Labour cannot waste this opportunity to reconnect with communities, argues Andrew Achilleos
Since Brexit we have seen the collapse of far right political parties with the demise of the United Kingdom independence party, yet we have seen a rise in far right populism with characters such as Tommy Robinson tapping into the unchecked frustrations in our communities.
Taking the politics out of it and sidestepping the economic fears surrounding Brexit, we have actually been handed a unique opportunity. We’re ahead of the game in Dagenham and Rainham because we’ve been working with the community since 2012 – but now is the time for Labour to reconnect with communities.
A prime catalyst for the vote to leave the European Union was neglect. The social, political and economic neglect of our rural and former industrial communities.
Many politicians talk about these places as our ‘forgotten communities’. Let’s be frank, they weren’t forgotten, they were locked out. It was an ‘aspirational’ Labour narrative that shut the door, and if we’re not careful our current trajectory threatens to lock the door forever.
Deindustrialisation decimated communities across the country, and when we came to power in 1997 we did little to rectify that. Instead we introduced policy that primarily worked for people living in cities, without considering the implications this would have on our rural and regional communities.
Many of these communities found themselves economically vulnerable. This in turn created a level of resentment toward growing metropolitan areas along with the political system that caused it. These are prime conditions for the manipulative fear mongering of the far right.
However, this article isn’t about the past. It is about what we do now. How we ensure that tension in our communities doesn’t boil over, and how we win.
It isn’t rocket science, and unless Labour plan to build a subterranean kingdom under north London, and launch a cloud suburb above it, then we need to win votes from communities we haven’t spoken to in more than 50 years.
Dagenham and Rainham is no stranger to the far right. Anyone that passed through or near Dagenham in 2010 claims to have ‘beaten the BNP’. However it was what came after the election that really won it for us long term and secured a future with Labour at the heart of the community.
In 2012 our community politics model really took off. The goal was to involve the community at every level of the political process in Dagenham and Rainham. We now have an active base of over 600 volunteers, most of whom are not Labour Party members (click here for my report).
Winning long term doesn’t come from a quick fix, it comes through embedding in communities. This means rolling engagement with not only key people but the community as a whole. It means consulting on all major issues in the area so that people who felt politically abandoned feel like they are helping shape their future.
We don’t have to ram the Labour brand down people’s throats. If we implement positive change and run successful campaigns, people will attribute improvement to Labour. In 2015 and 2017 when we were up against Ukip and then the Tories we were able to say; together we saved the police station, together we saved the civic centre, and together we stopped the government dumping a super-prison in Dagenham – where were Ukip in 2015 and where we the Tories in 2017? The far right had no avenue in.
At the beginning of this article I said that Brexit has handed us a unique opportunity. Whichever way people voted, the referendum has opened lines of communication and has engaged with people who have previously felt alienated and neglected by the political process.
I also said if we’re not careful our current trajectory threatens to lock the door forever on these people. Many in the Labour party, predominantly ‘aspirational’ middle class members living in metropolitan areas, use sneering language and look down their nose at people who voted leave. Instead of engaging and discussing the complex reasons that led 17,410,742 people to vote for Brexit we’re further alienating these communities; writing them off as either racist or stupid.
We seem to have lost the art of debate, and simply turn our backs on people with differing views. As a political movement we should be engaging people to influence change. I voted for Brexit and often feel alienated around other members outside of Dagenham and Rainham. I went to Tolpuddle last month and the ‘People’s Vote’ crowd had ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ stickers on. That isn’t how we engage or win, if anything that fuels division and the far right in our communities.
I said it isn’t rocket science and it isn’t.
Listen without sneering.
Converse without belittling.
Be proactive instead of reactive.
Embed, consult and organise.
The far right will not win here again. The community in Dagenham and Rainham support Labour because Labour support the community. It is as simple as that.
Andrew Achilleos is a councillor in Barking and Dagenham and chair of Dagenham and Rainham CLP. He tweets at @AndyAchilleos
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