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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19 Responses to “Peter Watt is wrong: Labour needs its members”

  1. Will Straw

    Why @PeterWatt123 is wrong on party membership, by @AntonyPainter for @leftfootfwd

  2. Mark Ferguson

    RT @wdjstraw: Why @PeterWatt123 is wrong on party membership, by @AntonyPainter for @leftfootfwd << Spot on Anthony

  3. Claire Spencer

    Thanks for highlighting @anthonypainter's piece on party membership, @Markfergusonuk. Movement, not static organisation.

  4. Peter Watt

    RT @leftfootfwd Peter Watt is wrong: Labour needs its members << I actually agree with quite a lot of this

  5. Mark Ferguson

    RT @PeterWatt123: RT @leftfootfwd Peter Watt is wrong << I actually agree with quite a lot of this << Very confused now

  6. Stuart Bruce

    And the answer is probably somewhere between the two of you. Yes, a locally run membership drive is far better and cheaper than a centrally run one. But the big problem is the cost of joining. I could probably go our and recruit 10-20 new members in my ward tomorrow if it wasn’t so idiotically expensive. There are lots of active Labour supporting people in my community and those that I know that just can’t/won’t pay that much.

  7. Red Ed

    If only we’d been quicker to institute id cards we would have had a ready made database to attack with the phone banks. Another missed opportunity!

  8. A Very Public Sociologist

    I don’t want to be unkind to Peter, but to seriously argue Labour shouldn’t actively seek new members is the dumbest thing I’ve heard for a long time. Shows how completely out of touch he is.

  9. Simon

    This view can only be expressed by someone in a party headed by a narrow elite who have no time for the rank and file of the party so long as they pay their dues. They have become too used to ignoring local parties and controlling conferences. Recruitment presents a danger to them because it might mean they can no longer do so.

  10. Deborah Segalini

    I wonder how Peter Watt thinks we’re going to be able to support any kind of campaign without more members or activists. I know I could do with some in my constituency.

  11. Peter Watt

    RT @leftfootfwd Peter Watt is wrong: Lab needs its mems << I didn't say we didn't need our members

  12. ikeaddy

    RT @leftfootfwd: Peter Watt is wrong: Labour needs its members If you support Labour, read this.

  13. Peter Watt

    I’m glad to have started a debate! I am not arguing that the Party doesn’t need it’s members. On the contrary I argue that we should support members to be more self sustained in their activities with more online tools like the fantastic online phonebanks. But I don’t think that we should concentrate on building a mass MEMBERSHIP Party as evdence points to this being impossible to achieve – whatever welcome short term membership bounce we get. I argue for a mass Party that is more innovative about how it engages with the public including their involvement in selections for candidates and Leaders. Now you might disagree but that is hardly calling for a downgrading of the Party – on the contrary.

  14. Solomon Hughes

    To me it seems like Peter Watt is proposing is a model for an “X Factor” type party, where the leadership makes decisions based on it’s perception of “the public” point of view – which is going to be the same focus-group driven, passive, heavily influenced by what press say today , New Labour approach. No intention for the Labour party to lead in politics, to set out principles or policies that might enthuse the membership. That Labour’s one time, long time Gen Sec should be so uninterested in the membership – it is pretty shocking. Peter Watt says “We use talking to members and membership recruitment as a proxy for listening to voters”. Well thank god Labour was able to resist the temptation of listening to it’s members for so long with Watt’s help – or the Labour government would have been stuck with unpopular policies backed by the members like, er, building council houses, not getting in bed with G Bush’s wars, not fawning over the bankers etc.

  15. Henry

    What really matters is building a mass movement of grassroots activists who will campaign for the party & its values. Inspired by progressives in the US, organisations like 38 Degrees, Hope Not Hate have already done this here in the UK. The Labour Party, in opposition but with an inspiring new leader, now really have an opportunity here. Will they take it?

  16. Anthony Painter

    Join the debate about party reform sparked by (the v.gracious) @PeterWatt123 in my piece here

  17. Chris Baldwin

    Labour doesn’t just need its members, Labour is its members (and the affiliated organisations). The task of the machine is to represent us.

  18. Donny

    Interesting that a Labour-supporting blog is pointing out the weaknesses of centralisation – it costs more and takes real influence further away from real people, so they identify with it less.

  19. Reclaiming membership (part 1): Paul Richards and the Lukes-Freire concept of oppression « Though Cowards Flinch

    […] in part 2: Reflecting on the conceptual limitations of the Watt-Painter debate about party membership: who gets to say what members are […]

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