A Do-It-Yourself Labour Party

Mark Perryman

After Corbynism, Mark Perryman argues Labour’s radical left needs to jettison a one-size fits-all politics to embrace the plural and the local.

Hastings and Rye, the final Sunday of the campaign. For the fourth time in six weeks, carload after carload of Labour members and non-members, with more by train, have travelled over from Tory/Lib-Dem marginal Lewes to help out in Labour’s number one Sussex target seat. There are several hundred of us, and it feels good, the response on the doorstep pretty positive. But I can’t banish a nagging doubt: what if more and more of us are making an effort for a message and with a method that has got it badly wrong.  Four days later, Thursday 10pm, that doubt was confirmed, in bucketloads.

No story to tell

2019 wasn’t 2017.  Corbynism was no longer new, Jeremy no longer a fresh and unknown face unleashed in the TV studios. For the Many, not the Few worked the first time round because it was so different to what had come before.  But two years later, the Brexit impasse and a seemingly never-ending antisemitism crisis meant Labour needed a new story to tell, and there simply wasn’t one.

The morning before the manifesto launch Jeremy trailed it as A Manifesto of Hope.  Wow, I thought, that’s bold, that captures a mood beyond Brexit, that’s positive. But instead we ended up with It’s Time for Real Change, no match for Get Brexit Done.

That’s not to say the policies were wrong. But if there was enough support to do something about billionaires, Labour would never lose an election. There isn’t. Yet nobody likes a tax-dodger. This is the kind of simple message that could have cut through.  Or abolishing private schools?  What would that mean?  Years of litigation, and then the schools would move abroad in any case. A better message would have been to focus on charging VAT on private school fees and hypothecating it:  100% of the billions raised going into our hard-pressed primaries and secondary schools. And, so long as it doesn’t entrench regional inequalities, this could be localised too – with 75% going into the primaries and secondaries in the areas where private schools are located.  In Lewes alone, this would amount to tens of thousands of pounds every term. That’s the leaflet I wanted on the doorsteps, or even better at the school gates. Easy message, radical politics.

Worst of all, the manifesto’s biggest idea, the Green Industrial Revolution, barely cut through at all. Declaring 2019 as ‘The Climate Election’ didn’t work, because for most it clearly wasn’t. We have to have the means to translate Labour’s green politics into a popular politics and the starting point should be local realities.  In Sussex two of our target seats, Hastings and East Worthing, will be subject to regular and huge flooding by 2030 – if they’re not underwater! Street-by-street leaflets with illustrations to powerfully show this, facts and figures tailored to the locality explaining what this will do to shops, workplaces, house prices, and canvassing teams specially trained to deliver what for many will be a terrifying, scarcely believable message. We had none of this. We should have done.

Change from above

I wouldn’t have joined Labour if it wasn’t for what Jeremy Corbyn represented. I’ve produced two books The Corbyn Effect and Corbynism from Below on the reasons why, for me, and hundreds of thousands of others, the appeal of Corbynism was so new, and different. I’m not about to repudiate that.

But any new leadership must be founded on a commitment to collective leadership, framed by co-operation and respect of differences, not enforced party discipline via the whip. Such a politics from above will help frame an inclusivity and pluralism.  We need this not only for the parliamentary Labour party but the entire party culture too.

The leadership election needs to be a genuine plebiscite of not just Labour members, but supporters and voters too, just like 2015, and to a lesser extent 2016.  Reverse the 2016 supporters’ fee increase, slash it to £1, and give people as long as possible to sign up.  If we don’t have democracy, we don’t have a Labour Party worthy of its name. The Left should set the example here, argue for an open primary of hundreds of thousands, unafraid that those signing up might not support our candidates.

A further symbol of change from below would be to elect a deputy leader who is not an MP.  It won’t happen this time round but why not a Deputy Leader to represent the members? A deputy elected to represent the party outside parliament, on a fixed term of two years, paid sabbatical from their current job, would be a start in shifting Labour’s organisational culture towards what a modern, democratic, mass membership party should look like.

We also need deep change in local party culture.  Corbynism enabled the left to seize the levers of party power, but did little to reform them. Meaningful participation in policy-making is close to non-existent. Local parties’ delegate structures serve to exclude all but the most committed.

Party change is crucial if we are to retain Generation Left.  What kind of relationship can Labour forge with the 18-21 year olds who voted for us the first time in ’17 and ’19 and the 13-17 year olds who will be the first time voters next time round? A party culture for the few, not the many, doesn’t appeal to the overwhelming majority of post-thirtysomething members, so how on earth is it going to appeal to thirteen year olds? Any debate that ducks this threatens to lose Labour its one demographic advantage.

Hegemony rules

Labour is and always has been, what is rather quaintly described as a ‘broad church.’ Those who jumped aboard, or have come back home since 2015 and don’t accept this have joined the wrong party and will only ever be a destructive element within it. But the idea that it is only a small but significant section of the Corbynite Left who refuse to accept the breadth of Labour is a dangerous delusion. 

The everyday culture of Labour is anything but conversational. It is shrill and distrustful of difference of opinion, with denunciation taking the place of conversation. All this is common to Labour’s right and left. None of it makes for the construction of a more thoughtful politics, one sensitive to the needs, concerns, cultures of those not privy to, inside and outside the party, these kinds of debates-cum-arguments.

We need a manner of talking with, not shouting at. Listening to rather than shutting out those we disagree with. A willingness to accept that sometimes those on the right or left of us – and those of no fixed political abode – might have something to say we can agree with.

Accepting some, not all, of what’s being said by those to the left of us, those to the right of us, those of no fixed political abode. A conversation for all those who want Labour to be doing better than it currently is – because we can’t afford for it do any worse.  

This is what a plural party might begin to look like. Open to political differences and coalition-building as our means of sticking Labour back together again. However, this can only be the start. There was much talk during the General Election of tactical voting and electoral pacts.  All have their place, but Labour is far too timid towards embracing anything resembling such an approach. The heated denunciation of Lib Dem and Green candidates votes who cost Labour wins was hypocritical when Labour didn’t stand down in a single seat where only the Lib Dems or Greens could win. 

But this is corporatism. A fix that treats each party’s voters as a bloc to be moved about at will. Politics doesn’t work like that. What is required instead is a broad progressivism whose core elements are shared both within Labour and between the parties of opposition. This could be organised around some core themes: anti-austerity, against inequality, for a sustainable economy; and it would set out both broad principles and policy details. The ‘Green New Deal’ had at least the potential for this. In such circumstances in those seats Labour cannot win, it can afford to be relaxed if another opposition party does, and in the far more numerous seats, still, where only Labour can win, vice versa. It will also mean sustained work at local level to build trust and forge alliances.

Going local

The key to Labour’s revival is the local. To root the party in our communities as elected representatives of those communities but a whole lot more too. This will take different forms across the country; there is no one-size-fits-all version of the Labour Party any more, if there ever was.

In Scotland, Labour is already virtually dead, reduced once more to a solitary MP. Continuing to back the unionist cause will kill it off for good.  Backing independence would be a huge change, not just for Scots Labour but UK Labour (sic) too. But it will run with the grain of local progressive opinion.

In England and Wales, those shelled-out Labour Parties that represented their constituencies in parliament and ran the local council for decades, but now find themselves out of office with the Tories running the show, are one version of the problem. They can only be won back by practical efforts, of whatever scale, large or small, to help reverse at least in part the chronic consequences of the decline for these communities. But local parties with small, ageing and declining memberships, few resources, made worse by the 2019 defeat, will be in urgent need of concrete assistance.

Elsewhere, in the cosmopolitan cities, the Liberal Democrats and Greens are resurgent at Labour’s expense, their rising support under-represented by our rotten electoral system. Here, Labour needs to prove its worth in the face of a government that will do all it can to control finances from the centre, blame local councils for their lack of money to invest and shirk all responsibility for the consequent decline. These Labour cities need to become citadels of the progressively different – as has been shown in places like Preston.

No time to waste

The starting point for such a process of localisation, as in 2017, is a target seats and defences list based on the 2019 result.  The focussing of all efforts on these was absolutely the right thing to do.  But in the intervening two years Brexit entirely changed seats that seemed winnable into no hopers. Seats that seemed secure in a very short space of time became first at risk, and then lost.

After 2019 we have seats within a 5% swing which on paper can be won or won back. We have defences which on the same swing against Labour would lose. Jeremy achieved 9.6% in 2017.  Johnson achieved a 6% swing in Leave-voting  constituencies while in Remain voting constituencies the Tory vote fell by 3% , Here Labour suffered because of a rising SNP, Lib Dem and Green vote at its expense. Next time there may or may not be a Brexit type party. If there isn’t the right’s vote will be even more united behind the Tories. 

How these voting patterns will change post-Brexit is unpredictable, though the decline in Labour’s vote outside of the cities predates Brexit and has shown no sign of changing since 1997.  What is unquestionable is that any recovery of Labour’s vote has to begin almost immediately. The 2020 local elections will be the first big test of the new leadership and the direction they seek to take the party in. Another failure would make any sort of comeback more difficult.

The Tory success in the non-city seats was built, in most cases, on winning council seats first, then control of the councils there. Labour needs to do the same. And then prove, in the most difficult fiscal circumstances, it can make a difference. That’s not easy with the cuts, but Labour politics should also be about how towns are governed, communities rebuilding from the bottom up, support networks, practical help for those with the ideas to transform their locality.

A Labour party and Labour councils rooted in these communities can begin to make all this possible in the way London marches won’t, serving only to confirm the resentment to party politics being a ‘London thing’ and never mind the rest of the country. On the doorstep is where we can effect change, not marching down Whitehall.

Optimism of the will?

This is Labour’s biggest challenge organisationally. No serious observer doubts the numbers, enthusiasm and commitment of Labour’s 2019 ground campaign. However, six weeks was not enough time to transform a national movement into a series of local movements.  Now, we have five years to do this. But if Labour fails to value and trust the people it was created to represent, then we will confirm voters’ worst suspicions: that politics doesn’t belong to them, it belongs to Westminster and Brussels.  

To challenge and overcome that well-founded sense of alienation we need both the pessimism of the intellect to understand where we are and the optimism of the will to do something about it. To create post-Corbyn, we need to create a do-it-yourself, radical and plural Labour Party. This cannot be the one-size fits-all version but must be rooted in and shaped by each and every locality and community.

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Mark Perryman

Mark Perryman is a member of Lewes Labour Party and Momentum. His latest book, Corbynism from Below, discusses many of these themes and offers suggestions for the future of the party.

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