It's a funny thing, democracy. It's very popular when it delivers the outcome that you want, but a problem when it doesn't, a point which becomes all the more evident if you are an activist in a political organisation. Note that I say 'organisation' and not 'party', as I've encountered the same situation both as a Liberal Democrat and in other groups that I've been involved in.
Organisations develop their internal democracies in a manner which reflects their philosophy. For example, Liberal Democrats are suspicious of 'strong leadership' whereby the Leader and his/her key supporters have the authority to take important decisions without much, if any, in the way of consultation. Accordingly, the Party constitution is designed to diffuse power to Local Parties, regions and States, as Nick Clegg has discovered recently.
The Labour Party, on the other hand, appears far more collectivist, which makes sense, I suppose. Built upon a foundation of union strength, individual Unions have an influence that reflects their financial and organisational impact, whereas the fear of entryism of the form perfected by Militant in the seventies and eighties made empowering individuals risky.
As for the Conservatives, power appears to be top-down and rather directive. As a member, you have no real say in policy-making, and as the voluntary party melts away, the potential influence of large donors becomes more decisive. That said, I'm not actually sure who, apart from pollsters and Old Etonians, drives Conservative policy-making at the moment.
Changing the way your internal democracy works is quite a step, and is a means of defining who you are, or how you want to be perceived. And there are three reasons why, as a leader, you might do it;
- to protect yourself from events that might be otherwise beyond your control - rogue activists, unexpected policy initiatives - by holding power close;
- as a response to what those people you need/want to influence are telling you that they would like;
- because what you have doesn't work - societal and technological changes mean that your structures are obsolete.
But, whichever reason applies, change has to be faithful to the underlying political philosophy.
So, for all the speculation over what Ed Milliband is hoping to achieve by these changes, the success or failure of them will only emerge slowly, over time. If he's right, his party's internal democracy will flourish, and with it the loyalty of some, if not all, of those who make Labour stronger and more effective as part of a participatory democracy. In itself, it probably won't attract support, but any organisation where morale is high will be more successful than one where it isn't.
And for those of us who believe that a healthy democracy requires healthy political parties, we can only wish the reforms a fair wind.