Labor's choice: Reform or die

Labor must look forward and not backward in order to survive in the political climate.

Shelly Yacimovich at Labor Central Committee 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Shelly Yacimovich at Labor Central Committee 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Judging from the Labor Party’s showing in the recent elections, it faces an uphill task if it is ever again to lead a government.
Many argue that Labor is in terminal decline. In 1992, Labor managed to win 44 seats in the Knesset, but by 2013 it could only manage a very disappointing 15 seats.
In terms of its share of the vote, Labor polled 906,810 votes in 1992 under Yitzhak Rabin, 34.7 percent of all votes cast. In the recent elections, Labor managed a scant 432,083 votes, a mere 11.39% of all votes. There is clearly a very big question mark about Labor’s ability to win back the 500,000 voters it has lost over the past 20 years.
Labor’s final election rally in Tel Aviv epitomized its decline. Not only was the rally sparsely attended, always a very bad sign on the eve of an election and a sure indicator the party was heading toward a disappointing result, but looking around at the faces showed the crowd to be very monolithic.
Very few Mizrachim were present, no Russians, (actually there was one, former Kadima MK Nina Abesadze), no Ethiopians and very few members of the Arab community.
The crowd was overwhelmingly Labor’s core voter base: middle class secular Ashkenazim. It was like going back to the Israel of David Ben-Gurion in the 1950s, not the modern, diverse Israel of the 21st century. A party that is unrepresentative of the country it seeks to govern will never be able to lead it.
Labor in the next few years needs to rebuild the party from top to bottom. It should aim to double its membership, currently standing at 66,000, particularly by recruiting from communities where is it currently unrepresented so as to look more like Israel. The party would also benefit from the fresh perspectives its new members would bring. Being a Labor Party member should be fun, there should be more social events, and trips, opportunities to make friends and meet new people.
Labor also needs to reform party structures and should abolish its decision making body, the Central Committee, which sounds like an anachronism from the former Soviet Union. In its place, Labor should hold an annual conference lasting a few days to debate and agree on policy, rotating the venue around the country each year. In each region of the country party members will be given the opportunity to vote to elect their representatives to the conference and it would be these delegates who would decide policy.
The conference would also be an opportunity for a bit of good old-fashioned political razzmatazz combined with the chance to showcase the party to the public, with a keynote speech by the party leader on prime-time television. Even before policy is debated at the party conference, there should be a process of discussions and deliberations in various Labor party policy forums and they must be tested with focus groups to ensure that whilst they are strongly rooted in Labor’s social democratic principles, the polices are also in tune with the aspirations of the Israeli people regarding the economy, social policy and above all security. Labor needs to go back to the drawing board and review each and every one of its policies.
THE PARTY has to reform in other ways, as well, and that responsibility falls on the shoulders of party leader Shelly Yacimovich. The party will only be able to attract more support if it can show the public it has reformed. One way of publicly demonstrating such mission would be to take on those vested interests currently supported by the Labor party at the expense of the general public.
The Likud is wrong to defend the vested interests of the tycoons, but Labor is equally wrong to defend vested interests in the public sector. How can it be right when the average Israeli family is struggling to get by that Labor defends port workers earning almost three times the average salary and who operate a closed shop? Shelly Yacimovich needs to use Labor’s time in opposition to reinvigorate the party as a credible opposition to the Likud-led government.
She must in the next two years prove that she is a prime minister in waiting or she must reconsider her position, as Labor must be led by someone who is perceived by the public as a potential prime minister.
A poll by the Mako in December 2012 put her personal poll ratings at 14%, a truly dire figure. She needs to drastically improve on this figure if the party is to seriously challenge the Likud. At the 1992 General Election in the UK, everyone in the Labor party was confident Neil Kinnock would lead Labor to victory at the polls after three consecutive defeats. The problem was the British public did not see Kinnock as prime ministerial material and the Conservatives went on to win the general election under John Major despite the severe economic recession. Yacimovich does not want to meet a similar fate and become Israel’s Kinnock.
Labor has a great history, but must look to the future and not wallow complacently in past glories or be satisfied with minority-party status representing trade unions and north Tel Aviv.
Labor needs to reform or it will die as a political party.
Reform will be painful, but the prize will be a Labor party in touch with the people of Israel, once again challenging for the leadership of the state.
The writer formerly worked in the British Parliament as a political adviser to a Labor Member of Parliament and is an active member of the Israeli Labor Party.