More than a stalemate: reasons to be cheerful

I was contacted by a comrade in a neighbouring constituency about the conditions within his local branch. Things sounded toxic. A familiar story which I have heard from people across the country. Existing members, frequently from the right of the party, are in control, holding key positions in the branch or constituency party. New members and existing members on the left becoming frustrated and in danger of becoming disillusioned.

New members, mostly Corbyn supporters, are keen to get involved and participate, but their progress is being hampered. Their participation is limited. They are actively being discouraged, little is being done to engage with and utilise the new energy and invigoration. It is almost as if there is a perceived apprenticeship: when you have done x years of leaflet delivery and canvassing then you can hold office and talk politics. 

New members were expecting a democratic party, one that responds to their ideas and whose structures and rules would respond to the new political context. However, existing members and officers are being dogmatic, with a preoccupation with rules and hierarchy. Any interpretation or ambiguity is referred up through a mysterious hierarchy of regional officials and governance. It is incredible that the local membership cannot deliberate on their local organisation and make decisions about how things happen in their local community. This I have seen over the most trivial of issues.

There are lots of young people who want to get involved. They want involvement in a party that allows them to discuss politics (local and national), they want to learn and they want to make a difference. When they approach the local party, too often they find an unresponsive, dogmatic, bureaucratic organisation that is unwilling to respond to them. They want a vibrant, engaging, active, democratic, transparent and empowering organisation. This is not what they experience in many cases.

I am aware that groups like Labour First are organising behind the scenes in a number of constituencies to try and limit the influence of the Corbynistas. A friend explained to me that he felt they were winning, that they are so much more organised than the left. I don’t agree. It can feel like a stalemate, as the left get themselves organised (many of us are new to this sort of thing).

But I am more positive.

I don’t feel that the left are trying to win, in the sense of taking over the party. What we are trying to ‘win’ is greater democracy, more effective deliberation and action and more transparency. We want, I believe, more localism. This is a moral purpose and reflects an antidote to the toxicity of society, one in which inequality and democratic deficit has created an environment that fuels the far right. The Labour party, with its mass membership, has the chance to oppose this. And it is evident that it can, based on the result in Stoke on Trent.

The local party has to be a place for people to engage with politics, at the local and national levels, and not to accept the simple answers of the far right. The Labour Party must stop being a closed bureaucracy and become an open and engaged organisation. This is also the best strategy for future election victory.

To people on the left, new and existing members, do not lose heart, there is energy, there are a growing number of people looking for a change in society and a new economics. The answers are not simple, they are not soundbites. But the processes and the way we work together to solve problems and find answers are essential. We need a healthy public sphere. Shakespeare said, “truth will out”, by the same moral force, democracy and transparency will out. These forces are on our side.

To the folk on the right. Far more unites us than divides us. Put your organisational skills and energy into fighting the Tories. We are in extraordinary times and what may have worked in the past is no longer relevant. For the sake of humanity we need to move on. Let us work together to do this and not resort to petty feuding.

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About Steven Watson

Education research, critical maths, education policy, economics and politics @steve.watson10
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