By Michael Calderbank
1. Winning policy battles is necessary but not sufficient. Electoral success requires more than just attractive policies, although it is impossible without them. The challenge is also cultural and structural-institutional, not simply ideological.
2. True, where people understood Labour is on their side and getting results, the results were good – for example, Wales, Preston, Greater Manchester, Salford, etc.
3. But the party has become dis-embedded from many non-Metropolitan working class communities for over the course of at least three decades. In too many places, Labour doesn’t feel like an expression of the community but a professional parasitical class feeding upon it, and perhaps even secretly holding them in contempt (not so secretly in the case of Brexit). Where we were seen simply as the local ‘establishment’, we either won narrowly on a falling turnout, or were else were subject to an angry backlash.
4. The Corbyn-era ambition to make Labour into a social movement was laudable but the reality fell way behind the rhetoric. The Community Organising Unit was a good start but even that threatened to become annexed into a short-term electoral Get Out the Vote operation, rather than building longer-term relationships. We needed to concentrate not just on mobilising existing supporters into activists for electioneering purposes.
5. This is a reflection of the existing culture of the party. CLPs have largely failed to get beyond either narrow electoralism or internally-focused faction fighting. ‘Campaigning’ is rarely understood as anything to do with Labour if it’s not about the immediate task of fighting to elect candidates at an election. People committed to grassroots activism or direct action (on issues like climate change or housing) are unlikely to look to their local CLPs – and might well face opposition from the local Labour council.
6. CLPs often don’t really engage directly with the social issues raised in the local community – which tend to be passed on to councillors or MPs as ‘individual casework’. Little attempt is made to link up and ‘organise’ in the community, beyond delivering election leaflets, etc. The decision under Starmer to axe the COU and rely on focus groups and opinion polling is a step in entirely the wrong direction.
7. In too many cases the trade unions have delegated formal political engagement with Labour Party structures upwards – to national officers and regional full time officials. The ‘link’ is mediated and controlled from the top, and branch level links with CLPs are often weak or non-existent. Local CLPs and affiliated union branches should look at developing community links.
8. There needs to be a turn towards organising which transcends supporting any particular iteration of the leadership or narrow factional ends. Organising takes time – there is no quick fix. But it’s the only alternative to becoming a hollowed out party of big capital.
9. Industrial and community/political organising are not mutually exclusive – especially where people are moving in and out of work, through different low paid sectors. Efforts to organising low-paid workers and renters, for example, are basically targeting the same demographic.
10. CLPs and affiliated unions should be encouraged to develop local “community organising hubs” on empty high street premises – to develop grassroots organising, not only to take up casework but also to recruit and organise around local issues. This should be on an open pluralistic basis, open to external/non-aligned groups like faith groups/NGOs/social enterprises to get involved.
Michael Calderbank is a contributing editor on Socialist Register.
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