West Australian ALP State Secretary Simon Mead has accused Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd of missing the point in their efforts to reenergise Labor’s membership, saying inept communication has driven new members out the door within months of their arrival.

The crucial intervention highlighting the issue of membership “churn” on the eve of the party’s national conference will add to calls for the prime minister to articulate a clear narrative to stop interest levels waning as tumbleweeds infest Labor’s few remaining active branches.

Gillard has called for the party to recruit 8000 new members next year, with Rudd agitating for the direct election of national conference, the national executive and possibly the party’s leader.

Mead, who hails from the Left, says that rather than the internal stasis highlighted by eastern states reformers, the real reason Labor has been unable to grow should be sheeted home to a flailing government unable to spruik its wins.

“Thousands of people are still joining every year but now they are quitting just as fast,” he said. “And it is not because they couldn’t vote for a national conference delegate. It is because the government does stuff they hate … and it never explains why.

“Julia called for us to have 8000 new members. Now Kevin has called for us to have better internal democracy. Leaving aside the hypocrisy, both are completely ignoring the real problem — membership churn.”

After a small spike in members in the lead-up to the t-shirt-driven Kevin ’07 triumph, the party’s numbers have fallen even further off a cliff, according to this telling graph in the Bracks/Carr/Faulkner review:

Mead says his state branch has been trying hard to reverse the turnaround but had been hamstrung by the government’s communications ineptitude.

Of the 800 new members that joined in the last calendar year, 60% leave within 18 months because, says Mead, “the government they become a part of doesn’t do the things they like and doesn’t explain itself”.

“Floating the dollar was not a Labor initiative until Hawke and Keating explained it in Labor terms,” he said. “They explained it to the membership with reference to the Labor project and looking after working people and that was the reason everyone joined.

“Unless you explain your policies you lose people and they walk straight back out the door,” he said, echoing Paul Keating’s comments earlier this month.

Mead says the state’s 174-strong WA State Executive, which meets seven times a year, had embarked on a “huge policy process” around early childhood development and justice with the input of local branches, with some success. It recently hired an experienced Victorian campaigner to help lead a revamped membership drive.

Labor is said to have 35,000 members nationally, with about 3000 hailing from WA.

However, as NSW Legislative Council leader Luke Foley has demonstrated, the real national number could be much less than that with NSW’s membership said to have plummeted to around 8500. In NSW, rather than attend early evening branch meetings, dried up bleeding hearts seem content to crack open a bottle of Shiraz and re-live the Tom Uren glory days.

Meanwhile, Crikey understands the National Left will push to adopt as many recommendations as possible from the reform document at this weekend’s conference, including an amnesty for former members, preselection primaries and the partial direct election of the national executive. A further proposal will call for the directly-elected party president to vote on the powerful national executive. The Right has prevaricated on the direct election proposal and wants to deny Left president Jenny McAllister a say.

The Left is also believed to be keen to preserve the 50% national conference vote of smaller affiliated unions who may lose representation under the revamped system because the quota may be too high, thereby strengthening the hand of powerful Right unions such as the National Union of Workers, the Shop Assistants and the Australian Workers Union.

The question of whether affiliated unions’ delegates are appointed by the national office or by a ballot at state conference will also need to be resolved.

However, many of the ideas have been contested by the Right’s own reform agenda, including NSW State Secretary Sam Dastyari’s special take on primaries and National Right convener David Feeney’s “Political Action Caucuses”, aimed at superseding Left-dominated groups including Labor Environment Action Network, Rainbow Labor and Labor for Refugees.

Another proposal, dubbed the “Dastyari distraction” among some activists, is a so-called national policy forum that recently led to an increase in garish election propaganda in its NSW incarnation as the rank and file jostled for the 16 available places. It is slated to replace the currently moribund nine-member national policy committee.

After days of teasing on Twitter, the Right’s official 20-point reform document was dropped to The Age‘s Rich Willingham this morning, containing both the PAC and policy forum ideas as well as a host of well-trodden suggestions on party growth, lower membership fees, online membership, community dialogues, Facebook badgering and nixing central intervention in preselections.

Instead of falling in behind the Left’s 50% national conference direct election proposal, the Right, which has the numbers on the conference floor, will leave it up to state and territory branches to squabble among themselves.

And while the document backs three-year terms for the national president, it remains eerily silent on whether McAllister will get a vote.

The specific details on policy are still being thrashed out in preparation for the weekend’s showdown, with the horse trading expected to run late into Friday night.

*Crikey will be covering the ALP national conference in Sydney this weekend. Get in touch at acrook@crikey.com.au.