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