Tuesday, April 14, 2009

There are lessons for every party in the McBride scandal

There has been an extraordinary amount of column inches and blog pixels spent on the Derek Draper / Damian McBride scandal and I hadn't intended to weigh in on this one, however, there is an interesting aspect to this affair that hasn't been widely picked up - and that's the crucial lessons that every party can learn from the affair.

Not in terms of blogging et al as such but in terms of the importance of internal democracy and accountability. Here we have two individuals who were not simply rogue elements in the party but were privileged insiders. Both have a history of dirty tricks including against fellow party members and, to a great extent, it is that history to which they owed their position.

Both Draper and McBride were recognised by significant numbers within the party as real problems and those concerns had been raised by party members both privately and publicly including, in McBride's case, at cabinet level. Brown is reported to have promised months ago to sideline McBride at the behest of cabinet colleagues - but that simply did not happen.

It amounts to an unaccountable clique at the heart of the party, and in this case the government. Any criticism of Draper's extremely problematic LabourList, for example, was seen as disloyalty to the party. Even senior cabinet members were unable to curb these rogue elements because they had backing at the highest level. This isn't just a problem that the Labour Party faces, it is a potential problem for every political organisation (and non-political ones too probably).

Party members who have criticisms to make of party initiatives, departments or members are not just inconveniences but an important corrective that can help improve party performance. Without the ability of members to at least have a say over the direction of the party they are a member of, and that includes publicly voicing concerns, that party cannot make any claim to democracy - and certainly will be sabotaging its own ability to retain experienced members.

That does not mean that all criticism is appropriate or, heaven forbid, correct but its existence is not an affront to anyone but control freaks and psychopaths. But alas there are plenty of those in every party. Those people wrongly see every suggestion that things could be done differently as evidence of an enemy within who want to tear down everything their party has achieved.

Derek Draper himself is reported to have said, complaining of his "off message" colleagues, "If you want to be a superstar blogger, get in the papers but lose Labour an election - you can just fuck off". Well quite Derek, quite. But then the off message voices were right weren't they?

In the long term the failure to listen to those critical of Draper and McBride's over-promotion has done untold damage to the Labour Party. A party of sheep who bleat pleasantries at whatever the centre does is a party waiting for death.

Even when internal voices are clearly wrong, it can indicate a need to sharpen the way the message is delivered or put minds at ease over unfounded concerns - but the instinct of internal cliques is all too often to veer towards defensiveness, attacking or even smearing critics demanding they shut up. That response is something all of us in politics need to guard against.

Don't get me wrong - those who only have criticisms without making contributions, who are motivated by personal vendettas or who are consistently negative can just fuck off - but the majority of people who take the trouble to join political parties do so to build rather than simply destroy and criticisms they have to make, both positive and negative, both privately and publicly, are opportunities to improve the organisation's performance which are disregarded at our peril.

We don't have to agree with any and every criticism levelled by fellow party members, but the instinct to suppress does far more damage than any inconveniences that organisational democracy might bring - like raising real and legitimate concerns about those at the heart of the party that do it more harm than good.


Peter Cranie said...

An excellent post Jim, with impeccable timing to link in with my own!

Scott said...

Myself and the Rt Hon Gary Dunion had our first chat today, and it touched on this.