Nostalgic, organised and steadfast in renewal

As Labour seeks to ‘refound’ itself, some pointers for the comeback trail

As Labour adjusts to the frustrations of opposition, we are not only embarking on a review of our policies, but also looking at how our party is organised. We are being asked to “refound” Labour through a review run by Peter Hain. Labour was founded by a coalition of trade unionism, Fabianism and ethical socialism (Marxism didn’t get much of a look in). But it was not a combination of “isms” which became such a force of progressive politics, but individual women and men determined to build Labour as a party of government, and determined to sit through countless committee meetings and summer school seminars to see it through.

Today there seems to be a mini backlash against party members – from party members themselves. Sometimes we worry too much that we might be irrelevant or out of touch. For some reason, pressure groups and campaign organisations, also staffed with people determined to sit through countless meetings to make things happen, have got it right, but we haven’t. The truth is any reform of the party has to start with us, the members, and we are a mixed bunch. Perhaps within each of us we can identify a Ms Nostalgia, a Mr Organiser and a Steadfast person.

Ms Nostalgia looks back fondly to the days when no general committee meeting was complete without an intense and heated debate over motions which neatly divided right from left. In those times, branch secretaries would prepare lists of their committee delegates and phone round ahead of meetings to ensure they had the numbers.

Great issues were discussed, such as nuclear disarmament, world peace, and the end of capitalism. Motions were passed and sent to the annual conference where they were actually debated – that is, after hours of compositing in stereotypically smoke-filled rooms. After the unions had agreed what the decision would be, there would be a vote and – well, it wasn’t always clear what happened next.

These days, Ms Nostalgia becomes visibly animated at the sight of a copy of the party rulebook or standing orders and wishes she didn’t have to, once again, explain it to her comrades. Ms Nostalgia is a good friend of Mr Organiser, whom she admires for his drive and commitment to the cause.

Mr Organiser knows exactly what the party needs to do. It needs to win. Put two activists in a room and pretty soon they will organise spontaneously. However, they need focus and Mr Organiser has that in spades. He has a plan. In fact, he has many plans, all meticulously worked out with every clipboard in place. And the thing is, while they sometimes seem ambitious at first, especially to a constituency with few members, they work.

In some CLPs, Mr Organiser has found faith. He carries a book with him to every meeting – Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. Where Barack Obama went, so shall we go. The future, he believes, is outside the party in radicalised community groups and trade unions, and he is determined to radicalise them. In comparison, the party can sometimes seem sluggish. Actually, quite a few members agree. Indeed, many are planning a series of committee meetings to discuss how to change things. At first, until new procedural rules have been agreed, naturally only general committee members will be able to vote. Mr Organiser is on excellent terms with Mr and Mrs Steadfast, who he knows are the backbone of any campaign.

The Steadfasts stuck with Labour through thick and thin, even through all the wars it fought. The maxim is to get the Labour candidate elected, no matter what their politics or dress sense. They are feared, not only by the MPs who talk a lot about party reform but don’t do much on the ground, but most of all by their Tory and Liberal Democrat opponents. They sometimes think the party should give them a long-suffering award – and quite rightly. And the party knows there wouldn’t be much of an organisation without them.

They also give a warm welcome to young parliamentary candidates, such as Mr Londinium, bleary-eyed when he discovers Labour is actually also quite well organised outside the capital. When he arrives in the constituency, they embrace his plans to launch a new online campaign to win the seat. However, he also leaves a meeting with Mr and Mrs Steadfast replete with voter identification sheets, a bundle of sorry-you’re-out cards and a new appreciation of what it takes to get elected. (I should know – this happened to me a few years ago.)

I floated these perspectives past a branch meeting recently. Fortunately, I wasn’t lynched and instead there was much nodding of heads. This was not because my colleagues had fallen asleep out of boredom listening to me but because they recognised the characteristics. That’s because really there is a bit of nostalgia, organiser and steadfast in all of us. For example, I am probably more familiar with the rulebook than is healthy for any individual and I’m very committed to the community engagement we’re planning. And I’ve also campaigned in European elections.

Of course, any changes we make to our party need to be outward facing. We need to be relevant to our local neighbourhoods and to the lifestyles and concerns of 21st century Britain. But we have to go with the grain of who we are and where we have come from. A successful “refounded” Labour Party will still need to understand and respect its past. It will need inspirational organising and we will still need to be steadfast. Then again, much the same applies to any community organisation or campaign group. Labour is pretty normal really – and that’s a good thing.

This article was first published in Tribune on 27 May 2011.

Tribune, 27 May 2011, 14/06/2011


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