Labour doesn’t win in 2024 by empowering the membership. It wins by empowering the voters.
After its worst election defeat in over 80 years, the U.K. Labour Party is choosing who will replace Jeremy Corbyn as Leader and (already-departed) Tom Watson as Deputy. The winners will be announced in early April.
One of the candidates for Deputy Leader, Richard Burgon, made waves when he proposed that the next Labour government should give members a say on whether or not the country goes to war.
What strikes me as most revealing about this proposal isn’t how bonkers it is, but how oblivious Burgon seems to how it would play out with voters; how utterly alienating it would be, how easy it would be attacked, and how it would almost certainly contribute towards an even bigger loss for Labour at the 2024 election.
Burgon represents the blunt-end of the monotonous and uninspiring squabbles about who in the leadership races will do most to empower Labour’s half a million members — who together, form the largest political party in Europe.
The argument goes that by empowering members, you motivate them to get more involved in campaigning, take charge and seize the initiative. The resulting swell of activism brings home a Labour government in 2024, right?
I’m not so sure.
Shortly after the 2019 general election, I read an interesting article by Guardian columnist John Harris.
In it he talks about a fundamental disconnect between the Labour Party and the communities it claimed it was trying to help. The problem wasn’t so much the lack of activists campaigning for a Labour government up and down the country. The problem was Labour’s strategy of presenting top-down solutions which completely disregarded what was already happening on the ground.
Austerity is one of the greatest evils ever inflicted by a post-war government, and yet, whilst the need for food banks should never be celebrated, the volunteers who tirelessly support them certainly should. Whilst the campaign for a Real Living Wage shouldn’t be necessary, those who are fighting for it are indispensable. Whilst outsourcing giant, Carillion shouldn’t have been involved in public service delivery in the first place, the small businesses that were devastated by its collapse must be invited to join the fight against the austerity that accelerated it.
These activists, civil society organisations and businesses shouldn’t be patted on the head. Their acumen must be recognised and respected. They should be seen as allies and partners on the road to the next Labour government. Not only that, but they should also be considered part of the plan to deliver Labour’s agenda when that moment comes.
And yet when a friend mentioned the — then upcoming — 2019 general election to a community organiser at the forefront of the local campaign for a Real Living Wage, the response was a blank look and a shrug. When John Harris visited a struggling housing estate in Edinburgh, a community organiser commented: “Do you know who we never see around here? The Left.”
That’s because, these community organisers weren’t from those hired by the Labour Party in the run up to the 2019 general election; who were appointed centrally, ‘dropped’ into constituencies, and who regularly refused to engage with local ideas and initiatives.
Instead, these are the community organisers who had the audacity to already be there; who were already intertwined with the communities they tirelessly support.
By focusing on empowering the Labour Party ‘membership’, the leadership contenders are making the grave error of reinforcing the ‘us-and-them’ between the membership, the voters it needs to win back and critically, those from civil society and local business that it needs to join the fight to return the party to government.
I grew up in Newcastle’s West End. In the 1980s, Arthur’s Hill was one of those places where no one actually ‘lived’. It’s reputation for crime, notorious families, and disadvantage led to a tendency to steal the names of neighbouring areas when writing our address.
My dad was the local vicar, so my family experienced some of the sharp end of life on the estate: the woman who would send her children to the door asking for food because she was too ashamed to do so herself; the man with paranoid schizophrenia who banged on our windows; the constant break-ins.
And yet, the years growing up in Arthur’s Hill remain the happiest days of my life.
Words like ‘community spirit’ get bandied about, but in Arthur’s Hill, our community spirit was raw and it was real. People really did look out for each other. The sense of belonging was inescapable.
One could argue that it was around this time that such a culture was becoming increasingly rare. The decline of heavy industry and the spectre of the ‘call-centre’; the individualism of Thatcherism, later unchallenged by the advent of Blairism, have gone a long way to fragment one-closely knit communities into silos of disconnected worlds.
Of course, as the previous examples of communities self-organising attest to, this theory can only ever be partly true. But it is also true that the days of mining villages and shipyards voting en-masse for Labour are long gone, and that the party has to find ways to make itself relevant again — not only to those voters it needs to win back, but voters that are still yet to cast a ballot.
I believe that the party’s leadership does that by embracing the idea that to bring about change, Labour doesn’t need to wait until it returns to power. By leading a coalition of business, civil-society organisations and organisers - Labour-members, Labour-run councils, devolved governments and regional mayoralties can create — and indeed are creating — change right now.
What Labour needs is a leader who understands that Labour’s job isn’t to engage with its local communities. Its job is to partner with its local communities. Its mission is to become indistinguishable from its local communities.
I’ll be voting first choice for Lisa Nandy in the upcoming Labour leadership election. I’ll be voting for her because she gets it. She understands that the pathway to a Labour government lies in decentralising its power base, asking people what needs to be done rather than telling them. She demonstrates this through her track record, such as when — as Shadow Secretary of State for Climate Change — she worked with Labour councils across the country to reduce the UK’s carbon footprint by 10%.
Of course, what Labour does at a local level will always be limited by who’s in power in Westminster, but it must form part of the strategy to return Labour to power in 2024. After all there is evidence, such as in Plymouth and Preston, that it works.
Labour must return to its communitarian roots. It must reject the statist lets-just-nationalise-everything-without-explaining-why message of 2019 and consider wider society both as part of the solution to the problems the country faces, as well as part of the plan to achieve a Labour government.
That’s because, coupled with an effective communications strategy (preferably not led by Seumas Milne), the party can use this collaborative approach to getting thing done at local level, to prove to the country at-large that they are indeed a government in waiting.
I’m not suggesting that this strategy alone would be enough. Clearly some well-communicated and clearly prioritised policies will help more than a little.
And, whilst it’s true that a cross-party approach is probably the only realistic way for Labour to form a government in 2024, whoever becomes the next Labour leader must go further.
By 2024, we’ll have had fourteen years of Conservative government. It’s likely we’ll be continuing to reel from a devastating austerity agenda that has claimed the lives of the most vulnerable, made worse by a Tory-brokered Brexit that paves the way for Johnson’s disaster-capitalist chums to further-threaten our rights, our environment and our safety.
The Labour government we’ll so desperately need won’t be achieved by empowering the membership. Neither will it be achieved by empowering the trade unions. It’ll be achieved by the membership and trade unions partnering with the charities, social enterprises, community initiatives and small businesses that represent the proud progressive majority of this country, and through whose collective roar, a Labour-led government will be returned to power in 2024.
Follow me on Twitter @mrwillsadler