In the run-up to the general election we knocked on the doors of millions of voters – but were we kidding ourselves to think we were having ‘conversations’ rather than just canvassing? ‘Four million conversations’ was the boast made by Ed Miliband in Manchester a week before polling day. And, of course, that was a clear indication of the tremendous effort members and supporters were putting in for a Labour victory up and down the country.
But as polling day approached were we really having effective ‘conversations’? Or were we just collecting voter ID? As we begin to rebuild our party after the defeat of May 7, we will inevitably need to ask ourselves what was effective and what worked well, as well as what did not. There will be no single or easy answer. However, I do believe how we build relationships with the communities we want to represent – and the nature of the conversations we have – should be at the heart of our future.
Let’s for a moment look beyond Labour’s devastating national result to the seats across the country where members of parliament have bucked the trend to increase majorities or win back seats from other parties. Jess Phillips took Birmingham Yardley with the biggest majority in that constituency since 1945. Wes Streeting took Ilford North. And Peter Kyle won Hove. Elsewhere Stella Creasy held on to Walthamstow with 68.7 per cent of the votes and Stephen Doughty increased his majority in Cardiff South and Penarth. These are MPs – among others – who, I believe, show where we need to go if we are to become a party of government again.
Stella Creasy’s Sharkstoppers campaign – which grew from issues highlighted in her Walthamstow constituency – is a model for how the Labour party can use the skills and power of community to transform our country. The campaign was about taking action to expand access to fair credit and tackle payday loan advertising. It achieved victories that made a real difference to people’s lives not only in Walthamstow, but in Swansea, Southampton, Furness, Dundee and beyond. The campaign prompted our own party to commit to a cap on the cost of credit and it gave Labour MPs the power to force the government’s hand.
Similarly, in Hove Peter Kyle embedded himself into community organising projects like the Home Sweet Home campaign, which responded to the poor experiences of tenants in the area’s private rented sector highlighted as a result of detailed conversations. Meanwhile a glance at the social media used by new MPs like Wes Streeting and Jess Phillips shows how they have also spent the time to build similarly strong relationships within the communities they now represent.
To these MPs a ‘conversation’ is clearly about listening and, where necessary, about taking action. It is not an end in itself, but often the start of an ongoing relationship that will require effort and commitment for the long term.
In the Cardiff South and Penarth constituency, where Stephen Doughty has invested real time in the people of Butetown, the direct impact such conversations can have on polling day is clear. Using the principles of community organising Stephen initially brought together 70 people in the ward of Butetown, who were then able to negotiate better cleaning-up of discarded syringes with the council. And following on from this success, he worked with the same group to counter the radicalisation of young people in the area, from where three young men had been recruited to fight with Islamic State in Syria.
It can be no coincidence that when it came to the general election polling stations in Butetown reported a higher turnout than there had been in decades – despite a counter-campaign urging Muslim residents not to vote; nor can it be coincidence that samples from these boxes suggest strong Labour support in this area.
But let’s be clear: the value of all of these projects far exceeds any electoral gain – these are campaigns that made a real difference to the ongoing lives of residents. By having effective conversations with residents – listening to their concerns as well as asking them about ours – and by using the principles of community organising these MPs have harnessed the power of their communities to enable real change.
In Wythenshawe and Sale East we have used the same methods of community organising, first to develop stronger relationships within the local party and then to reach out to other residents too. These relationships have been at the heart of local campaigns to counter pub closures, empty buildings, hospital service cuts and the problems faced by women who have experienced domestic abuse. And, as a result, in addition to the practical successes, the campaigns have built trust between Labour activists and residents. This is a trust and acceptance that we – whether party members, councillors or MPs – are really on the side of the many not the few and that we will work with residents to build the power they need to shape the world around them.
If you are thinking that this sounds familiar, that’s no surprise. This way of working is etched in our history. Everything from the Manchester Ship Canal to women’s rights, from rights at work to anti-discrimination legislation has been achieved by the collective power of people organising together. And when that power was channelled through to parliament, we created the most successful democratic movement this country has ever seen.
Of course the success of campaigns like Sharkstoppers, just like anti-discrimination laws and the 0.7 per cent spending pledge for foreign aid – is a continuation of the proud traditions of our movement. And it is through this sort of community action that we will remain relevant to the lives of the people we want to represent.
By building deeper relationships with our communities and using the principles of community organising we can make the change that matters, in and out of government, and build trust in our party on the way. But if we are to make this change, we first need to make sure we know how to converse, not just canvass.
Mike Kane is member of parliament for Wythenshare and Sale East. He tweets @MikeKaneMP
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.