Shortly after the general election, fearful of another 5 years of anti-austerity Osbornomics, I asked the Labour Party about the benefits, expectations and costs of becoming a ‘registered supporter’. I had to write via the ‘contact-us’ page at the official website because there appeared to be no way to uncover the information on the site itself.
It’s the kind of predictable question for which I assumed the party would have a prepared, easily accessible, enticing answer. I was wrong. I tried asking via Twitter, squeezing my question politely into a 140-character message to @UKLabour: “Grateful to know how I become a ‘registered supporter’, the benefits etc., any cost, and if allowed to vote in leader contest.” That’s the kind of customer enquiry that usually evinces a rapid reply on Twitter from successful modern enterprises, savvy about social media. Labour, however, is not one such. I received no reply at all on-line for almost three weeks.
For the next few days I pursued the party left, right and centre on Twitter. The people @UKLabour apparently had time every hour to tweet invitations for new members. So, I asked if they themselves had time to answer my question, noting that they might get a new ‘registered’ supporter. Answer came there none. Candidate-for-leader Mary Creagh tweeted followers, urging us to join the Labour Party: “it only takes two minutes”. I tweeted her that the Party seemed to need a lot longer than that to respond to a simple enquiry. Could she help? Prompt with an apology, she ‘ followed it up’ with the Party, but I heard nothing further.
Andrew Sparrow of the live politics blog at the Guardian does, however, respond to Tweets: he followed the matter up, to be told by Labour HQ of a page-link for signing-up. I found that it led to a dead end—a Google error message. I tweeted Labour HQ about the error: again, no response. I tweeted BBC Radio 4’s World at One (#wato), and found that they also do take rapid note of tweets. They made reference that lunchtime to my struggle for information, to be told by interviewee Harriet Harman that ‘registered supporter’ status was new (it is not), but that she would follow ‘it’ up. She hasn’t, at least not with me!
The culture and reality of an organisation is manifest in the little things. You can extract the essence of an organisation from the smallest of incidents. Swedish consultant Richard Normann in his book on Strategy and Management in Service Business (1991) called these the ‘moments of truth’. An organisation’s real attitude and values are betrayed in the detail of the daily thousands of moments of dealing with customers or donors or members or voters.
Labour’s failure to respond to me, at all on-line until a third reminder, and completely on Twitter, represents a collection of such ‘moments of truth’, all conveying the same message. The Party may think it has moved on from a crushing general election defeat to the important business—a forward-looking one-member-one-vote leadership contest; but the continuing inability to connect with would-be and wavering supporters permeates its every action. Its leaders and officials speak of their desire to connect with aspirational voters, but the party’s processes and actions have the motivational effect of a slap in the face with a wet manifesto. And this is not new; such attitudes and poor processes dogged the party ten years ago.
Back then I was a paid-up member of the party. But I was affronted by the saga of Iraq, appalled at the creeping authoritarianism of party and government, fed-up with attacks on young people and their educators, despairing of attempts to remove benefits from homeless young people. There was no way to influence the party as a member. I stopped my direct-debit and emailed to tell the party why. I received just one reply saying they assumed my lapsed direct debit was ‘merely an oversight’. There were no regrets; no thanks for past efforts and support; no request for illumination about reasons. They were not interested in why I had chosen to leave. They have not been interested since in trying to attract me back.
For Labour, extracting lessons from this sorry saga would require a commitment to learning the meaning of administrative and service mistakes. It would require a degree of humility in the assessment of why so many people have left the party in recent years—not boasting about numbers joining in recent weeks— and an interest in the actual experience of interacting with the party if you are not a devotee, if you are outside not inside. It would require a respectful application of the disciplines of successful commercial and not-for-financial-profit enterprises. In short, it would demand a reckoning with the concerned, questioning people who desperately seek a modern progressive political movement in which to place their trust south of the Scottish border.
Without such an approach, a revival of the Labour Party’s fortunes will not be possible. Leaders, members and officials will collude to maintain approaches with which they feel comfortable, oblivious to lost opportunities and new voices, until they are supplanted—as in Scotland.
The task is not just to focus again on re-shaping policy. Sure, problems of policy and vision are intense and long-term: the Party needs to secure support simultaneously from apparently very different sets of voters in Scotland, in the North, in the South-East, and outside urban areas. Nor is the answer to seek salvation in a new leader. The results of machine politics as usual are evident already in candidates who were nowhere near the front of the election last time, or who see the future in appealing to conservatives and returning to a renewed Blairite blueprint from another time.
The centre-left needs a truly responsive, respectful, learning movement. If the Labour Party cannot respond, respect and learn, it cannot change and it will not be embraced by those who currently do not ‘support’ it but actually would quite like to.