It’s a hard life being a Labour activist these days. After four lost general elections, it sometimes feels like self-flagellation. But Thursday showed how good it can be. From the second I woke up until the last time I checked my phone before going to bed, my Twitter feed was full of my friends from across the country out in Batley and Spen. Some had taken a day’s leave from work, some had spent a lot of money on travelling, some had made childcare arrangements and all had got up early.
Having used up a lot of leave on the May elections, I wasn’t there, so I joined a Dialogue session. Not quite the comradery of the doorstep, but I wanted to do my bit and be part of it. The photos on the doorstep were full of joy – smiling faces, laughing, people having a good time – and this was in the context of a campaign marked with unpleasant incidents. It reminded me what fun being a Labour activist can actually be. I would have loved to have got in my car and joined in.
Actually, when I reflect on the doorstep experiences I’ve had, some are among the most fun times I’ve ever had. In the 2001 election, I campaigned alongside my grandad who won his Essex council seat that day by 12 votes, while the Labour MP in Castlepoint became one of only two Labour MPs to lose their seats that night. With hindsight, that was a soft introduction to electioneering! My grandad is 96 now and it’s great to share our respective experiences as opposition councillors. The December election day in 2019 involved knocking doors in torrential rain with sheets so wet they ripped if you touched them. But, with blissful ignorance of what that night’s exit poll would bring, the banter was fantastic.
Of course, the doorstep is not just about the company. It’s about connecting with the electorate, talking to people and, more importantly, listening. The single greatest thing about being a councillor is when someone on the doorstep tells you a problem and you can actually help them to solve it.
Over the last year, phone-banking – previously an incredibly unproductive experience – has been transformed into a social experience, bringing activists together on Zoom to gather data. Yes, it has its frustrations, but it’s a good way for us to campaign together.
When the result came in of Kim Leadbeater’s narrow victory on Friday morning, I felt genuine pride and gratitude to everyone who had campaigned and won there. After all, that’s what the Labour Party is all about – campaigning for office so we can change the country and change people’s lives.
But there are those people who are Labour Party members who don’t seem thrilled by electoral victory. In fact, they don’t seem interested in the party winning power at all. This isn’t a factional thing: I’ve seen it under every leader. People whose sole aim as Labour Party members seems to be to engage in ‘taking a side’ and arguing amongst themselves. I suspect they exist across the country.
These people come to local party meetings and bring motions that have no resemblance to the policy aims of the party. They are constantly arguing on social media, and purport to know the reasons for every election defeat despite never having knocked a door or taken part in a Dialogue session. They were easy to spot before Thursday – as the self-appointed experts on what the people of Batley wanted – despite mostly never having been there. They were ready and waiting with their analysis Friday, too, seemingly trying to find misery in the victory.
This attitude reminds me of an experience I had campaigning in the May council election. This particular day, I’d probably knocked on 60-odd doors and as usual had spoken to people with a mixture of views about the Labour Party. Some were keen to have a conversation; others were clear they had no wish to engage. Nobody shouted or was unduly rude.
But one door was opened by a long-term Labour member who somehow saw fit to shout and berate me about what he saw as all the ills of the party and to tell me all the reasons why people would not vote for us. As the candidate, I found this a bit demoralising. Then I thought, why does he think he knows so much about what voters want? It’s not him speaking to them. This is similar to the situation I sometimes see in local party meetings, when those who campaign are lectured on what is wrong with the Labour Party by those who don’t.
Let’s be clear, there are good reasons why some people are not on the doorstep. But there are other ways to campaign: Dialogue, writing to newspapers, leafleting, designing social media content, putting letters in envelopes. One of my most valuable election campaigners this year is in her 80s. She has given up door-knocking but dutifully did Dialogue every week during the campaign, and on election day she was my polling agent, driving around the polling stations and feeding the information to the campaign manager all day, in between spots of phone-banking.
Activism takes many forms, but none of these include arguing in closed Facebook groups of Labour members or shouting at local party meetings. It is about spreading our message to those who are not yet convinced to vote Labour. That is what should be the beginning and end of everything we do. If you are not interested in persuading people to vote Labour, I question why you are a member. There are plenty of other clubs to join. At the very least, those not interested in helping Labour gain power should get out of the way of those of us who are.