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Food for thought

Sixteen hours on an all-day food bank collection has Mark Perryman asking what this means for how the Labour Party organises.

29.5.2020

For me the defining characteristic of a progressive politics is a mass politics: neither the vanguard party sorting out others nor the charismatic leader for the rest of us to be in thrall to. 

All well and good, but in the moment of the Coronavirus crisis, when we arguably need such a politics more than ever, with a hapless government making life threatening errors on an almost daily basis, this is not so easy.

Four Vicars and a movement

The small Sussex town where I live, Lewes, is best known for Tom Paine, Virginia Woolf and, down the road, Glyndebourne. You get the idea. What we’re less well known for are our food banks: three, and since the virus, four. In a town of 17,000 that’s quite something.

The demand is increasing all the time too, not only for the food banks but for all manner of needs sparked by this deadly disease.  Help is being organised through a brilliant Lewes Coronavirus Volunteers group and all manner of spin-off initiatives, from home-made scrubs to home-delivery Friday night suppers. 

With my ‘mass politics’ thesis to hand, and believing this is only truly effective if those who wouldn’t normally be found in the same room with each other work together, an idea slowly took shape.

On one Saturday in mid-May, after a couple of slightly less-ambitious efforts, it flowered in all its magnificent beauty. We had 106 food bank collectors, helped out by 9 Lewes sports club teams, 8 Green Party and Liberal Democrat town councillors, 5 of the Lewes Bonfire Societies and 4 vicars, spread between the town’s branches of  Aldi, Tesco and Waitrose from six in the morning to closing time at ten in the evening.  And the result? 4,571 items of food collected, plus – predictably enough, from Waitrose – a single packet of quinoa.

Good organisation is the product of thought-out politics 

The ingenious organisation of this huge effort was informed by a politics consisting of three interlocking elements.

First, a mass, public and collective effort so all felt we were part of a common cause.

© Lewes Hockey Club

Second, the visual symbolism of a town coming together. The sports clubs in their kits, cyclists, joggers and athletes, swimmers, football and rugby, the tennis club and my personal favourite, the Lewes Hockey Club’s goalkeeper in her full body armour, helmet and visor. Five bonfire societies, each in their distinctive striped jumpers, four vicars in dog-collars.  As the day progressed this sight was really something else to behold.

Third, force of circumstance demanded a very different way to organise such a marathon effort by so many people. Outside each supermarket was a shift of just 4 people. One pair collected the donations from 2m back. The other two, one on the entry queue, the other on the exit queue, stood equipped with a 4-item shopping list on a placard.    

We had seven different versions of these placards, and rotated them to ensure we produced not only a huge collection of food, but the full variety of the 28 items on the food banks' shopping list. The attention to detail was no accident; our organising was purposefully professional. Too often the Left satisfies itself with a wilful amateurism, in place of the very highest professional standards we should as a matter of principle aspire to.

Feeding on Thinking

What does all this add up to? 4,571 items of food (and the quinoa) for starters, and that’s not to be sniffed at. An identity which was summed up as ‘helping to feed our community through the coronavirus crisis’, coalition-building with forces in a local civil society that would never normally be expected to be asked to join in such a venture. The fact that they were, and did, was perhaps the most powerful message of the day. When I caught sight of the President of South Street Bonfire Society in Naploeonic era three-cornered hat, striped woollen jumpier festooned in bonfire badges holding her shopping list placard aloft as she explained carefully to the queuing shoppers what we were up to, and why, well I freely admit tears welled up.

Food bank collector with shopping list

©Nigel French

The best comment of the day? Those many helpers who said how much they were enjoying themselves. The Left too often defines activism as a test of commitment, the more onerous, and usually boring, the better to endure.  This only results in an ever-declining number of the ‘committed’, and an activist class almost entirely lacking in self-awareness of the privileges which enable their activism.

Our action, in contrast, shaped by the necessities of social distancing, required just an hour to make a big difference. And as a result people want to keep doing more, friendships are being made, there’s a smile on the faces of those involved, a sense of pride in what their small individual effort added together with everybody else’s amounted to.

For afters

Of course, food poverty isn’t anything to smile about, but we don’t do ourselves any favours by feasting on miserabilism. There are hard times ahead, and finding the means to come together couldn’t be more vital; if this is reduced to the tried, the tested, and largely failed, those times will only get harder. We need to think of politics as a journey: donating, or collecting for a food bank, for some is a first step. The task of politics is to provide the choice of direction afterwards, and we’re not very good at that.  Perhaps we need to frame this as how food poverty has come to be normalised, and to do that in a manner that connects with an audience far bigger than (however a good a film it was) Ken Loach’s I Daniel Blake could ever hope to reach. A rugby club first XV, stripey-jumpered Bonfire Societies, the men, and women, of the cloth: these aren’t our usual allies, but that’s positive, because it is only by reaching out we can move forward.  

Growing Pains

Just before the lockdown, Labour was enjoying a substantial spike in new, and returning, members, attracted in the main by Keir Starmer’s leadership campaign. The same happened in 2015 when Jeremy Corbyn stood and won. The material change of these increased numbers to the party’s culture and capacity is somewhere between the negligible and the non-existent.  I’ve always thought this, but in the course of sixteen hours food bank collecting, as I saw Labour party member after Labour party member turn up to help, virtually none of whom I ever see at branch and CLP meetings, the conclusion was obvious. When one of the rugby players introduced himself to me as a Labour member, not only were my sporting stereotypes shattered but the potential for Labour as a community party confirmed, absolutely.

How? Surely we can assume those who make the step to join feel a sense of identity with Labour. But Labour does not develop and encourage that identification in the same way these sports clubs, bonfire societies, and the church do.

We can also assume these members have an above-average interest in politics. But Labour does little to develop that, either. CLPs elect ‘political education officers’ to fulfil a function that sounds like something straight out of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union rule book. Labour is incapable of providing ‘political education’; a ‘broad church’ party with influences ranging famously from Marx to Methodism cannot, and should not, ‘educate.’  That is the task of the various trends and factions within the broad church, from ‘Fabians to Momentum’ if you like. Instead, Labour should provide a space for open-minded, well-informed and participative political discussion. Sounds like your average Labour branch or CLP meeting? Of course not. Labour should also provide the practical skills and support for those who’d like to turn discussion into activity to do so. We assume, too often, that people already have those skills, which inevitably privileges those who acquired them elsewhere, in the student movement or trade unions in particular. Our activist class needs to be recruited more broadly.  

Finally we might assume that those who join Labour are likely to believe in the importance of collective political activity; but outside of election time, local parties rarely provide this, and if they do is it of the onerous duty variety. Instead, Labour should be doing things members might actually, again, enjoy.

Labour is failing on all three fronts, and, in case it needs pointing out, this is less to do with Corbynism vs Starmerism than Labour’s chronically conservative organisational culture. It means Labour will continue to fail to benefit from these membership surges, and right now, as the post-lockdown recession looms, that would be nothing short of a tragedy.

Mind Our Language       

In a town like Lewes, where Labour hasn’t managed to get a councillor elected in decades, the party has a credibility problem. The constituency is one of those relatively few Tory/Lib Dem marginals which adds, inevitably, the tactical voting dynamic at every General Election, with consequences thereafter. The party credibility issue here is, therefore, particularly acute, but this is a wider issue for the party. The loss of the iconic seat of Bolsover last December after decades of a declining Labour vote in such seats should be more than enough to convince.  

When the Green Party councillors turn up to help on the food collection I don’t feel at all awkward: my politics are as much green as they are red. Likewise, I have things in common with our Liberal Democrat councillors: I like to think of myself as socially liberal, and certainly a democrat. The same I would have thought would be true of most Labour members.

So what makes me (or us) Labour? The days when Labour existed to represent the ‘labouring classes’ or the ‘working man’ and his family are long gone. How many of us think of our occupations as ‘labouring’ in the manner this word was once used to sum up not only work but an entire culture? To cling on to this is pure romanticism.

This isn’t an argument for changing the party’s name, and certainly not for resurrecting ‘new’ as a prefix either. But it is to suggest that any process of transforming the party’s organisational culture – what Angela Rayner described during her deputy leadership campaign as ‘a movement not a meeting’ –  has to be about a whole lot more than how we organise. It is about our purpose as a Labour Party. What makes us unique as a party is the centrality of class to our politics. Not in a narrow, reductionist, backward-looking fashion; rather Labour must creatively and vividly connect how the Coronavirus crisis is experienced to occupation and income, locality, race and gender, and show how each is structured via class. This is what Angela Rayner calls ‘everyday socialism’.

When some question why collecting for food banks is something Labour should be involved in, I have a simple retort: ‘If it was good enough for the miners in ’84-85 it’s good enough for our neighbours now’.

Class doesn’t stand still; it’s not a fixed identity. But neither does it disappear as a key shaper of any society. Food poverty is one of the most obvious and cruel indicators of this. We need a localised politics that doesn’t normalise food poverty but transforms it into a focus which can not only bring together but also empower the diverse forces of localised civil societies and communities. And in the process rediscover, and reinvent, what Labour means now, rather than back then.      

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes CLP; his latest book, Corbynism from Below, is available here.

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