Thursday, 15 December 2011

Some Ideas About Reconnecting With Our Roots

When you correspond with people all over the country on facebook or twitter, it’s not long before you find yourself getting sucked into a ‘Westmonster’ mentality, where how Ed performs in PMQs or whether he makes ‘the statement-we-want about the strike’ come to be seen as critical for the success or failure of the Party.
However – while you’d have to be an idiot to pretend that these things ‘don’t matter’ – we have to remember that they are not the be all and end all. The Lib Dems for many years proved that Party influence needs to be founded at least as much on local developments and strengths as on ‘Party’ issues and policies.
And – as I suggested in yesterday’s blog – we need to re-connect to our core roots.

A CLP Review
Recently, my own CLP beat the Party to it and conducted its own organisational review. The aim of the review was to reconnect to – and to reinvigorate – the membership. We found a membership which was loyal, disappointed, disenfranchised and activist all at the same time. We found lots of older people and a worrying lack of people below the age of 50. But we found people welcoming, motivated and prepared to embrace change.

At the end of the review, we took the findings to the CLP, which made a number of specific resolutions. I must stress that the following points are not those conclusions. I would not presume to speak for the CLP, and I suspect anyway that what happens over the coming months will matter more than what the CLP formally decided.
So what follows is my take on what I think we decided to try to do!
But I am tremendously proud of the ideas the members generated and believe that – if they are implemented – they will go some way to healing the disenfranchisement that many of the core membership admitted to feeling.
So I am humbly going to share those ideas with you.

The Primacy of the Branch
We decided that any renewal had to be based on the Branches.
That’s not to say that we didn’t consider downgrading the role of the branches and enhancing the role of the CLP. But in the end the members’ feeling for the Branches was just too strong. Historically, Labour has been built – at least in my neck of the woods – on its Branches, and they were seen as the ‘safest’ option to attract local people. It is at Branch level that ‘the Party’ gets closest to ‘real people’.
There will have to be success; there is no point in scaffolding a failing system. It was acknowledged that some branches can become moribund, fail to meet regularly, never get beyond ‘business’, form into a cosy cabal, and all the other problems we are well aware can happen ‘in a Branch near you’. Inadequate office function was seen as a major issue – particularly where a Branch secretary might not have email, fail to distribute information, fail to return documentation etc.. The CLP considered whether it might need to take a firmer line in insisting that all the Branches – if they are to become the basis of a new activism – are indeed active.
Nevertheless, we decided, the local Party would be much weaker without a vigorous Branch structure.

The Debating, Acting Branch
It is an ironic comment often made that some Labour members prefer to be in opposition.
It is certainly true that, when a Tory government is in power, there is never a dull moment in opposition. The current government is churning out foul suggestions and wicked proposals faster than you can read them, never mind debate them.
For a Branch (or CLP) whose membership might be feeling disenfranchised, however, this presents an opportunity for action at a simple and basic level. Rather than a dull ‘business’ meeting of attendance, apologies, minutes, matters arising, correspondence, Treasurer’s report etc., the review found that members would prefer these matters to be dealt with either cursorily, or separately in ‘executive’ meetings. This, it was felt, would free up time for discussion and debate of topical issues – be they internal (what policies people would like to see the Labour Party espousing), local (County Council consultations) or national (issues such as pensions and planning). It was resolved to ‘open’ some Branch and CLP meetings to members of the wider public, who would be invited to attend and participate in debates on subjects of local interest. And at the end, there must always be some ACTION – even if it is simply asking the secretary to write the meeting’s feelings to the relevant person.
Since organising such discussions properly can involve a great amount of work, the CLP decided that it needed a political education team to produce briefings that can be used by the branches and others as the basis of a debate.
People who are interested in politics enjoy discussing politics; sometimes they can get heated – the key is to remember your manners and realise that we are all in the same party at the end of the day.
People who joined the Labour Party often did so because they care about what is going on, and because they WANT TO CHANGE THINGS. If we are going to engage the rank-and-file, it is essential that the rank-and-file are given a voice, and that they leave the meetings feeling that – powerless though we may be – we have at least done something.

The Campaigning, Growing Branch
Ultimately, however, all of the above – even if it might make Party members feel good about themselves – will not get us back into power. The Review realised that, to achieve electoral success, the Party will need, at both Branch and CLP level, to become a ‘Campaigning Party’.

A good start, it was felt, would be a membership interest and skills audit which could form the basis for identifying future activists. Who can write letters to the local newspapers? Who can design the manifesto? Who has the skills to man the phones? Who is brave enough to go door-to-door? There will be few people who – however humble they are about their skills – cannot contribute in some way.

It was felt to be vital that we re-recognise the important contribution of the trade unions and union members, and that we explore ways to re-engage with the Unions. Many Party members joined up when they joined the Union as apprentices, and it was feared that we are losing our ties with the organisations which originally gave Labour life. More ambitiously, it was also felt that we needed to improve our engagement with the wider community including schools, hospitals workplaces, care centres etc. Just how we might do this was less clear, and I suppose in a year’s time we will be able to judge our strategies on their success.

And young people? People always bang on fondly about ‘the young people being the future of the party’ as though this was a revelation. But – let’s be honest – few of the people who attend Branch meetings have a clue how to relate to young activists, and I have met few young activists who were keen to attend Branch meetings. The County has a very enthusiastic and active ‘Young Labour’ group, and the CLP agreed to let them do their own virtual twittering thing. It was acknowledged that we need to listen to young people – they have a lot to teach us – but I think we were more frightened about scaring them off than about appropriating new ideas.
In the meantime, it was accepted that ‘young people’ for many branches meant people in their 30s and 40s … and perhaps both the Branches and the CLP needed to sit down and consider how we might go about attracting them.

Once More Unto the Branch
As one of the people who collected the data which informed the Review, what most impressed me was the kindness of the members, and their preparedness to do what was necessary to win the next election. We are sometimes sold this vision of a local Branch as a group of aged curmudgeons who yearn for the days (and ways) of Harold Wilson. Well, if there are any, I didn’t meet them. What I met was a people – aged though they might have been – who were intensely loyal to Labour, and still keen to campaign within their capabilities. And as we talked, it was from THEM that the concept evolved of the debating, acting, campaigning, growing Branch-based party I have outlined above.
They were VERY prepared to move towards this model, the CLP validated the concept, and now we just have to make sure that the intention doesn’t fizzle out, and that we do what we intend.

And I suspect that the success of the Party at the next election will depend, likewise, on hundreds of Branch Parties, all over the country, setting about renewing themselves, and campaigning at local level.
Because THAT would at least be a start towards re-establishing Labour connection with its core working-class membership.

1 comment:

  1. Well said John. By the way there is also another avenue of direct communication with members in The Labour membersnet area. Possibly if members are made aware of this it may well allow a more open debate as it is in-house and not open readily to the public. This does not of course stifle debate on facebook but it can be useful for having on-line policy discussion.