It’s hard to believe now, but before the May 2015 general election the Labour Party had 190,000 members. This July, in just 48 hours, over 183,000 more parted with £25 to become registered supporters and vote in the leadership election, the majority of them inspired by the prospect of Jeremy Corbyn being re-elected. With a membership well in excess of 600,000 it is the biggest party in Europe outside of Russia. The last 16 months have seen two massive surges in membership, each coinciding with Corbyn’s leadership campaigns. Not all joined to support him, but most did, as reflected in the 313,209 votes he obtained second time around – a figure that would undoubtedly been much larger had it not been for exclusions and purges.
The membership surges were inspired by the prospect of a Corbyn-McDonnell leadership breaking the mould of same-old, same-old establishment politics, and the prospect of abandoning the previous Labour leadership’s austerity-lite stance. Above all, it was a vote to adopt policies to work in the interests of the 99% rather than the capitalist system and the 1%. The development has given massive encouragement to socialists.
With Corbyn re-elected, it’s time to take stock of the situation inside the party. The picture is not simple. In many areas there has been a move to left on constituency general committees and among the officers. The increased number of CLP nominations for Jeremy Corbyn this year is an indication that this has occurred. But the move to the left hasn’t been an even process and in plenty of places the ‘old guard’ (especially based on right-wing councillors) has been able to maintain control of CLPs. While it takes time for party structures to reflect changes in membership, there are other factors at work.
Stories abound of new members turning up at branch or constituency meetings only to be put off by boring agendas, an absence of political discussion and no plans to campaign. Sometimes this has been because the existing LP structures weren’t up to encouraging new people. In other cases it was more blatant – there was absolutely no intention of involving them because they posed a political threat. There is a contemptuous attitude among some right-wingers that the ‘clickonistas’, as they have dubbed them, are not prepared to do any more than like a Momentum Facebook post or retweet a comment from Jeremy Corbyn. I’ve heard it said that these new members would soon lose interest. With CLPs not doing anything to encourage them, that scenario could easily become a self-fulfilling prophecy. It hasn’t happened yet, but if these people are not engaged in politics there are dangers that they will lapse into complete inactivity. If we don’t heed the warning signs, the right could regroup and stage a comeback.
Engaging with new members
While some new members will be content to have voted or to give the LP some money, most can be inspired to become active if we can offer them political discussion, particularly about socialist politics, and campaigning activity. And he latter cannot be confined to periodic bursts of door-knocking during elections. Vital as that is, people want more.
Political discussion needs to be done with imagination. It needs to be planned carefully. A political discussion should be at the heart of the branch meeting, ideally with a speaker introducing it or –even better – a short video or film to bring the topic to light. This medium is very easily available now. The CLP should help weaker branches establish their political programme. The 10
The other key element to the life of a branch or CLP is campaigning. There’s certainly no shortage of issues to campaign on at present: for social housing and rent control, against hospital cuts, for a £10 an hour minimum wage, against academies and grammar schools, for example. Every CLP should have a ‘live’ campaign and a high street stall on Saturday with national LP or trade union campaign material, or locally produced leaflets. Social media should be used to good effect to supplement campaigning work. Outside of election times not many CLPs organise public meetings. These are an important component to building campaigns, as well as a good way to get newer members involved – and to recruit more. LPs should particularly look for ways to organise on working-class estates, which are usually neglected. The aim should be to have active socialists on every street and in every block.
If a public meeting can be organised with a trade union branch or campaigning community group, that’s even better. Campaigning shouldn’t be confined to a high street and online presence; more direct approaches should be made to workers in their workplaces, even if they are not organised. The LP can strengthen links with local TUs by participating in joint campaigns, for example with Unite or the GMB.
The role of Momentum
Of course, this all assumes that LP branches and CLPs are prepared to discuss socialist politics and run campaigns. Many are not. And that’s where Momentum comes in. As well as campaigning under the banner of Momentum in areas where the right have the ascendancy in the LP, the borough Momentum database can be used to mobilise LP members for meetings. The local Momentum branch should be offering guidance to its supporters on how to turn new LP members into activists. Local, independent Momentum activity is great, but much of the group’s energy should also be used to inject socialist policies into the LP to ensure that it is transformed.
From passivity to activism
My experience is that email contact is not always particularly effective at getting people to turn out. Building on the success of the ‘calling for Corbyn’ campaign, socialists should encourage branches or CLPs to run phone-banks – to open up dialogue with new members about what kind of campaigning they would like to see, what discussions they would like to participate in, and what they can offer to the branch; a personal approach is more likely to get results, especially if people can be convinced that they have something to offer and that they will get the opportunity to learn. Many of these previously ‘invisible’ members may be active trade unionists or community campaigners who we could offer joint campaigning work to. If a number of them have the same campaign priority, that may be a good enough reason to launch a campaign on that issue. For example, if several of the new members are teachers facing the threat of academies, that could prove to be a good starting point for a campaign on the issue. Not only will the teachers offer a wealth of expertise on the subject, but this will be a way to get previously inactive members involved in the life of the LP.
Almost 3 million 14-17-year-olds who are ineligible to vote now will be qualified to in 2020, assuming the next general election is not till then (which is a massive assumption!). Those young people face a prospect of zero-hours contracts or minimum-wage jobs when they leave school – of the accumulation of huge student loan debts. In many parts of the UK they stand no chance of finding their own place to live. They are open to socialist ideas. This has been reflected in support for JC and Momentum and – to a lesser extent – recruitment to the LP. But Labour’s youth section is in a parlous state and in general there is an absence of campaigning on issues facing young people. This is a role Momentum can – and must – play.
All these campaigning ideas are helped by having socialist officers in a CLP. But often this is a chicken-and-egg situation. Socialists are more likely to be elected if new members have been drawn into activity, but achieving this requires planning and not a little hard slog. But with an enthusiastic socialist leadership locally it should be possible to develop political education and ramp up campaigning to ensure a more solid basis for left-wing ideas. This in turn will provide the opportunity to replace right-wing councillors and MPs. And it will be necessary if we’re serious about building a democratic, socialist LP one million strong.