Battersea Labour Party: asking the fundamental questions

March 20, 2012 3:09 pm

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.

  • ovaljason

    Kathryn

    This is an excellent initiative by local members and I wish you the best of luck with it.

    As to how this model of activism could be used elsewhere….Well there is one simple question to ask and only one person to ask it of.

    The question to Ed Miliband is ‘what have you done with M4C?

    Remember them?  Movement4Change?  A movement of local activists, bringing the party together, based around strong local bonds and campaigning on Labour-minded issues.

    M4C is up there with those other landmark projects –  Refounding Labour, the policy review and new Executive Committee – that EdM has made such a jolly good job of managing.

    He’s ace that Ed Miliband, isn’t he?

  • Chilbaldi

    Yes! We need fewer stuffy meetings where the old worthies gather to discuss standing orders, and more informal social gatherings with food and drink. Make it a forum for people to meet each other and discuss, not the current set up of many CLPs

    • treborc

      I suspect the people living on the street will use it as a soup of food kitchen

  • http://twitter.com/Alex_Ross_Shaw Alex Ross-Shaw

    You had a crisis when only three people turned up to canvass? I dream of having three people to canvass with! ;)

Latest

  • News Full text: Labour’s NHS motion in the Commons today

    Full text: Labour’s NHS motion in the Commons today

    Labour are holding an Opposition Day debate on NHS funding today (it’s happening right now in fact: you can watch it here). Shadow Chief Secretary to Treasury Chris Leslie is leading the debate for Labour, who before the debate began said that the health service was “in crisis” and “cannot survive another five years of David Cameron.” The full text of Labour’s motion today is: That this House notes comments from leading doctors and nurses that the NHS is in […]

    Read more →
  • Comment PMQs Verdict: It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?

    PMQs Verdict: It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?

    Last week Ed Miliband was quite candid about PMQs, when he said: “Watching me and David Cameron shout at each other once a week on Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t very enlightening for anybody, let’s be frank about it. It probably massively puts people off politics if they’re watching it because they think: ‘It’s two blokes shouting at each other, what’s that got to do with my life?’” This week Miliband and Cameron headed to the chamber to prove how accurate […]

    Read more →
  • News Alternative budget for London: Labour would cut fares, freeze council tax and fund a 1,000 extra police officer

    Alternative budget for London: Labour would cut fares, freeze council tax and fund a 1,000 extra police officer

    Labour members of the London Assembly today revealed their alternative budget for the capital, which places an emphasis on helping Londoners with the cost of living. Labour’s budget spokesperson on the assembly, John Biggs AM, will publish the budget, which the party say is fully funded. The document comes as a proposed alternative to Mayor Boris Johnson’s city budget for his final year in office. Labour amendments include: – Funding 1,025 extra police officers on the street, equivalent to 33 more […]

    Read more →
  • Comment What Labour could do for coastal and countryside communities

    What Labour could do for coastal and countryside communities

    With the General Election campaign emerging from the festive break every Prospective Parliamentary Candidate (PPC) is rightly concerned with building on their exposure and contact rate in each and every constituency across the UK. For those fighting non-urban seats – be that the 30+ marginals we need to hold or win for a majority, the adjacent seats where a good show will help those marginals, and the others where a good show will help with council of Euro elections – […]

    Read more →
  • Featured The continuing adventures of New Labour ministers who are living in the past

    The continuing adventures of New Labour ministers who are living in the past

    Last week I warned that some of Labour’s senior figures from the New Labour era were “living in the past” when it comes to their critiques of of Ed Miliband and the Labour Party: “The project that Mandelson, Blair and others led was to modernise the party – changing Labour to change the country, yet now one if its key architects wants the project to be pickled in aspic. The purpose of New Labour was to change and win, not […]

    Read more →