Across a (very) crowded room

Lewes CLP’s innovative discussion events have caught Angela Rayner’s eye. Mark Perryman explains how and why.

It’s not often that the Labour Party in the East Sussex town of Lewes gets a mention in Labour circles of any influence. Imagine our surprise, and pride, therefore, when Angela Rayner picked us out for an honourable mention in her Deputy Leadership manifesto:

“Lewes Labour Party – an island of progressive politics, culture and ideas marooned in a blue sea of shire Tories. They have built a successful and well-attended series of annual events, tackling the big political issues of the day, with workshops, speakers, and music.”

In fact, we now host three events a year each with a different purpose and outcome in mind, all founded on the central importance of the convivial and the conversational if we are to grow as an ideas party. 

All photos: Steve Lewis

Our first event model was a summer ‘festival of ideas’, which brought together an audience of 200. Lewes had never seen anything quite like it; last year we got close to double that. This year’s, on 5 July, the 75th anniversary of the ’45 General Election, will be our biggest and most ambitious yet. 

Our second event model is practical skills training. When we launched this with an ‘Activism Toolkit’ day some questioned the need for it: what do you need to learn to be a Labour activist? The answer is plenty, as the interest in the event soon proved, and this includes old hands learning new skills. This autumn we’re organising ‘Painting the Town Red’ to provide members  with the skills to remake Labour’s radical culture via a Labour culture network across Sussex, and beyond.

The latest model adds the educative-participative to the mix, though we shy away from using the word ‘dayschool.’ Any Labour event with ‘party education’ in the title only serves to put off the many, the members, while serving the narrow interests of the few, the party’s activist class.

Like anywhere else, our formal Labour branch and constituency meetings have their own agendas, their own schedule of dates. Neither particularly suited the immediate need to discuss the fallout from #GE2019, nor do they provide the time to get to grips with, and participate in, the discussion of the wide range of issues arising from the result. So in the midst of the campaign Lewes Labour opted to pencil in a discussion afternoon for mid-January.

The morning after 12.12.19 it was obvious this was now an incredibly important event, and tickets quickly sold out. It gathered together members from across Sussex, our own CLP as well as the three target seats in particular – Hastings and Rye, Crawley, East Worthing and Shoreham – to make sense of defeat, and work out how to recover together, in an event we were now (sadly) calling ‘Loves Labour Lost’.

As the event took shape a number of issues were raised. Two of them are worth discussing here as they have implications for anyone else thinking about organising similar events.

Firstly, why do we charge? This is still quite rare at Labour events. But ours wasn’t a policy-making event, no votes were taken, the entry fee was modest (£3/£6 solidarity/optional donation) and it enabled us to really improve the quality of the event experience

Secondly, we shouldn’t ‘wash our dirty linen in public’. It is hard to imagine there is a single sentient human being in the UK unaware that the Labour Party is divided over the causes of the GE defeat. Our events have all been characterised by a culture where differences of opinion are listened to, and learned from. This one was no different.

On The Day

Paul Hilder, CEO of Datapraxis, an ethical political data company, and author of their report Tory Landslide, Progressives Split opened the afternoon with essential, if depressing, insights into how the entire target seats/defences strategy was woefully mishandled by Labour HQ.  The broader analysis of voting patterns proved invaluable to the discussions throughout the event.

Small group workshops limited to 15 persons each on eight different #GE2019 themes from community campaigning, the role post-election of Labour councillors and coalition-building to 18-24 voters, Brexit and the Climate Emergency were a new innovation. Quite a challenging format but hugely participative.

For a closing session, former economics adviser to John McDonnell, James Meadway, who has recently joined the Labour Together enquiry into Labour’s defeat, and Nathalie Olah, author of the new book Steal as Much as You Can: How To Win the Culture Wars in an Age of Austerity, in their very different ways filled those who attended with hope that Labour can win again, whilst providing a rare depth of understanding the scale of the challenge in terms of the battle of ideas.

There was no rancour, and no attempt to turn this into a mini leadership hustings either. The speakers came from across the party’s political spectrum, as did, as far as I’m aware, the audience too. 

There were significantly more younger people than at previous events.  The audience was pretty much 50:50 male/female.  Lewes CLP was well-represented by visuals, logo on all materials, and a message in the programme, via our CLP chair Alun’s introduction. To me this is key: we put on these events as a CLP, not as The World Transformed, Momentum, Corbynites or part of Mark Perryman’s personal plans for world domination. They are a showcase instead for the kind of hub of ideas a CLP can be.

Half of the audience came from Lewes CLP,  around 40% from other CLPs; 10% were non-party members. And amongst our number were no less than seven #GE2019 Labour candidates from Bexhill and Battle, Crawley,  East Worthing and Shoreham Lewes, Mid-Sussex, Wealden, and Woking, enabling really useful campaign experiences to be shared, and lessons learned. To me this mix is essential; it informs the discussions, formally and informally.


People comment on the very high standard of our event organisation. My view is why be amateurish when we can be professional?  The design, speakers, catering and  on-day organisation (made possible by a great team of helpers) are of the highest standard, as is the attention to detail – from the name/CLP badges to encourage networking, to limited edition Labour Actually badges (which sold out!) 

Social Media

On the day we invest time and effort in live tweeting throughout. The impact is phenomenal: on event day our twitter feed @LewesLabour using #LovesLabourLost totalled 8,200 impressions, 44 retweets, and 42 likes. 

Owning the space

Likewise we invest time, effort and some expense in ‘owning the space’ to make it ours for the hours we occupy it.  Backdrop, lectern poster, wall posters, signage, our very own Keir Hardie Café’s posters, the Lewes Labour banner, the red tablecloths, and in their hands everyone has a really well-designed programme.  It’s not a lot, but added up it makes a big difference.

Human Resources

We now have a formidable CLP events team.  The CLP’s two branches each contribute a café crew, we have an event photographer and live tweeter, both in-house design and superb professionals charging a fraction of the commercial rate, an art group, all 8 workshops facilitated by CLP members, 3 workshops led by CLP members, and really good stewards. This is a fantastic resource moving forward. 

Making money

Oh and we made some money for the CLP and both branches.  That isn’t the purpose of the event but if we can, why not?

What those attending thought

We are scrupulous in running a participants’ survey. In politics (as Paul Hilder argued in relation to the disastrous application of the target seats/defences strategy by Labour HQ), a ‘hunch’ simply isn’t good enough. 96% thought it was value for money;  92% thought the sessions were brilliant and our three main speakers and informal networking were both just as popular. 74%  said they’d ‘book like a shot’ for our next event, while 10 CLPs indicated they wanted to wok together with us on building this kind of venture across Sussex, Surrey and South London.

When this pub closes

An event-driven approach is quite different to what the Labour Party persists in calling ‘political education’. The latter sounds like something straight out of the old Communist Party of the Soviet Union, back to school to learn our politics via instruction: it would be difficult to imagine anything more off-putting. And it begs another question in a party whose influences stretch from Marxism to rightward-moving social democracy: whose politics are being taught?

Our event-driven approach creates a festival atmosphere where ideas are celebrated, engaged with, in a conversational and convivial way. The networking in the café is every bit as important as listening to speakers. Ideas are shaped by both the development collectively of the practical skills to put them into practice and the sharing of varied localised experiences of enacting them. A culture of this sort should be central to a modern, movement-building party, at the core of what we do and who we are, not an optional extra at the bottom of the General Committee agenda, or hived off to think tanks, The World Transformed or the various competing factions. 

What I am describing here is a process of radically changing the party, to become an organically intellectual organisation rooted in both ideas and communities. That’s not going to happen in one day, so after a good few hours unpicking the reasons for Labour’s defeat, in time-honoured fashion we adjourned to the pub. We’d booked the upstairs room at the nearby Lewes Arms. It was packed but the best bit for me was a 17-year old Lewes Labour member with twentysomething members from Arundel and South Downs, Hastings, Hove and Mid-Sussex CLPs holding forth, putting the world to rights. I’ve never seen that at any Lewes Labour event before. Perhaps, just maybe, there’ll be some days of hope to look forward to yet.

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