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At root, Miliband's Party problem is our problem too

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 07.54.56
By Paul Goodman
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Ed Miliband displays what child psychiatrists call a "pattern of behavior".  Confronted with a problem he can no longer avoid, he moves late and does little, a response that voters have seen again and again.  First on immigration, then on welfare, then on borrowing, he has half-closed the door on Labour's respective problems - wanting to let in lots of immigrants, soak taxpayers for lots of welfare, and borrow lots of money on the never-never - thereby inviting his left and the unions to push it open again.  "Weak weak weak" comes the cry and the briefings from Downing Street and CCHQ, and they are as right as they are repetitious.

His speech today on Labour and the unions offers more of the same.  No-one anywhere - not Polly Toynbee, not Owen Jones, not Laurie Penny - believes he would be making it were he not in a hole and trying to dig himself out.  It follows that the proposals in his speech won't have been thought through, and that as an answer to Labour's problems it will only pose further questions.  These will duly be asked by Grant Shapps, Dan Hodges, this site and many others, keeping the Unite story on TV and in the headlines as the summer days stretch gloriously on.

Toby Young is early out of the traps this morning, asking ten questions about Miliband's speech.  (You see, I told you that the Labour leader's speech will close nothing down.)  They are all good ones.  Some of them have no application for any party other than Labour.  For example, Young asks if Miliband will troop through the lobbies with Cameron to force "opt-in" on the unions.  Others, however, move closer to home.  Young wonders what's to stop him "registering in London as a Labour supporter and then voting for Red Ken to be the Mayoral candidate in 2016?"

The answer, almost certainly, is nothing - but, by extension, there would be nothing to stop Labour Party members registering in London as Conservative supporters, and voting for the most outlandish Tory candidate they can find, were the Party to adopt the same system.  Young also has fun with John Prescott's muddled calculations on Newsnight yesterday evening: as he points out, Labour can't both lose and gain overall financially from any change.  Labour's membership won't rise by 500,000 if three million trade unionists simultaneously leave.

But much the same trade-off would come into play were CCHQ to scrap the £25 minimum membership fee.  Would more small sums from lots of new members make up the money gap left by fewer £25 payments from the old ones?  There is an obvious objection to these counter-questions - namely, that the Conservative Party isn't planning to mirror Miliband's plans. It isn't proposing to open up candidate selections for the London Mayoralty or for Parliamentary selections.  So the problems I've posed don't arise.

Quite so.  But in which case, another question arises.  Is the Party simply going to stagger on as it is, losing more and more members each year - all the way to the point where they may be a Conservative Party in the Commons, but there will no longer be one on the ground?  As Gavin Barwell points out on this site today, local Associations don't exist in most Labour-held urban seats, and scarcely do in many suburban marginals, either. Much of the Conservative machine is as out of date as an Austin-Healey car.

There are signs of change.  Shapps has introduced Team 2015, which by-passes the old membership structure.  Some Associations have increased their membership - such as Douglas Carswell's in Harwich, invigorated by hard work, personal contact and innovative campaigning.  Like Barwell, Carswell is full of suggestions about how to revive the Party: proof that ideas aren't a monopoly of any one part of it.  ConservativeHome is rolling out a series of essays this week, of which Barwell's is one, about how to revive the Party, all part of an initiative led by David Skelton.

It is easy to expose and mock Miliband's "Buddha-like qualities", to borrow Tom Watson's lapidary phrase - and necessary, too.  But Labour's fundamental problem isn't that people are being signed up as members without their knowledge.  It's that so very few want knowingly to join it at all, a condition shared, as the graph at the top of this article reminds us, by the Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats, UKIP (whose membership is a puny 20,000 or so) - in short, by everyone.  To stand a chance of changing this, our Party is going to have to think more deeply and radically than Miliband himself will ever dare.


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