Labour meetings have to change

February 25, 2012 12:22 pm

Jon Wilson responds to Melanie Haslam’s Open Letter to Greenwich and Woolwich Labour Party

I had a brilliant Labour conversation earlier this week. We talked about free schools and local democracy, how to fund local public projects, to change our local community and make sure education allows everyone to flourish. We disagreed, as all Labour people do. But I came away with a sense of common purpose, and an energy to campaign. I also thought I’d got to know a few of my neighbours a bit better.

The trouble is, the conversation happened in the pub. It was a conversation amongst new and old friends, after a Labour Party General Committee meeting which was, frankly, grim. In the pub we talked about politics. In the party offices, it was process: repetitive, eye-pokingly dull process.

The highlight was hearing from our MP about the NHS bill and local transport. For twenty minutes people sat up and talked about something important. But most of the time was spent electing our conference delegates, nominating candidates for the NEC, NPF and discussing a host of other acronyms most party members have never heard of. This is important business, but the spirit it’s conducted in was just wrong.

A lot of the time, no-one is introduced to each other. Old delegates assume everyone knows what’s going on. They think we all know who everyone is talking about and are fine with the banter and mild heckling, in-jokes and knowing comments that are background noise throughout.

But as Melanie Haslam reminded us in an angry wake-up call to Greenwich and Woolwich published yesterday, for new members it’s just bad manners. It’s hardly surprising that many members who come once never return.

There’s nothing special about my constituency. The 40 people at our GC this week are committed activists, good people and often good friends. But across the country, something weird happens when the chair of a Labour Party meeting says ‘minutes of the last meeting’. Friends become strangers, old animosities are rekindled and people we’ve never met don’t think they need to be introduced. With the bad manners, we forget to talk about what brings us together – a Labour politics about the common good, where we organize together to make sure everyone is respected and leads a dignified life.

In Greenwich and Woolwich, outside our GC meetings, we’ve started to try to do things differently. Most wards campaign actively; activists and Councillors usually know their community well. We’ve had some great all member meetings where we’ve argued about politics, and made a difference. Supported by Movement for Change, we’ve been listening better to residents and small businesses. We’ve made a small start at being a force that brings people together to change their communities for themselves.

But as Melanie’s letter shows, our meetings need to get a lot better. We need to be clear why we’re there, and make sure only those who have to sit through the boring stuff do. Everyone needs to feel valued– we need rounds at the beginning to make sure everyone feels involved, time for one to one conversations. We need to make sure members who are not GC delegates aren’t just tolerated as ‘guests’. Meetings are there to build relationships across and beyond the whole party. They need to energise, not be endured. To to be more like the pub and less like the kind of grinding bureaucratic exercise we often have to sit through at work.

Above all, we need to remember that Labour is only as good and as powerful as the strength of our relationships with each other. Acting together as a campaigning force depends on the kind of trust , even friendship that starts, simply, by treating each other well.

I hope Melanie will get involved to make things better. And when she comes back to the GC, that she finds things have improved. It’s about time we made sure good conversations don’t just happen in the pub.

Jon Wilson is Vice Chair (Campaigns) of Greenwich and Woolwich Labour Party

  • Browncow

    I agree party meetings need to be better and more accessible but not quite sure how writing a letter on a factional website helps anyone. A suspicious person might wonder why he person who complained had been a member for months without attending a meeting or canvas session, then turned up on he might the Nec an NPF slates were being discussed then complained on the slates own website. Shouldn’t Melanie have raised the issue with her Clp? Hasn’t publishing something on a factions website just made the situation worse?

    • Shank’s Pony

      And Browncow hits the nail on the head…

    • Melanie Haslam

      This was answered in my letter – I study on Thursday evenings! This was my reading week so I was free in the evening to attend. I posted my letter on Twitter after I had emailed it to the CLP because I know my experiences are shared by new and young members at CLP meetings across the country. After I received hundreds of tweets from members in agreement that things need to change, Progress asked if they could publish it on their website. Hope this resolves your suspicion! I know what a GC is and knew I wouldn’t be able to vote!

      • Walter Ulbricht

        I think the problem many of us have with the letter is that posting it on the Progress website, a faction that of late has acted more as a party-within-a-party, gives the air of factionalism and attack. The tone of your letter came across as gnarly and aggressive, of course committed people who turn up to these meetings will feel immediately defensive. If you came to my GC and did that, however isolated you felt, I’d jump to its defence because I know it’s a great CLP.

        There are also some areas that I feel you blew out of context. Complaining at a joke about the John Prescott book, saying that you’d lived in Greenwich for 8 months but then didn’t know where the local pub was (or think to ask), it all came across a bit as someone who went to the meeting looking for a problem.

        I apologise if this is not what you intended, but those of us who knock doors every weekend and turn up to every meeting naturally feel disappointed when these kinds of letters are posted publicly.

        Don’t get me wrong, I’m a young member, I’ve been going to these meetings since 2008. In my CLP there has been a definite culture shift to make them more inclusive – I’d go further and scrap the GC system and replace them with All-Members Meetings. Get rid of the procedural nonsense, and actually have discussion.

  • Ruthalcroft

    It feels like a long time since I attended a Labour Party meeting where we discussed our vision. As a result, I don’t attend any more :( I’d love to know how to make this happen. Great article!

  • Democracy comes first

    Filton Labour branch act in complete secrecy from the local community and if anyone dares to discuss matters outside of them they are removed from membership, this is hardly democracy is it…Ed Miliband must act and change this way of working.
    See a story here
    http://www.thisisbristol.co.uk/Filton-Labour-respond-claims-secrecy/story-15307749-detail/story.html

  • Harry Barnes Email

    Why can’t we have things both ways? We can have business meetings to decide the procedural matters which many find boring. Yet forgoing an input to such matters is a destruction of inner-party democracy. Then we can also have meetings in which we discuss key issues. Furthermore, we can open up these meetings to non-party members. We have been doing this for several years in my local Labour Party as shown on the following blog, which is run in association with the meetings. We even pushed the contestants for the Labour Leadership into publishing manifestoes (well of sorts) -  http://dronfieldblather.blogspot.com/ Furthermore there can be cross fertilisation from the discussion meetings to the business meetings. We have not needed to refound Labour. It had never been lost.

  • Tcstephens1

    Her point regarding GC delegates is begging to be looked at – certainly there are complications because delegates are supposed to be linked (or at least in my constituency, are…) to the more local districts, or to the youth club – but having a system which says you can only vote if you’re a special “delegate” is ridiculously discouraging! What’s more, it’s chaotic: I was made a delegate to my GC through a local district after attending a few meetings, and I am still a delegate now despite having never attended a local district meeting in years – so really the existing system doesn’t serve much of a purpose as in years of meetings at the GC, I have never actually reported my “findings” back to the district. 

    But as learned as Mel’s points are, they only demonstrate the superficial issue of more subtle conduct in some (if not most) GCs: solve her problems and you still have the issue that the content of these meetings is completely irrelevant anyway. 

    My GC has taken to the innovation of inviting guest speakers straight after meetings, open to members and non-members – as has my university labour club – and this to me strikes me as a far better way to engage people and attract new attendees. Indeed, the first labour event I attended after I joined, if I recall correctly, was a debate at the Council building regarding the renewal of Trident – yes that’s a very tedious example, but it was something with a relevance to the real world that made me think I’d have something to say. Advertising a meeting in which people are due to be discussing boundary changes just won’t cut it!

  • Johndclare
  • Lumbkoz

    Whatever unease there may be in attending CLP meetings, it is up to the individual to take a stand and offer better solutions to the status quo. When Refounding Labour came about we at Maidenhead CLP, realised we had done most of the work way ahead of the document, and if what we have is not perfect, we can certainly say it isn’t the worst.

    We divide our meetings between ‘Topical’ meetings and ‘Open’ meetings. What that means is that 3/4 of our meetings throughout the year have a selected topic at the top of the Agenda which can be introduced by either a speaker – if one is available, or a member. We always start with the topic first, than break for coffee or tea than tell members that we have some business to attend to and that they are at liberty to leave the meeting if they wish. The other meetings are there for members to bring along their ideas and discuss whatever issue is concerning them the most, or refer to recent local or national events. All our meetings are open to members and supporters. Our executive committee is where the officers deal with the business of the day and we always have good conversations.

    We find that this works to the best of our ability. Of course living in a strong Conservative constituency with no Labour representation at council level – except for one or two at Parish level – is not very rewarding in terms of campaigns. But people also enjoy coming to street stalls and articulating their concerns. Good luck! http://www.maidenheadlabour.org.uk.

  • Jeremy_Preece

    I joined the Labour Party in November 2010 having never been involved in politics before and having just had my 51st Birthday. I was asked to stand for one of the two Municiple Council seats in my ward, and this is what I did.
    On the one hand I was inspired by our local brach chairman, who is really good and welcoming, and on the other hand I had my first political meeting of the CLP.
    Arriving with an air of excitement that this was my first political meeting and that I was going to stand for the party that I had only just joined I felt a real sence of occasion. That was until the meeting started.
    It began with the words “Right we have only a few weeks to work for this election and it is really important” followed by “good to see old familiar faces and there are also a lot of new poeple here which is great” then the first technical details began.

    At the end of the meeting a few of people introduced themselves to me and and I had a chat with the woman who was to act as our agent.

    The problem to me is that it felt rather like a geek-gathering of computer programmers, who like to speak in binary and drill right down to technical detail. My brach chairman – who couldn’t make that meeting, asked me how it went and I gave him my feedback – which he took on board.

    At the next meeting he started by introducing himself and explaining about his background, where he was standing etc. and then we went round the room with each person standing up and introducing themselves in teh same way. It was not rocket science, but the same basic start to a meeting that I have always known where-ever I have worked. He then thanked everyone for coming and then we got under way.

    It is amazing how such an obvious and simple bit of basic inter-personal skill made such a difference.

    The other area in which I felt that my first meeting (and others after that) lack, is that there was no sense of vision. Worse there was an air of defeatism, and most of the language was conveyed as sense of failure. It is almost as if to avoid dissapointment we ought to shoot ourselves in both feet before we start.

    The result was not a great surprise. If we go out conveying a sense of the hopeless, why would the electorate want to vote for us?

    I think that if we could get our meetings to be lively, interseting and make all of those who attend actually want to come back, then we could do better. 

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