I recently attended an extraordinary meeting of Labour Party members in Battersea, which gave me cause for quiet optimism. In a seat which only recently lost its Labour MP, and in which a number of dedicated Labour councillors work hard to hold the Tory administration to account, levels of activism among Labour members had become worryingly low. Some months ago I spoke with the (now former) local organiser Andy Fearn, who described how matters came to a head when he arranged a canvassing session and only three people attended, himself included.
Yet the constituency membership has grown by 130 since the General Election. And it was hardly the case that members lacked local issues on which to campaign: libraries were being threatened with closure, and the Council had just put forward plans to charge children £2.50 for using its playgrounds.
Mark Rowney was one of the two local Labour members who showed up for that day’s canvassing. As he later recalled, they retired to the pub to discuss where things were going wrong.
“My colleague turn to me and asked, ‘why don’t people want to come out’?” he said. “But as we talked, I realised that was the wrong question. What we needed to ask was: ‘Why would people want to come out?’”
With this question in mind (and advised by Caroline Badley (Birmingham Edgbaston) and Arnie Graf, Ed Miliband’s community organising advisor), they began to focus on building relationships rather than centring their activism around tasks. Over the following weeks, a small team of Battersea Labour activists systematically contacted new members to set up individual face-to-face meetings with them. These meetings focused on two things: first, finding out more about what had motivated members to join the Party in the first place and, second, inviting them to attend a bigger gathering to meet informally with other local members.
So what made the recent Battersea meeting extraordinary? First, turnout. The turnout of 60+ local members, in a seat whose membership is dwarfed by many other London CLPs, brought a bulk of the membership together in a way that rarely happens in our local parties anymore. The atmosphere was buzzing as a result – a number of previously inactive members with whom I spoke talked with excitement about what they could achieve within their local party.
Second, the emphasis on relationships. The meeting was relational in tone and form – it centred around people sharing food, drink and stories, to build individual relationships which made us all feel part of something bigger than ourselves. This focus on what motivates people to act (i.e. identifying their self-interest) has transformed the way Battersea activists approach their organising. In turn, it has also laid the groundwork not just for more people joining the CLP; crucially, it has provided a means for more people joining in.
Of course, the real test of this work is still to come. Will massively increased turnout at one event convert into more action on the ground? I suspect that an important element of keeping the momentum and converting it into action will be for the Battersea organisers to heed their own advice: ask not why people didn’t come to you. Rather, start with their self-interest and build the relationship from there.