Can the Labour Party build itself back better?

Dr Gerry Mitchell

The Labour Party has been painfully slow to embrace the political potential of online campaigning during lockdown. The inequalities and injustices exposed daily have reignited local party members’ motivations in my town of Woking. They want to engage with each other right now and use their membership to voice their anger. And where has the Labour Party been? Busy sending emails to its members informing us of all the things we weren’t allowed to do once formal CLP meetings had been suspended.

When Keir Starmer became leader, we were told that he was embarking on a nationwide virtual tour. However, apart from that top down gesture, there has been no drive to support interaction between members at a local level. The party’s unofficial and brilliant secretaries forum on Facebook resorted to sending a petition to the leadership requesting that meetings continue virtually. Meanwhile, and similar online petitions become the go-to place for any real-time responses to events happening here or globally and party responses operate in a time lag that members refer to as a ‘vacuum’.

This month, members have been asked to submit their views to the annual policy forum – to register for online ‘policy roundtables’. If they are anything like the online meeting I joined recently, during which members of the shadow cabinet rushed in and out of a Zoom call ‘Meet the Shadow Cabinet’ to tell 3,000 members listening on the other end why they got into politics, they will feel like another tick-box exercise in ‘connecting with the grassroots’. This is not the politics of participation in the 21st century. It is akin to making MPs come back to the House of Commons and shuffle through the corridors to vote.

Meanwhile, there is a plethora of Zoom discussions to sign up to, set up by pressure groups, social movements, think tanks all around the country. And Labour members are setting up new ‘informal’ meetings of their own. As Paul Mason, those at Compass and others predicted long before the pandemic, spaces for dialogue are being created in the overlapping institutional spaces ‘at the meso level between the minor and the macro, the big and the small’.

This crisis is laying bare systemic weaknesses of a centralised command and control government, the need for democratic reform and for participative models of decision-making. It is laying bare the same weaknesses in the Labour Party organisational structure and culture.

Barry Knight, after conversations with groups up and down the country, concluded: “We have not found anyone who would like to go back to the way the world was. People want to ‘build back better’.” How could the energy shown by the northern metro-mayors, for instance, be captured within the party structure? How could technology be used to pitch us a re-imagined political culture – one that unites the party? For example, CLPs in the North could be twinned with those in the South to hold online meetings where they share experiences of local issues, identify differences and commonalities and campaigning strategies.

If the central party want us to campaign for a progressive build back better agenda, then it’s time for local parties to feel connected with it and with each other. As Omar Salem put it, the party needs to look at ‘how it does things’, to recruit the necessary expertise to improve how it engages with members and how they engage with each other through technology. The party’s own policy forum 2020 consultation document states: “The digital revolution is opening up data, information and people’s ability to connect with each other in ways that were unimaginable even a few years ago… Politics cannot be immune to this change.” Neither can the organisational culture of the Labour Party.

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