Lockdown Labour

The Labour Party that emerges from the coronavirus crisis needs wholesale change of its organisational culture. Mark Perryman explains why and how.

For the past two and a bit weeks, like many Labour Party members, I’ve been pretty full on with coronavirus mutual aid activism. 

I’m an event organiser by habit, and sometimes trade too. Organising popular festivals of ideas and packed out Christmas parties for my CLP comes pretty naturally to me. What I’ve found over the past fortnight is that while some of those skills are transferable to the kind of community activism that has flowered in localities all over the country, a lot aren’t. 

It’s got me thinking about Labour’s conservative organisational culture. A conservatism which, despite all the Corbynite talk of the party as a social movement, has barely changed in the past 5 years.

Pic : Katie Vandyck

I write as a convinced Corbynite, though the label is now past its proverbial sell-by date. The appeal of Jeremy to such a huge audience, most of whom had never been members of the Labour Party before 2015, or rejoined after years of disaffection generated by the Blair-Brown years, was of a ‘different kind of politics’.  In terms of leadership and policies that’s largely what we got. But the experience of being a party member scarcely changed. Without that change, Corbynism’s promise to transform Labour as a party into a social movement failed to materialise.

To be effective as a  social movement Labour has to connect individual and collective action with a politics absolutely rooted in locality and community. This is quite different to the traditional model of a protest movement which the Left is most comfortable with. Planet Placard, a big march, invariably in London, months of effort to fill coaches to transport those going, then through the streets past bemused shoppers and tourists, and back home to complain the next morning about the lack of media coverage of an event which in news terms was a total non-story.  I exaggerate, but it’s an enormous investment of resources for, in most cases, minimal impact. When two million marched to stop the war, and didn’t stop it, was this a sign of the strength of such a model of protest or its weakness?  

Beyond Clause One Socialism 

Responding to Corbyn’s election and re-election as leader, both by sweeping margins, and with the promise of a ‘different kind of politics’ attracting the support and enthusiasm of hundreds of thousands of members,  the Labour Right sought to popularise an alternative vision of the party. They called this ‘Clause One Socialism’. 

Clause One of the Labour’s constitution states that its ‘purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour party.’ Nothing necessarily controversial in that. But what it has served to produce is a habitual waste of the membership as a campaigning resource. It would be unfair to say that this waste is only practiced by the Right. Rather it is built into the party’s organisation, an attitude neatly described by trade union activist, and former PPC, Andy Newman: ‘the party often treats the membership as a rather unruly but largely decorative adjunct, useful for stuffing envelopes.’ 

Not only is this a woeful waste of such a huge human resource, but it also flies in the face of Labour’s history. Jarrow and the hunger marches, the ramblers’ direct action to establish the right to roam.  Cable Street and the defeat of the Blackshirts, the International Brigades, Basque Refugees, the Aid to Spain movement of the Spanish Civil War. The forced opening up of the London Underground to provide shelter during the blitz, the postwar squatting movement to provide much-need housing in 1945, the radical folk music revival of the 1950s as a popular chronicle of working class culture, stopping the rise of the National Front in its tracks via the Anti Nazi League and Rock Against Racism in the 1970s, and countless other examples. All with the Labour movement, not the Labour Party on its own but working with others, at their core.

And for those unsure that this fits with the very necessary task of electing Labour MPs and councillors, it’s worth pointing out that Clause One doesn’t stop where its champions close their quotation of it.  There is a stated recognition that the process of winning elections is best served, and I quote, by working to ‘make communities stronger through collective action and support.’

I’m not making this point  because the Labour constitution is a sacred text, but rather to suggest that the model of the party as a social movement isn’t exactly a new, Corbynite idea–it is part and parcel of a Labour tradition.

Grim Times 

How does the aim of Labour as a membership-focussed, bottom up, localised organisation fusing the roles of political party and social movement  fit with our experience of the coronavirus crisis? 

There is next to nothing in our immediate experience to help us understand the kind of activity the party could best contribute. We’re kind of making it up as we go along.  But as we do, we need to listen, learn and adapt, because if at the end of the crisis we revert to the old ways of organising, we are finished. 

Meanwhile a Labour leadership election rumbles to its conclusion, a three-month yawn-a-thon which now teeters on the edge of complete irrelevance given the situation the party, the country, and the world finds itself in.  A Shadow Cabinet reshuffle doesn’t even begin to cut it.  

The Activist Class 

When this nightmare is over it will be the moment, based on the best lessons we can draw collectively from the mutual aid movement, to shape Labour as a community party.  A mass membership with a great variety of experiences at the local level, constituting the building blocks towards what the writer Hilary Wainwright calls  ‘practical knowledge as a source of power’, should be the basis of post-Lockdown Labour. 

In my experience, and friends who are members of the party in other parts of the country report something similar, the party’s current and long standing  organisational culture is ill-equipped for such a role, and that’s putting it politely.

Labour is an organisation of the few, a self-selecting, privileged activist class with enough evenings to fill with meeting after meeting, each one producing few practical outcomes except ever-decreasing circles of those in attendance.  And our activist class – left or right – pretty much content to leave things just as they are just so long as it means their hands remain on the levers of power. 

Community Labour

A Community Labour party turns this culture of decline and indifference entirely on its head. The party becomes all about those who don’t attend meetings, not those that do. This is what the coronavirus crisis teaches us; doorstep by doorstep, road by road, block by block the help is there, the collective support organised, the message of solidarity shared.  All this is made possible by the huge numbers involved, with no commitment too small to make an actual difference. Each offer of help is recognised, and valued, the scale of that offer determined by those giving it, not by some kind of one-size-fits-all version of party membership, which past experience indicates is a bad fit for just about everybody except those who designed it.  

Labour membership often feels more akin to being in a supporters club than having become an integral part of a political movement. Maybe that’s what most who sign up want, a step further than putting a cross against Labour on the ballot paper, or for their favoured candidate in a leadership election, but not a lot more. Fair enough. But as nobody asks new members what they want, welcomes them in, we never know, and meanwhile those meetings go on getting smaller and smaller.  We should have a systematic process of visiting new members, finding out what they’re looking to get out of the party; we should take the party to them rather than wait, impatiently, for them to come to the party. I suspect in the era before social media this was what was done, but social media, while an effective form of communication, is no kind of replacement for human interaction. Isn’t it rather strange that the last lot we’d ever think of canvassing is our own membership?

But even if we accept the model of a supporters club, what any supporters organisation does is at least provide the community it gathers together with a vibrant identity. Identity is in large measure what membership of a political party provides. We vote for it, we’ve joined it, we’ve adopted its name as part of our selves. Labour has a really neat lapel badge, square, wordless, a fragment of the Labour rose. Stylish, yet discrete and unassuming, just what you wouldn’t expect a political party badge to be–it’s brilliant. Yet it is hardly promoted, tucked away on the party merchandising page. Why not issue them free when we join up, enabling us to wear that identity as we become the party?      

But instead of providing this very public identity all we ever get are interminable email newsletters sent out by Labour’s head office.  Communications expert David Hieatt has described the simple e-newsletter as the most important tool of communication that organisations have in the digital age.  This means they need to be well-designed, with images and headlines that grab your attention, compelling and well-written stories, and easy actions you can take. Labour’s newsletters have none of this — a plain text letter entirely lacking content and design to enthuse and inspire.  The fact these are signed off reveals all I need to know about the lack of understanding the party has of the key importance of communicating with its most valuable resource, its members. 

I could go on and on, from a failure to find a way to discuss the reasons most of us joined –politics and ideas — to a tribalism within and without the party that is almost entirely self-defeating,  and more practical matters like the poor use of the party’s still impressive range of local party premises. In contrast the mutual aid model is all about an outward-looking organisational culture which takes the party out to its members, provides a collective, public identity, effective communication that we look forward to receiving, reading and acting upon, and the means to campaign wherever we are, however much time we can give.  It means enjoyable events that provide the space for us all to contribute towards a shared knowledge. It means a local party office that is as much a campaign hub, a performance space, and a community café as it is a place where committee meetings are held.   

Labour Neighbours

Reinventing what the party provides for its members is the basis of how a Community Labour Party might evolve out of the coronavirus crisis. Parliamentary constituencies have memberships in some cases numbering thousands, in many cases hundreds, spread over a very wide area, and local government wards are not much more manageable in the bigger CLPs. To be really effective the strategy has to be both local and networked, mapping clusters of members by road, to resource and connect affinity groups in these neighbourhoods with a friendly ‘Labour Neighbour’, somebody to actively look forward to knocking on the door, a cup of tea and a political chat over the kitchen table.

Of course Labour had a shot at this before, most recently under Jeremy Corbyn and before that under Ed Miliband. Both approaches had their fans and their critics too. But crucially any such top-down approach is likely to be undermined if it focuses on changing the campaigning priorities of the existing activist class rather than finding the means of igniting the interest and involvement of the overwhelming majority of members.      

Beyond the Pavement 

If all this sounds a bit like the 1970s Liberal Party and its fixation, which still persists, on ‘pavement politics’, that isn’t entirely accidental. Community Labour will draw on a range of influences. A practical politics of deed not declaration. Yet at the same time not giving an inch in a grander ambition, including building institutions of community wealth building and a societal transformation to end the causes of food poverty.  

There is precious little to look forward to at the moment. Britain will be a very different place at the end of this crisis. If Labour doesn’t grasp the meaning of this for how it organises then it won’t be up to changing the country either. And who would possibly not want that after what we’re going through.   

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

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