Labour has to start with the fundamental question of purpose, argues Stella Creasy
Interviewing Stella Creasy on the street while she is on the move in her Walthamstow constituency feels somehow apt for a member of parliament who entered the House of Commons in 2010 and has since then hurtled into an array of national debates. The fight against legal loan sharks, online harassment and ‘page three’ are some of the campaigns Creasy is most associated with. And, for her, these hold the key to Labour’s future.
‘We can’t look at the people in our country who are struggling now and just tell them, “Yeah, yeah, we get it. The Tories are really bad people.” We have to offer, not just opposition, but an alternative … That’s what movement politics is about. We won the argument on legal loan sharks, not just because we had an alternative, capping the cost to credit, but also because we went out community by community, council by council, legislator by legislator, showing the difference that we could make and calling our opponents to account on whether they were going to back us.’ She is clear, though, that the government’s reform of the cost of credit was more capitulation than moment of Conservative epiphany. ‘Never believe a Tory who says that they’ve capped the cost of credit. They voted five times against it, because we used the parliamentary process, but we were also in the media. We were in local community groups. We were organising debt advice. It was about the power of the ideas and the power of our movement. That’s the future of the Labour party.’
The question of purpose threads through everything Creasy has to say, and it is something she has heard Labour party members most concerned about. ‘[Members] are not in a great place right now, but the thing they’re worried about is not whether the party’s going to attack left or right. They’re worried about whether it’s going make a difference. They’re actually worried about whether there’s any purpose or point to being part of what we do.’ What is her solution? ‘The way in which we will bring people together. The way in which actually we restore people’s sense that there is a purpose to what we do and it’s worth fighting for.’
How can this be made a reality? Grassroots organisation is the key, Creasy believes. ‘My message to Labour party members is the message that we get from the trade union movement, which is: don’t mourn, organise.’ Nurturing – and funding – local campaigning should become a regular part of Labour’s culture and operation. ‘If you, as a CLP or a council group or a “Friends of” group or an affiliated organisation, have a good campaigning idea for how we can achieve [our] aims, then you should be able to apply for match funding. Whether it’s people, whether it’s media, whether it’s resources, whether it’s money to be able to run that campaign and we will judge them on that series of criteria and then we’ll fund you and we’ll support you. So rather than it coming from the centre, it comes from the grassroots.’ She anticipates that this will ‘inevitably lead to a flatter structure’, explaining, ‘I want to start with that question of purpose first, because then we can build processes around it’. But process and structures – often things that feel reformable and which politicians are prone to reach towards first when wishing to make changes – must not become a red herring. ‘If we start with process we start with the wrong question. I always ask people two things when I first meet them, “Why did you join and what would make you stay?” I want us to have not just one model of working together, but many models of working together that will then feed into that motivation’.
When pressed on structures, Creasy agrees that councillors need greater representation on the National Executive Committee and that the Scottish and Welsh Labour leaders should serve there too. But, she adds, ‘I think it is also about that question of purpose again. What do we ask the NEC to do? How does the NEC fit into other structures? What do we ask of people being on the NEC? How does our governance link into our policy, our campaigns, our ways of collaborating? There’s a long way to go.’
It is essential that retaining new members includes greater openness – and respect – at all levels, not least in light of the recent tone of debate. ‘Let’s be very, very clear’, the shadow minister begins, herself having been the target of vicious online abuse. ‘Healthy debate, discussion, disagreement is a good thing, right. 250,000 people who agree with each other all the time – it’s a cult, it’s not a political party and I’m not a member of a cult.’
Creasy has already begun reforming the way things are done. ‘I have developed an alternative to Contact Creator called Network Maker,’ she explains, ‘to be able to capture that broader, more detailed information so that you can use it, not just at a local level … People will tell you a lot of stuff on the doorstep. They will tell you why they’re Labour, why they’re not Labour, what they’re concerned about, what they’re worried about.
‘What Network Maker does is three things. First, it captures voter ID … But it also captures what you’re interested in, so that we can get an understanding of why you might be voting for us or why you might be moving away from us …What are the issues, what are the concerns? And thirdly, it maps out who else those people are connected to in a local community, because we all know and we meet those people’.
As some Labour MPs such as leadership contender Liz Kendall and Steve Reed interest themselves in the power of relationships in the future of public services, the emphasis on relationships in Labour’s campaigning appears to follow a similar trajectory. ‘The people [we meet are the people] who can be an advocate or an assassin for what we do’, Creasy says. New and better technology will help Labour nationally as well, she argues. ‘We can develop a better understanding of what’s going on on the ground, to feed in at a national level too, because we shouldn’t ever be in a position again where actually, after the election loads of people say, “Well I did try to tell you,” but we didn’t have a way of hearing that … It’s what people call a military intelligence approach to campaigning. I want us to be intelligent.’
We may not be alone in our surprise at Creasy’s choice when she is asked what the Labour party would be were it an animal. ‘A serval’, she replies, almost immediately. Hopefully this does not mean ‘almost unknown’. Instead, she elaborates, with real justification. ‘It’s a form of African wildcat that is able to jump from a standing start, jump up to new heights – because that’s the kind of movement we need to be again, but it also does it as part of a pack. It would be interesting, compelling and able to jump to new heights.’ Three qualities that might well be ascribed to Creasy herself.
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