In 2003–4 I was elected as the secretary of Newcastle local government committee. It was a profoundly depressing experience; I rapidly found that the meetings were cumbersome, bureaucratic and detached from the reality of campaigning on the ground for Labour. Month after month I would type up minutes, wondering what we had actually achieved other than have a lengthy debate about someone’s pet policy interests. I calculated that we spent more time each month in meetings in the Civic Centre than we did knocking on doors speaking to voters; I still shudder when someone asks ‘any matters arising from the minutes?’ because this part of the meeting used to last at least an hour.
I was therefore delighted that Newcastle became one of the early adopters of the local campaign forum model, where, instead of a monthly committee meeting of the same faces, we rapidly adopted a series of task-focussed meetings. Candidate selection? Let’s use the opportunity to go out and promote the party to women and BAME community groups. Writing a manifesto? Let’s engage party members in policy workshops and get them debating the real issues and challenges our city faces. Fundraising? Let’s not ‘hold a social’, let’s engage our student union and put on a comedy evening. Planning a campaign? Let’s use the expertise of our members of parliament and in our constituencies to bring the best campaigners in the city together.
And this approach had real results. We started winning council seats. In 2011 we took control of the council, and have continued to gain council seats. We increased our majorities in all three of the city’s constituencies in 2010, and again in 2015.
Around the country, LCFs have freed up the party to campaign more effectively. All this could be at risk from a rule change that has been put forward to conference by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy. They want to see LCFs swept away, taking us back to the old local government committee system. Not only is this a regressive step, and would undermine the grassroots campaigning that has been embedded in the party over the last decade, but they want Labour Group leaders explicitly excluded from membership. Their proposal, that LCGs consist entirely of CLP and affiliated organisation delegates, would marginalise and isolate the local Labour Group from the very purpose of the party at a local level – planning and leading campaigns.
A generous interpretation of this proposal is that it reflects a dissatisfaction with change, that modernisation of party infrastructure is not necessary and that campaigns are best organised by large committees. A more cynical reading is that this is an attempt to set party members against elected Labour councillors, providing a platform from which to attack them and undermine their efforts and ensure that they are marginalised and isolated from campaigning.
Either interpretation is unacceptable. Labour councillors are, through our ALC subs, the largest single funder of the party. We keep constituencies alive, flying the flag for Labour in areas without a Labour MP. We speak to constituents regularly through advice surgeries and public meetings, and have our finger on the pulse of our local communities. To exclude us from planning our own campaigns would be as short sighted as it is counterproductive.
The introduction of LCFs was a necessary step in making the party more nimble, better joined up and ultimately better connected to our communities. Turning the clock back by abolishing them would be a colossal mistake – we must work together to ensure this proposed rule change is rejected.
Nick Forbes is leader of the Local Government Association Labour group and leader of Newcastle city council. He tweets @nick_forbes
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