Labor’s new leader, MK Isaac Herzog, wants to bring the party back to power.
That’s a tall order, as Labor’s own political planners readily acknowledge. The center-left party, whose chairmen were for decades shoe-ins to the Prime Minister’s Office, has led the country for just two years in the past 18. With 15 Knesset seats, Labor is not even the second-largest party in the current Knesset, and polls suggest its fortune is unlikely to change much unless the party itself changes dramatically.
That, at least, is the theory behind a new committee established by Herzog and tasked with developing recommendations for a refurbished Labor Party.
“Under [former leaders Ehud] Barak and [MK] Shelly [Yachimovich], we were less focused on being an alternative” to the ruling Likud, explained Rishon Lezion Deputy Mayor Moti Ajami, the chairman of the new committee, in a conversation Sunday with The Times of Israel. “They both talked about it, but they didn’t act in ways that positioned us as an alternative,” added Ajami, who led Herzog’s primary campaign in the fall.
“We don’t think the current party institutions are terrible, but that they can be improved,” insisted MK Hilik Bar, Labor’s secretary-general who will receive, together with Herzog, the committee’s recommendations.
The committee’s tasks include determining how the party might regain the large swaths of its once-reliable voting public who have abandoned it over the past two decades, dropping it from the high 30s and even 40s in terms of Knesset seats to the low teens.
“We have an ambition: to win back those who left the party for the likes of [Finance Minister Yair] Lapid [of Yesh Atid] or [Justice Minister Tzipi Livni’s] Hatnua. They left because the party was a bit too left-wing on socioeconomic issues under Shelly Yachimovich, or because the party didn’t speak about diplomatic issues,” Bar said.
“Today,” he noted, “we speak a great deal” about peace talks and the Palestinians, “about small- and medium-sized businesses and the middle class, about all the issues needed to lead a country. Our task is to come back to the people in the next elections and show them that the Labor Party, the party that established this country, can offer solutions to all the challenges that it faces.”
The committee is composed of 50 Labor activists “connected to the grassroots” — no mayors, MKs or other senior party leaders, but rather chapter heads, deputy mayors, student leaders, veteran organizers and members of internal party caucuses championing issues ranging from the environment to gay rights, animal rights and more.
The committee met for the first time on Thursday and gave itself 60 days to produce its initial recommendations.
Its mandate, explained Ajami, will be to study how the party might do a better job in the next elections of convincing the country it can replace the Likud and third-term premier Benjamin Netanyahu.
One key area for improvement, Ajami said, is the relatively small number of dues-paying members — just 60,000, roughly half the number boasted by Likud. “It’s not the most important sign of a party’s condition, but it is one sign,” he believes.
As it examines the grassroots operations, membership and messaging for the shrunken party, the committee will also take a hard look at some of the internal institutions and power centers of the party machinery — or so its proponents hope.
“Labor’s constitution is old, and was written piecemeal. The party’s [policy] bureau and central committee aren’t very active. The secretariat has almost 2,000 members. Is that too much? Are these institutions even necessary? What should they be doing?” Ajami asked, and said the committee will examine all those questions.
“I don’t have any specific proposal yet, because we haven’t really begun to discuss this in the committee,” he said. “But we have a strategic vision.”
In the end, a party with aging institutions, and perhaps an aging message, must be made “into an alternative that is more open, more transparent, more connected to the public.”