Many CLPs have a strong tradition of branch and GC meetings but in truth little direct contact with the local community. Yet conversations snatched in pubs and between canvassing revealed a common concern that active membership needed to be more than a leaflet round and a fractious discussion of a councillor’s report at sparsely attended branch meetings.
Many talk of party renewal but what that means in practice is unclear. Some say it will be enough to have a new leader to revitalise local activism. Others call for CLPs to take politics out of the equation and make membership like community service; proposing activists should clean up parks and graffiti rather than campaign on inequality. Then there are those who fear any talk of “supporters” may be code for abandoning membership.
Somewhere in this debate we have lost a sense of how our relationship with the communities we serve can inform and sustain the politics we uphold. That working with residents can help us identify the progressive challenges which exist at both a local and national level. And that by being willing to talk to those outside of the movement we can not only draw people to join us but also strengthen the role of members as the bridge between politicians and community concerns.
It’s not just a sense of purpose that is muddied in these debates on party renewal, it’s the practicalities too. Change in when and where our activities take place is rare, with most GCs steadfastly sticking to events at times most people find incompatible with working hours or children’s bedtimes. If you manage to find the venue, meetings are too often marathons and a quagmire of procedural items to even the most hardened member. In these circumstances activism can feel more a chore than a way of changing the world; no one joins the party to feel guilty because they missed the CLP social.
In response, we wanted to bring our political priorities to acting in a way that worked with how the public spend their bank holiday afternoons. So last Monday, West Walthamstow branch put on a free fun day called “Our Children, Our Future”, asking for ideas about how we could work with local residents to ensure all our children achieved their potential. Thanks to the sponsorship of UNISON the day offered not only free tea and cake but also children’s entertainment including face painting, story telling and poster making. Kids happily gluing paper and each other, the parents were then able to talk with Harriet Harman, Neil Gerrard and Kate Green from Child Poverty Action Group about the issues facing children today in Walthamstow and what should happen in the next ten years. By the end more than a hundred people had taken part, including current and former party members, with even the Respect activists admitting they enjoyed themselves.
The topics raised ranged from the difficulties of getting employers to support parental leave to concerns about academy schools and special school provision. Some local, some national, some criticisms of the government, others concerned about missed opportunities or new challenges, each reflected knowledge about how policy created in town halls and Whitehall is working out on the ground. That kind of intelligence is vital to making sure progressive ambitions to not only end poverty but improve life chances for all children are realised. No strategy document can compensate for such real world understanding of what is making the difference and why to the people Labour represents.
No one claims this approach is the blueprint for party renewal, or that mixing social and political activity is innovative within the Labour movement. So too it’s important to acknowledge that building a relationship with the public that can restore trust in politicians and a sense of purpose in being a member of a political party will take time. But this event was a start, thanks to committed members and supportive politicians. The challenge now is to convince others both within the party and the local community to continue the dialogue. And to get better at face painting.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.