Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

More talking, less Twitter

In the early 1990s, Sedgefield Labour party received permission from head office to experiment with membership recruitment. The local party had already expanded its membership but we knew we could do more. Recruitment was important to us. Attracting Labour supporters into membership was a practical means of bringing the party closer to the communities we wanted to represent.

Our method of recruitment was straightforward. We campaigned door to door, asking our supporters to join the Labour party. Face-to-face contact worked. By the end of the 12-month experiment party membership in Sedgefield had increased by 1,300, from 700 to 2,000. Supporters could join for as little as a £1. The average payment was a fiver. With the fundraising schemes we initiated we more than paid our way.

The early 1990s was a time when Twitter was for the birds. Facebook was a family photograph album. YouTube was a music video on Top of the Pops. The world wide web had just been invented and emails had yet to clog up the computer screen. Mobile phones were a novelty, the size and weight of a brick. They only did what the name implied and made and received calls on the go. So actually talking to people face to face was the only effective option. And, in my book, still is.

Not all the supporters we approached wanted to join. Membership was not for them. They would still vote Labour, and that was fair enough by me. The Tories had been in power close to 15 years when we started the recruitment campaign and our supporters wanted the Tories out.

Those who did join wanted to take ‘getting the Tories out’ to a different level. They knew Labour was for them, we were all on the same side and as they signed on the dotted line. Neither I nor any of my fellow campaigners were ever called ‘red Tory scum’.

That kind of language was reminiscent of the 1980s when the enemy was deemed to be within our own party, a bit like now, only now it is more vitriolic, with social media offering the anonymity required by some to spit their venom. Something, on the whole, they would never do in person. Labour’s membership is being stalked by cyberspace road rage; where someone may gesticulate a certain hand signal from behind the steering wheel but never do it face to face, a speeding car offering the security and the anonymity they need. Only in cyberspace it is from behind a computer screen somewhere, camouflaged by social media gesticulating their rudeness with words rather than hand signals. Some may call this political involvement, but I don’t. I call it poisoning our politics.

Labour’s membership is being stalked by cyberspace road rage

When we recruited in Sedgefield not all those who joined attended meetings or became active. The campaign and increase in membership did, however, generate a keen sense of belonging. I remember seeing new recruits with their membership card safely tucked away in their wallet or purse. They belonged to something tangible. You could feel it. It was not dystopian, like the community generated by the anger of social media. The sense of belonging came from the community itself which knew, in its heart of hearts, that the Labour party was for them. You could walk through a former colliery village where whole families and streets were signed up to Labour. It was the 1990s and our attention was directed, not at each other, but at the Tories. Solidarity in the face of the common foe was not demanded, it was earned. The community was there for Labour because the community knew Labour was there for them.

Today, in the Twitter age, solidarity is demanded by keyboard socialists in bite-sized chunks. Their community cannot be seen except by laptop or smartphone. Demand is by insult, especially when lifelong Labour supporters and those we need to convince to join us to elect a Labour government are abused as ‘red Tory scum’. No room for compromise is left. No empathy is shown. They may say they speak for the working class but their abuse of the individual proves their true intent for the community they want to represent.

We could have done more in Sedgefield. As usual the lack of resources got in the way. The general election was approaching and quite rightly every effort was put into what would turn out to be our greatest ever electoral victory. Hindsight is a great thing, but more resources should have been put into membership recruitment in our communities. But it was not to be. In my experience, to reach deep into our working-class communities you need to take the campaign to them, rather than wait for them to come to you. If this had happened I believe face-to-face peer pressure would have gone some way towards mitigating the social media abuse we see today.

Today’s mass Labour party recruitment is self-selecting, motivated by a personality rather than a cause. I find this ironic because I believe the leadership campaign in 2015 was motivated by a cause with Jeremy Corbyn as an unwitting figurehead. The cause was amorphous; it knew what it was against but not what it was for. The cause is against ‘politics as usual’. I can agree with that – Labour has not won a general election since 2005 and I don’t want another repeat performance. Unfortunately, under Jeremy, I’m afraid that tradition will continue. So, in my view, a rebellion against politics as usual will actually reinforce politics as usual. A further irony completely lost to his supporters.

The cause is against ‘politics as usual’. I can agree with that – Labour has not won a general election since 2005 and I don’t want another repeat performance

When Ed Miliband proposed changing the way in which the leader of the Labour party was elected it was an overreaction to the shenanigans around the Falkirk selection process. But, in theory, the idea of broadening the franchise, of making trade union donations more transparent, seemed like a good idea. Along with a lot of other people, while ignoring the wiser counsel of others, I agreed with the reforms in general. I saw them as a basis of wider recruitment and the creation of a genuinely mass membership party. A vehicle which one day would see the party again rooted in our communities with links forged with trade unionists rather than just trade unions. But, as we have seen, the process is only given any attention at the time of the leadership contest. Some unions rush to affiliate members only then, for example. It became another fix rather than a potential structure for reinvigorating the party. Some may say this has been achieved, but in my view it has generated a fan club, a revived movement. I remember the meeting with Ed and others when we discussed the parliamentary Labour party nomination threshold that prospective leadership candidates would need to reach before they could stand. I said it should be no less than 20 per cent because it was now the only mechanism the PLP had to ensure they put before the party membership those of our peers we thought could do the job of leading. I was ignored. A nomination threshold of 15 per cent was set.

I said the nomination threshold should be no less than 20 per cent

Of the 35 members of parliament who nominated Jeremy, a minority actually voted for him. The majority saw it as an opportunity to widen debate, and perhaps others thought it may help them in their career paths too, who knows. So lack of judgement joined forces with the campaign ‘No To Politics As Usual’. Tens of thousands of supporters joined and not all of them necessarily supporters of the Labour party. They were self-selecting who felt passionately politics should be different. They brought energy to the party through their keyboard. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t believe all those who joined were extreme leftwingers, members of other parties who saw Jeremy’s candidature as a means of making the Labour party their own. There was, and still is, a lot of that going on, but many more joined who had no recollection of the Labour splits and divisions of the 1980s and Jeremy’s role in them. Hence history is repeating itself. Many new members do want to see change. The question to them is how best it can be achieved.

Research by YouGov, as part of a ESRC-funded project conducted after May 2016 elections, has shown three-quarters of those who joined either as members or registered supporters (those who paid £3) were from middle and upper middle-class backgrounds. Yet to challenge them you are reminded on social media you are betraying the working class. Unfortunately I believe for many of the new members losing the next election will mean little material difference to them. I keep being told by new recruits that principle in politics is more important than power. Try saying that to the payer of the bedroom tax or customer of the foodbank. Principle and power are needed in equal measure. And principle is nothing without power because nothing can be achieved. Say that and give any hint you want to see a Labour government and you are seen as careerist. Again the irony is lost when they look at their chosen leader and see someone who has enjoyed a career as a politician for 33 years.

Labour has entered a post-truth universe where its soul is being fought over in the ether of social media.

Labour has entered a post-truth universe where its soul is being fought over in the ether of social media. Where the historic purpose of the Labour party is not to form governments and help people but to attend rallies and go on marches. Where feeling good replaces doing good. Where a broad church is blinkered by narrow minds. Where rudeness is replacing respect. Where the tendency is no longer militant but narcissistic as one man feeds off the adulation of the true believer. And those who criticise or dare to say, ‘hang on a minute, something isn’t quite right here’ are now the non-believers, the iconoclasts, the traitors.

This parallel universe is a long way from the neighbourhoods of the colliery villages where I was brought up in a council house, my dad a coalminer for the best part of 40 years. The same communities where I canvassed for members by talking to supporters face to face. I don’t want to go back to the 1990s, but I do long for the days of another Labour government. Some say the politics of this parallel universe is actually the politics of our heartlands. That may be so, but I doubt it. And even if they were we need to talk to those who don’t live in our heartlands, in the marginal seats, we need to practise some of their politics too. Because, if we don’t, we will continue to lose and as a consequence our heartlands will shrink as people stop seeing the reason for voting Labour.

Perhaps the lesson in all of this is more talking and less Twitter. More face to face than just Facebook. More you and me than just YouTube. Through really talking to people we will discover social media is there for us, not us for it. Social media is a multifarious means of communication. The leader of the Labour party who utilises this platform as a means to promote a cause will set Labour on the road to power. Labour principles are important; Labour in power equally so.


Phil Wilson MP is member of parliament for Sedgefield. He tweets @PhilWilsonMP


Photo: Christian Wilke

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Phil Wilson MP

is the MP for Sedgefield

1 comment

  • A long essay with several interwoven themes is of course difficult to comment on. I will pick up just one theme,

    “……it should be no less than 20 per cent because it was now the only mechanism the PLP had to ensure they put before the party membership those of our peers we thought could do the job of leading.”
    One of the arguments for lessening the PLP’s choice for the electorate is that on so many, many, many issues the PLP has been seen to be so wrong. Indeed it could be argued going in the opposite direction to what is needed and required.
    The acquiescence to anther country’s foreign affairs strategy of the Iraq war is only the most blatant and obvious. Whether it is the minimisation of the contributions of the whole membership, to the reduction of trade union contributions, to back room dealings amongst the compliant. In policy terms it could be PPI, the extension of exploitative private action against those of the (democratic) state’s influence, to the enhancement of hedge fund activities, to the raiding company pension funds to the generation of a housing bubble rather than productive investment from the remaining North sea oil revenues. MPs need to show that they earn to right to minimise the memberships right to divide who can best lead. IT is my opinion that they have shown just the opposite.

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