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Labour must campaign earnestly everywhere

The Labour Party is now in a position where it can build solid foundations in every city, town and village in the country. With a commitment to grassroots activity, Labour could create strong community ties that will last generations and provide a firm bedrock from which we can flower and grow.

To achieve this, Labour must ditch some of the short-term thinking that has undermined its support in many towns and villages.

For decades, Labour concentrated all resources only on ‘key seats’. This has meant that Labour supporters in ‘unwinnable’ towns and villages have been asked to ditch their local concerns and campaign in a neighbouring, more marginal constituency.

The rationale behind focusing on ‘winnable’ seats was purely a lack of numbers on the ground. A party with under 200,000 members simply did not have enough active people to attempt to win every seat.

Seats – or even wards in council elections – have been identified as ‘unwinnable’ and ‘paper candidates’ have been put up (ie not really a serious candidate – just there on paper).

Why bother to put up candidates when there has been no campaigning on the ground and there is no expectation of winning (especially when this costs a fair amount of money)? The answer is that it is good for Labour’s image to be seen to be standing everywhere regardless of whether they win and so people have a choice to vote Labour.

I now think it’s time to move one step further with this approach. 

Why don’t we stand candidates in every ward and seat and actually earnestly campaign in those wards and seats – so that people in those communities know that Labour really does have a presence everywhere?

We now have over 600,000 members and many of those members are in ‘unwinnable’ seats. We need to energise those members and not make them feel like they are simply paying a subscription that will help Labour win in marginal seats.

Last year’s General Election saw many new towns – and villages – emerge as possible Labour strongholds of the future.

Bournemouth, for example, has a large Labour membership that were inspired by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership and is now working hard to overturn two formerly ‘unwinnable’ Tory seats. Young local activists like Henry Land are enthusiastically campaigning during the local elections as they build up to the next General Election. The Stand up for Labour event in Bournemouth had an attendance of over 150 people and it was supported by three trade unions plus a local business (Unicorn) (see picture above).

Henry Land is not alone in wanting to transform Labour’s fortunes in formerly ‘unwinnable’ seats.

In Aldershot, Hampshire, Alex Crawford and Hashim Hassan promoted a very successful Stand up for Labour show in March and, in May, Stand up for Labour is putting on shows in Minehead (West Somerset) as well as North Walsham (North Norfolk) and Alton (East Hampshire).

Policies needed

It would benefit these CLPs if the party could also push forward policies that would benefit rural areas. The recent Fabians report, ‘How Labour can reconnect with the countryside’, shows that Labour has a poor image in these communities. The report calls for commitments to improve transport, broadband and supporting small business. These policies would not only increase Labour’s popularity in these seats but would pressure the government into improving services that would benefit local residents for generations to come.

With a combination of ‘rural-proof’ policies and a large group of activists Labour can potentially win everywhere.

  • You can buy tickets for Stand up for Labour through the website.

Labour could be the best social club

I learned something amazing at Stand up for Labour in Aldershot on Thursday (pictured above).

During the show, I found out that Jennifer Evans was the longest serving member of the party in the room and rewarded her with a bottle of red wine.

While she was on stage, I asked Jennifer what it was that led her to join the party in 1968.

‘I was new in the area and I wanted to meet like-minded people. So I joined Labour,’ she said.

This made perfect sense to me but was something I’d never heard before.

What better way is there to find friends who share common values and interests than to join a political party – and, especially, the Labour Party?

There are many people in the country who want to feel part of a social group and to meet like-minded people. People join clubs for just this purpose. And there are thousands and thousands of Labour voters who fall into this category.

So why can’t Labour convert more voters into members?

The only thing holding back such a recruitment campaign is a lack of appetite from people in positions of power in the party.

As things stand, there is hardly any recruitment drive. And the recruitment drive is more about asking for money than offering much in return.

There is a bizarre situation where the bulk of any new subscription money goes to the central party and not to the local party – where new members would feel the benefit. That the central party receives the bulk of the money, doesn’t give them much of an incentive to recruit more people – and the local CLPs hardly find a financial carrot for recruiting people because the returns are so small.

Because of the small amount that CLPs receive per subscription and the ongoing costs they face with room hire and elections, local parties spend more time trying to raise money than actually creating a Labour community.

What is ‘political’?

Stand up for Labour provides a fun, social event that gives members a good opportunity to meet new people and also promotes the Labour Party as a family. It also helps local CLPs to raise money without charging members a fortune. It would seem nonsensical for the Labour Party not to support this, however I have been informed by the head of conference services that it will cost me £2,000+ for me to have a small stand at this year’s conference in Liverpool. This decision was approved by Iain McNichol just before he resigned as General Secretary.

There may be some people who think Stand up for Labour is not significant because it is not ‘political’.

However, this is to forget that the Labour Party is all about being social(ist) and bringing people together. Stand up for Labour not only offers a night out that can raise people’s spirits, but it mobilises supporters.

If Labour is to make a difference by winning elections and energising local campaigns, then it can only achieve this with a large number of people who feel a deep affection for the party and fellow members.

We should be making it known to the public that joining the Labour Party not only provides more money for the party to campaign, but that by joining you too could find like-minded people, just as Jennifer did some 50 years ago.

McNicol’s ideal replacement

Now that Iain McNicol has resigned as General Secretary of the Labour Party, people are asking who should replace him.

I know the right person.

The new General Secretary would mirror the inclusive politics of Jeremy Corbyn and make the Labour Party into an electoral force.

This would require a change in culture at Labour’s head office and regional offices.

To start with, appointments would not be based on cronyism or on employing someone who does what they are told, but would be on seeking inventive members of staff, excited about being part of the largest party in Western Europe.

With the money and resources at its disposal, the Labour Party could attract talent that would be the envy of many multinational companies.

The General Secretary would encourage people to come up with new ideas and energised, gifted staff would be able to promote the party in such a way that we could stay financially rich as well as phenomenally popular.

Building a mass membership party, with at least one million members would be a priority for the new General Secretary.

And this would necessitate a rethink about how we give value to members.

Like other membership organisations, we would have to be more interactive and would need to have a far larger customer relations department for members.

All members would be sent details about where and when their local meetings are as well as a copy of the party rulebook and a guide to the party structure.

The new General Secretary would not tolerate any violation of the party rulebook and the Compliance Unit would be changed from investigating members to investigating any rule breaking. This would give members more confidence about the party’s procedures and structures.

Raising money

Party fundraising is vital and a mass membership party will go a long way towards that. Crowdfunding with over one million members would prove far more effective than old-fashioned and elitist projects like ‘the Thousand Club’, in which Labour’s richest donors are given exclusive access to meet MPs and party officials.

The new General Secretary will offer groups that campaign within the Labour Party a free stand at the Labour Party Conference. Instead of asking for £2,000 to promote their ideas, the General Secretary will help to strengthen campaigners who we work with.

With this new General Secretary in place, the Labour Party will be in a position to take power and stay there for decades.

  • What do you think about this vision of the new General Secretary? Why not come along to ‘Breaking Naan’ in London next Sunday to put your ideas forward. Members from across the party will be attending so this will be a great discussion. Tickets are available here.

Why I won’t be on ‘Daily Politics’ again

On Monday morning, I received an email at half past eight from the BBC asking if I would come on ‘Daily Politics’ to ‘chat about how Stand up for Labour tour makes politics more accessible and what these events can bring to political parties’.

My cautious mind thought ‘this sounds too good to be true – and if it’s too good to be true then it’s too good to be true’. Were the BBC really giving me an opportunity to plug Stand up for Labour for nothing?

I decided to consult my friends on Facebook to find out what they thought and the overwhelming response was that I should take up the opportunity to appear on the programme. So I replied to the BBC to say that I would be there.

I arrived at the studio in good time. The studio and its associated office took up the whole floor of a big building near the Houses of Parliament. I reckon there must be at least 50 staff working on the programme. The money and resources that the programme has at its disposal is mind blowing.

daily-politics-studio.jpg

It’s such a shame that with all its financial backing from the BBC, this programme dedicated to politics does very little to make political activity seem attractive or accessible. Its agenda is so Westminster focused that it seems to imply that all politics happens there.

I found out that the promise of a discussion about how Stand up for Labour can make politics more accessible was nothing of the sort.

When I saw the board outside the studio, I found that the title of the short spot on the show in which I would be featured was called ‘Jez Festival’. This was clearly a reference to a music festival that the Labour Party were gingerly suggesting may happen in June in North London. The ‘Jez’ bit was an attempt to make it seem like a celebration of a personality cult, whereas the Labour Party press release was talking of something called ‘Labour Live’.

So the ‘Daily Politics’ had made a press release about a possible music festival for Labour that would engage people through a mix of music and speeches into a personality cult story and it was in their ‘fun’ slot at the end.

Under the spotlight

I was rushed into the room just before the last segment of the show and the presenter, Jo Coburn, asked me: ‘What is the aim of this festival?’

I was a bit dumbstruck.

‘I don’t know anything about this festival’, I had to reply. I then tried to make light of this by saying that ‘this must be another BBC blunder’.

While Coburn tried to laugh this off, it was actually true.

I felt for her so I tried to add something about who I am and then to drop in a plug for Stand up for Labour (as my brother had advised), but this interview was moving away from me.

Coburn never seemed to listen to anything I was saying and always seemed to be on the point of cutting me off. She even started asking the Tory MP on the show what he thought about Labour Party festivals.

At the end of the show, as I went to leave she said: ‘see you soon’ and then turned to me and said ‘I don’t mean you. I won’t be seeing you again’.

I found that a bit unfair as I had only gone to the studio to talk about Stand up for Labour so it could hardly be my fault that I didn’t know anything about the festival.

Stand up for Labour travels all over the country with the aim of energising people who support the Labour Party, promoting political activity and a sense of community. On the other hand, ‘Daily Politics’ is firmly based in Westminster and promotes division between political parties and within political parties; makes politics seem cliquey and often misrepresents good ideas in order to suit its – frankly, very negative – agenda.

Rather like Clark Gable (or really more like a child trying to cuss back), I turned to Coburn and said: ‘And I’m glad I won’t be seeing you again.’

  • You can see the clip from Daily Politics here.

We have a duty to stop factionalism

I was put off party politics for nearly 25 years because of factional infighting.

In 1987, I was an enthusiastic Labour supporter studying ‘A’ Levels and reading extensively about history, politics and culture. Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone spoke at debates at my school and I was excited when my dad stood for Labour against David Owen in Plymouth Devonport. I joined the Labour Party as soon as it was possible for me to do so.

At the time, Labour had just won a famous by-election victory against the Tories in Fulham and I was looking forward to my first meeting at Harold Laski House.

When I arrived in the small hall, I was told that we had to ‘get through the business’ as quickly as possible. I wasn’t entirely sure why this was the case until I was told at the end of the meeting that if we didn’t then ‘The Militants’ would arrive and we would end up with ‘some motion about Nicaragua’. The meeting took about 10 minutes and then everyone decanted to the Durell Arms across the road.

This was really not the best introduction to the Labour Party. I wanted to discuss ideas and learn about campaigning and how the party works. I wanted to get involved, but all I was seeing was a party where people were more obsessed with stopping expression than encouraging it.

I was not a Militant nor was I particularly opposed to Militant. I was a Labour Party member. I didn’t want to be forced into making a choice between these factions.

The experience of being denied a discussion because of factionalism was enough to put me off going to any Labour meetings until I rejoined the Labour Party in 2010. I hate being pigeon-holed.

I am certain that I am not the only person who has been put off Labour Party meetings because of factionalism.

What’s wrong with discussing ideas?

Nobody agrees with anyone else about everything. Disagreements are inevitable, but we must find a way in which we can meet and discuss things. And the power of ideas must be tested by rigorous debate, otherwise policies that are drawn up may not have been properly scrutinised and be found lacking later on.

Unfortunately, however, intellectual arguments are ignored within factional politics as we are given a list of ‘slates’ for elections. People are instructed to vote for who is in their faction (this could be at a local level or something like the NEC) and the level of debate has been reduced to ‘labelling’ (as Chuka Umunna wrote recently).

The Labour Party cannot provide a welcome platform for enthusiastic young people or politically reawakened older people if it is divided between factions that play out battles in this way. There may well be some great talented politicians of the future who are being discouraged from participating.

Political participation should be a right for all and those who join the Labour Party should not feel marginalised if they do not want to join a faction (this is especially true when we consider that the Labour Party has a membership of nearly 600,000 yet the largest faction, Momentum, has only 30,000 members).

There may be some people who suggest that these factions are good and that these drive change. I contend that the main change they drive is towards the personal power of those within them. And it is often the case that those with a propensity for factions will end up with further factions within factions so that the only drive is towards further division.

There are also people who think factions are inevitable and that there is nothing that can be done about them. But this doesn’t wash with me. Just because something has happened for a long time does not mean that it is inevitable – whether it is votes for women, the founding of the NHS, the Good Friday Agreement.

Unity is strength

The first step towards ending unnecessary factionalism in the Labour Party is for all the groups within the party to come together. Avoiding each other (like in my first meeting in 1987) leads to groups drawing up ridiculous caricatures of each other and working on their own agendas – rather than the good of the party as a whole.

The Labour Party was created with such a meeting in 1900. The Fabians, the trade unions and the Independent Labour Party all agreed to work together. These groups realised that they were stronger if they combined and focused on what they have in common. By creating the Labour Party they put their differences to one side. This wasn’t to say that they didn’t continue to express their own opinions and speak up for issues that were close to them, just that they knew that ‘unity is strength’.

breaking naan FB event photo v4

To facilitate a modern day meeting of groups, I am inviting all Labour members, from across the party to come to a curry night and discussion, on Sunday 4th March.

Already I have had positive feedback from the following groups: Blue Labour, CLPD, Compass, Tribune, Labour Future, the FBU, the BFAWU. I have contacted a number of other groups and have yet to hear back but will continue to chase them and to invite their members.

We will all have an amicable discussion about how the Labour Party can win the next General Election. Everyone will be invited to speak but there will be clear rules that have to be followed: only those people holding the microphone are to speak and no one is to make personal attacks (and only to talk of issues).

The chefs at Mumbai Square can cater for meat lovers, vegetarians and vegans; those who like it mild and those who like it hot. Just as with the Labour Party, they appreciate we all have slightly different tastes, but this does not mean we cannot eat together.

  • ‘Breaking Naan’ takes place at Mumbai Square restaurant (7 Middlesex Street, London E1 7AA) on Sunday 4th March (starting at 6:30pm and ending by 10pm). Tickets are available through the Stand up for Labour website here.

Can the Labour Party come together?

One of the reasons why politics gets a bad name is that politicians will argue about anything. It’s as though they are looking for reasons not to get on, rather than seeking to do the best for their community or the country.

Put simply this is called looking for the differences and not the similarities.

I suppose this wouldn’t be a big issue if we were just talking about Labour politicians disagreeing with Tories. But it does become a problem when it is people from within the Labour Party attacking each other.

Personalities not principles

Factions can be created from votes for positions within the party. Some people become attached to one candidate against another and make this into a matter of principle. This certainly was the case with Jeremy Corbyn standing for leader of the Labour Party and with the second leadership election. Since he was elected, many members of the Labour Party have fallen out – just over a vote for who is the leader of the party.

But it doesn’t just have to be a leadership election, some people have built up resentments against each other for elections for positions in the Labour Party, for council selection or MP selection.

It’s as though every internal election causes more division and, in doing so, makes unity harder.

Show of hands

Everything goes to a vote

Another reason why there are rifts is that every decision in the Labour Party has to go to a vote. In Labour Party branches and CLPs people will vote on anything from whether the minutes are correct to how much money should be spent on the Christmas Social. This isn’t actually always necessary and can lead to unnecessary divisions.

Consensus decision-making is a method of including the input of all so that decisions may address all potential concerns. This creates a greater cohesion within the group. With this method, because everyone has their voice heard, those who are uncomfortable with a particular decision can be persuaded by the force of the argument of comrades and not by the number of hands in the air (often many are not persuaded that something is right or wrong because they lost a vote).

Divisions built on fear

The consequence of factions being formed on the back of votes – whether for positions of power or for any other issue – is that these factions start to distance themselves from each other. This involves talking negatively about the other faction and finding a solidarity with others solely on the basis of this animosity.

So the rifts start to feel intractable.

This seems to be happening in the Labour Party now with a few groups arguing in public about issues like the composition of the National Executive Committee.

What’s being done to unite the party?

There are a few people saying ‘the party must be united’ if we are to win. But there is nothing being done. And the Labour Party itself isn’t going to admit that there are factions as it is not in its interest to do so.

In fact, many of the factions within the party are actually holding meetings in which they are quite publicly saying they wish to take control of the party or take back control. This is only going to escalate divisions.

Laughing audience

Finding common ground

My experience of Stand up for Labour has shown me that social events are a great way to get people together. At Stand up for Labour,  people from all sides of the party are united in laughter and we find our common cause within the Labour Party family. We are able to see that we are a broad church and that we all want to work towards Labour coming back to government and winning local elections.

I believe that Labour members actually agree about most things.

We all want a society where there is no need for foodbanks, we all want the NHS to be properly funded so that everyone has access to good healthcare, and we all want our education system to provide an opportunity for people from all backgrounds to reach their full potential. We believe that jobs should be available that are well-paid and secure and we also believe that we should have decent, genuinely affordable housing for all.

Issues that are disagreed about, such as defence and foreign policy, fiscal policy, PFI schemes and nationalisation should be discussed openly and the weight of arguments should make the difference not tactical manoeuvres at meetings. I’m sure that if all members felt that their opinions were taken into account then there would be no fallout from policy decision making.

Curry for Corbyn picture 1

A unifying event

On Sunday the 4th of March, I am putting on a curry evening that will involve a discussion on how people see the future of the Labour Party. This discussion will include policy matters as well as party campaigns and organisation. I am writing to all of these groups to invite them:

Blue Labour, Chartist, CLPD, Compass, Co-Operative Party, Fabians, Labour First, Labour Future, LRC, Momentum, Open Labour, Progress, Tribune and all the affilliated trade unions.

The rules of the discussion will be that no one is to speak without using the handheld mic, that no one hogs the mic and that there are no personal attacks or heckling. We can then have a proper discussion and not get indigestion from the curry.

My hope is that some headway may be made towards party unity through the act of being in the same room and breaking naan together.

  • Tickets for ‘Breaking Naan’ will be available to all Labour supporters in the next two weeks.

 

 

 

‘The Jungle’ is massive

It’s important that we find new ways to express our opinions and our stories. Social media is definitely helpful as are newspapers and leaflets; demonstrations; gigs and attempts to get songs into the charts. But the oldest method for circulating ideas has largely been ignored. There are not many political plays being written.

I have seen a few ‘political’ plays recently that seek to explore the drama of power and principles. Mostly these have been admirable productions, but there has been an academic or philosophical air to them that fails to fire me up about issues affecting us now. That is not the case with ‘The Jungle’.

‘The Jungle’, which is sold out at ‘The Young Vic’ until 9 January (with only returns available) is the story of the refugee camp in Calais that became home to over 6,000 people.

The first thing that makes the play so notable is the staging.

We sit within a room (the auditorium) that is a massive mocked up cafe. We are seated in zones (‘Afghanistan’, ‘Sudan’, ‘Libya’) just like the occupants of the camp. Each seat includes a counter table in front with condiments (salt and pepper shakers, ketchup). Underfoot, there is dusty earth and bits of bark. To get to our seats, we pass mocked up shelters and a small cafe. Before the play even starts, we feel part of the camp.

Jungle audience
There is no gentle introduction to the play. It starts with the camp facing up to the police imminently coming to clear away the land. Face masks are given out to audience members and advise about dousing yourself in coca cola if hit by teargas.

It’s then that we meet the main character in the play, Safi. He is the chorus who decides how the story is told. While we are caught up in the upcoming drama of the police breaking into the camp, he stops the scene and tells us that we must go back to the beginning of the story.

Safi’s interjections remind us that this is not a production that we can daydream in, but a performance in which we are grounded and present. To funny effect, later on, he suddenly announces: ‘I think now is a good time for an interval’.

It’s not just Safi who engages with us. Members of the cast put their hands on our shoulders as they talk, or apologise if a prop nearly hits an audience member. And, once during the first half, a cast member wipes the counter in front of me with a cloth.

As we watch the development of the camp, we see how refugees from different countries built up their own communities in different zones, how they sometimes argued but, ultimately, came together. It is an exciting place to be and it shows humanity at its best: building a vibrant community, with music, dancing, restaurants, children’s and women’s centres, churches and mosques. All this, even when there is a traffic jam in Calais most of the camp runs out in an attempt to find a way into England.

Jungle Play image 2
Despite the fact that the Theresa May and the British government were not admitting refugees from the camp, ‘The Jungle’ shows that there were many good intentioned British people who came to the support of the refugees. At first this is amusing, but the longer the play runs, the more noticeable it is that these people had compassion far beyond anything the French authorities could muster.

To contrast with the humour and the music, ‘The Jungle’ also tells the story of the migrants and their traumatic passage from their homeland. We hear about the people who died and the perilous journeys across sea. It is impossible not to feel compassion for all migrants who have been forced to leave their countries.

The play lasts two hours and 45 minutes and, when I was told this before it started, I had thought this seemed very long. But the power of the production showed that an audience can have a long attention span – there really is no need to dumb down.

The play has been written with an urgency to tell the story. There is an earnestness to it that defies convention. And I was not alone in feeling deeply moved by this. Most of the audience stood up to give a standing ovation and there were several people in tears.

‘The Jungle’ will make a big impression if it is given an extended run and tours the country. It gives people an insight into the world of refugees that cannot be found elsewhere. And it exposes the cold brutality of countries that carried out military operations in the Middle East and then failed to look after those whose lives were destroyed.

I hope that ‘The Jungle’ gets the financial support it deserves and that it encourages a wave of new political plays that transform our culture.