Thursday, 31 March 2011

Improving the Grassroots Labour Party

The document 'Refounding Labour'  was launched a few days, beginning a period of consultation by The Labour Party to look at the the issue of party renewal. All submission ends in Friday 24th June.

I will be submitting my own ideas on renewing the grassroots. They are the heart, the soul and the foot soldiers key to electoral success.

Here is my submission:

"The basic units of the Labour Party are Branches and Constituencies. They are, in my view, currently unfit for purpose. Members should be the campaigners, the community activists and the foot soldiers. People join the Labour Party because they believe that by working together, we can achieve more. They join  Labour because they believe in Social Justice and fighting inequality. They join Labour because they share the belief that Labour best represents the interests of ordinary people.

In my experience Branch and Constituency meetings are too often dull, bureaucratic and do not engage with members. Members should be talking about how the recent rise in Tuition fees will be stopping children from ordinary homes from getting the education the privileged take for granted, and how Labour could do it better and differently. While the Coalition is uprooting the basics of our society that we value - the NHS, education and care for the needy, branch meetings are taken over by 20 minutes of debate over when the local Co-Operative pay their affiliation fee, and who the cheque should be sent to. Councillors reports can take over the meeting for too long. After such a long reports, the vital debates over critical, national issues are given little if any time.

This makes ordinary members lose interest in the party, as their main motivation for joining is unsatisfied. How many meetings have the same people attending, working to the same bureaucratic agenda for years, wondering why the new members do not come?

I propose the following changes:

Constituency Parties

1. The part of Constituency business such as payments from Affiliate Organisations, and other minor managerial matters should be handled by a small executive on an ad hoc basis, away from the main meetings. Such matters should perhaps be summarised in document offered to meetings every quarter at the most.
2. The Constituency meetings every other month should be dedicated to debate and policy discussions. These should be broad reaching and involve independent expert speakers from outside the party, who can offer a full, rounded picture. The meeting should conclude with an agreed submission to offer up to the policy-making process.
3. The social aspect is very important. Alternating with policy meetings guest speakers, such as Cabinet Ministers and other MPs and Community Leaders, should be invited to address the party. These events should be social, with good quality refreshments available. These meetings would ideal opportunities for fund-raising and bringing people together.


1. The key function for the branches should be local campaigning.
2. Every branch should be able to identify local issues on which to focus: school field closures, dangerous junctions and so forth. The branch should lobby on behalf of the local community visibly to improve matters all year round. This will wed the party firmly to the local community and create a strong bond between Labour and other local community organisations.

These changes would revive Labour, build strong local communities and be a platform on which to win a General Election."

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

For Sam

Reading the recent update from Amnesty International on The Green Benches took my mind back the memory of a dear friend, Sam.

Some years back I was involved with Human Writes, an organisation that befriends people on Death Row in the US. As active campaigning against the death penalty is an obstacle to getting good access to Death Row, they entirely focus on providing friendship and support for prisoners.

I was put in contact with Sam,sentenced in 2001. We exchanged letters and soon became friends. He was always very polite and very keen see the world through my eyes. He often said I was his window to the world. We became genuine friends, and I learned more and more about his life.

The Early Years

Sam was born to a family ruled by absolute terror, where no trace of love or care was present. Family rules were enforced with a rod of iron, and minor infringements were brutally dealt with. Sam recalled being locked in a dark cupboard for hours at a time as a punishment. Violence was used against him and his brothers, including beatings with bare-wired cables, deliberate burns and even electrocutions. Further, Sam was subject to sexual abuse by his father over many years.

Sam, did try to get help, but all the Authority figures he dealt with ignored or disbelieved him for years and years. Eventually, the horror of this family home was discovered and Sam and his brothers were put into foster care.

A Trouble Youth

As Sam had fallen through every safety net and suffered serious trauma of every kind, he struggled to cope with adult world. He loved the outdoors and found occasional work in the oil fields of Texas. This was never stable, and Sam found himself getting involved in crime. He served prison sentences for forgery, burglary and for possession of a prohibited firearm.

Sam's Capital Crime

On the 18th January 1998 Sam was collected from home by his brothers in pick up truck. They were heading out to the Texas border to pick up illegal immigrants from Mexico. A 27 year old Hispanic male was picked up, and in the ensuing struggle received 10 stab wounds. The victim escaped from the truck, but died later.

Sam and his brothers were quickly picked up by the police. Sam was subsequently charged with second degree murder while committing a Felony.

Sam always admitted to stabbing the victim, but always denied robbery was the motive. He said that he snapped, as the victim reminded him of his father.

The victim was in full possession of his valuables when found dead.

Sam's Trial

Sam was essentially penniless, so his legal representation was State appointed. In the US, lawyers doing this work get less time and money to defend clients, compared to the rich pickings of defending the wealthy. Therefore, Sam's attorney did a very poor job with Sam's case. Aspects of his defence that should have investigated correctly were not, something that was to have terrible consequences later.

The case against Sam was that the victim was killed when being robbed. As the victim had no valuables taken, the evidence was weak. However, while deliberating, the jury came across and considered a statement made by Sam's brother, stating that Sam had intended to go out and rob someone that evening.

This evidence was not put forward by the prosecution, so how the jury got it remains a mystery. The Judge, instead of declaring a mistrial with the current jury, simply asked them to ignore this evidence and carry on. They came back and found Sam guilty, and the Death Sentence was passed on the 16th March 2001.

The Appeal

Sam appealed the sentence on the grounds that his attorney made fundamental mistakes with his defence. However, the law basically said that any evidence known at the time of the original trial, but not submitted, cannot be considered later. In this way Sam was condemned by the actions of his lawyer.

Another angle, that the statement of his brother should not have been given to the jury, and by the jury seeing what was an unproven, unchallenged piece of evidence they were fundamentally compromised, was rejected.

Eventually, Sam's appeals ran out of road.

Death by Lethal Injection

On Tuesday 29th April 2010 Sam was killed by lethal injection.

First, Sodium thiopental is given. It is a very strong ultra-short action barbiturate, an anaesthetic agent capable of rendering the prisoner unconscious in a few seconds.

Next, Pancuronium is injected. This is a non-depolarizing muscle relaxant, which causes complete, fast and sustained paralysis of the skeletal striated muscles, including the diaphragm and the rest of the respiratory muscles; this would eventually cause death by asphyxiation.

Finally, Potassium chloride is injected that stops the heart.

The Aftermath

Sam was not perfect, he did many things wrong and he killed a man.

However, Sam was brutalised and abused by all those in his life who should have nurtured him. People are not born killers or monsters, they are the product of how they are brought up, and the values this upbringing instils in them. Sam's start in life meant he was damaged from the beginning.

The flaws in the justice system are clear. The quality of justice received is too often dependent on the size of your bank account.

Death Row is full of people like Sam – like in the UK, a dysfunctional upbringing, poor education and poverty are strongly correlated to crime.

Please don't let Sam's death be in vain, or the death of his victim either. The way to prevent such tragedies is makes sure that no child grows up in the poverty and suffer the abuse that Sam suffered, and that everyone is given the chance to contribute to society in a positive way, without inequality or barriers.

The true face of the Death Penalty is an ugly one.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Reasons for Labour to be Cheerful

In recent weeks Ed Miliband's Labour has been in the unusual situation of being ahead in the polls, despite doing rather little, being kind.

Some Labour supporters (myself included) have been rather critical of Ed's light touch Leadership. One of the sharpest pieces I've read comes from  Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home - How-deep-is-Labours-support? An excellent analysis.

When researching the votes Labour has won and lost, by social class, I found some very interesting data from Ipsos MORI. A summary of UK voting by Social Class in General Elections 1979 - 2010 is below. I have also included the percentage of the UK Electorate by social class

(Please Click on the Image to Enlarge it)

Up to and including 1992 the ABC1 category was very strongly Conservative over Labour by 32%+. In 1997 Labour smashed this dominance. Tony Blair consciously  re-aligned the party, successfully attracting this Electorate. Labour also improved the C2 and DE classes substantially.

Forward to 2010. While Labour lost some of the support from the ABC1 classification, the Conservatives were substantially below the levels of 1992 and earlier. This must concern them.

In the C2 group Labour were below the levels of support from any GE from 1979 to 2005, as is the DE class.

So what does this mean?

Due to the size of the ABC1 class, they cannot be ignored. Labour cannot win without keeping these voters happy and taking some back from the Conservatives. However, Labour must be delighted this group has stayed quite loyal.

The C2 and DE classes are critical for Labour to start winning General Elections again. Both swung alarmingly from Labour in 2010. However, the austerity measures the UK faces will hurt this group very hard, so should be easy to targets to get back.

The Labour Leader is therefore facing a dilemma that he must solve - how does he make Labour attractive to the working classes while keeping the middle class on board.

Answers on postcard (but don't mention Tony Blair or New Labour. He says he doesn't like that.)

Update - 22nd March 2011

I have put a calculator at the bottom of the page that predicts the overall result of a General Election based on the support for each party from each social class. It is based on the social class size that Polling companies weight to today. 

Have fun!