent and desperately worried MPs, ministers and long-time members agitated over how to renew, repair, and woo lost members and voters. Public consultations, citizens juries, Big Conversations, new neighbourhood entities; they were seeking authentic ways to reconnect people with power. Geoff Hoon, the Leader of the House is now considering compulsory voting – and why not? A citizen’s duty to vote helps establish that everyone has common responsibilities as well as rights.

After the election result there is stronger interest in voting reform. Although growing numbers of the powerful, including Patricia Hewitt, are calling for proportional representation, the party remains doubtful. But Peter Hain and Ed Balls, Gordon Brown’s right hand man, are among many now advocating a one-two-three alternative vote; giving voters choice as they list parties in order of preference. It gives small parties a chance: voters could, for example, put the Green candidate first and Labour second if they wanted to make sure a vote for a risky party would never let a Tory in by accident. A wider array of parties with a chance of gaining MPs could attract voters back to the polls.

Only proportional representation, though, would make the real difference. One reason why politics has atrophied is the voting system’s imperative for all parties to target the same 250,000 waverers on the centreground in key marginals. All parties crowd together, and use the same language and blandishments to entice a handful of the non-political at the expense of big ideas, killing off more progressive ambitions. Never underestimate the damage done by this.

Nonetheless, it is not systems that matter most. Reform is a sine qua non, but in the end what engages people is belief, hope, optimism and enthusiasm. Ed Miliband MP, another Brown footsoldier, put it best in a rousing speech at a meeting on social justice, talking of the deep divide in income, class and wealth. He quoted the American social critic Russell Jacoby: ‘The choice we have is not between reasonable proposals and an unreasonable Utopianism. Utopian thinking does not undermine or discount real reforms. Indeed it is almost the opposite: practical reforms depend on Utopian dreaming – or at least Utopian thinking drives incremental improvements.’

He captured the mood : frustrated, waiting for the next Labour-era, hoping for something better. Without the big vision of the good society, without a Utopian dream, the steps Labour has already taken go unnoticed and under-credited. Tony Blair decried ‘ideology’ in his speech, calling it theology and dogma. But it has been his deliberate, triangulating strangulation of dreams that has lead to his party’s atrophy. People flock to parties attracted by great ideas. No other clever stratagems will repair Labour (or Tory) fortunes.

At the end of the week we are none the wiser about Gordon Brown’s plans. But necessarily circumscribed, speaking in code, he spelled out something more hopeful. Tony Blair looks destined to stay on and on, though the longer he stays, the higher his risk of leaving ungracefully. Stuff happens in politics and Alastair Campbells’ triumphalism on these pages smacks of hubris. He should be giving his friend wiser advice than this.