Peter Watt is wrong: Labour needs its members

Peter Watt's insistence that Labour should stop attempting to recruit members is wrong. The success of local models of party organisation, in Birmingham, Oxford and Gedling is proof of this.

Just once in a while you read a piece that so breathtakingly misses the point that you have to re-read it several times. Peter Watt’s argument that Labour shouldn’t try to recruit more members falls firmly into this category.

The rational response is laughter but I’m afraid it has me in tears- and it explains a lot of what has happened since 1997. Watt was general secretary of the party for a time and saw the party shrivel year by year. He seems reconciled to this as a fact of nature which, to be frank, is just not good enough.

Apparently, focusing on recruiting members is too costly, means you ignore the electorate, and ends up in political disaster as they just leave anyway and that is embarrassing.

Let’s simply dispatch these arguments one by one. When Watt asserts that a membership drive is too costly what he’s talking about is an expensive centrally driven marketing exercise. I agree. That is too costly. And it’s ineffective. And increasingly campaigning, membership recruitment, membership relationship building has been centralised over the last decade and a half. That’s expensive. And it’s ineffective.

But what if membership recruitment is local and personal? What if Labour becomes a community embedded, movement party? It becomes about building a whole myriad of local relationships- with civil society, supporters, and members within communities. Then it is less expensive. And it’s effective.

It shouldn’t be necessary to revisit Birmingham Edgbaston, Oxford East, Gedling or a whole other range of constituencies who have ignored the centralised machine approach and made a success of building relational, growing, community focused and electorally successful Labour parties to make the point.

The success of these local models of party organisation should show why it’s worth the effort. What if Hope not Hate had simply said that recruiting 1000s of volunteers to defeat the BNP wasn’t worth the hassle? Well, rather than willing them off the electoral map in 2010 there may now be significantly more BNP councillors.

Watt goes on to assert:

“We use talking to members and membership recruitment as a proxy for listening to voters.”

But who are the ‘we’ to whom Peter Watt refers? I suspect he means the ‘party.’ But again, he is guilty of conceiving the party as a machine whereas, at its best, it is far more organic than that and should be much more so. The more it expands its reach into communities, the more organic and relational the party will become.

You expand your horizons by reaching out and broadening your field of vision. More real connections means a broader perspective which means a more responsive party. The argument for diversity is the same- it’s not about ticking boxes, it’s about broadening our understanding making us more creative and responsive to all needs.

So there is no conflict between expanding the party and understanding the electorate. Peter Watt calls this expansion strategy, ‘a membership drive’ but it’s not that at all. It is about changing the nature of the party. Reaching and understanding the electorate and making the party broader and more outward looking are one in the same. It is a false dichotomy and category error.

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