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How grassroots activists can influence ‘what’s next for Labour?’

whats next for LabourReviewing what went wrong is a priority for all Labour members. Here David Pavett reports on how one constituency party approached the discussion

One hundred and sixty (that’s the official count, I think there were more) people participated in a meeting titled What Next for Labour? in the hall attached to the George IV pub in Chiswick High Road (Hounslow, London) on Sunday 24th May. The event was organised by Crispin Flintoff who has been organising Stand-up for Labour comedy evenings all over the country since 2012 (when is he going to get official Labour support for his work?). Crispin is a member of the Brenford and Isleworth Labour Party and Ruth Cadbury is the new Labour MP for the area.

The evening consisted of a political discussion led by a panel of six speakers (Stephen Cowan, Leader of Hammersmith & Fulham Council, Ruth Cadbury, MP for Brentford & Isleworth, Stephen Pound, MP for Ealing North, Jeremy Corbyn, MP for Islington North, Gary Doolan, GMB National Political Officer, Ann Black, NEC member and Secretary of Oxford East CLP).

Written questions had been invited prior to the meeting and a number were sent in. It was difficult to keep to the clock and most of these were never taken but that reflected the keenness of the people present to make their contributions and to ask their questions.

Given that the subject of the meeting was “what next for Labour?” it has to be said that the contributions from the panel were very variable (you can judge for yourself from the audio files below). They ranged from thoughtful reflections on various problems faced by Labour to calls for more discipline and harder work as if all that was needed was one more heave to get Labour to its goal.

But that is a problem when, as Ruth Cadbury pointed out, there is lack of clarity about that goal. She said

I don’t think that we can look to have the solution to how we are going to win 2020 until we understand why we lost the election two weeks ago. … The problem is that although we had some good policies it wasn’t enough …we didn’t have a clear vision, we didn’t have a convincing story to tell on the economy.

Of course, it is one thing to say that there is lack of clarity about goals and quite another to determine what they should be. Those favouring a return to neo-liberal solutions will gravitate to Progress while those who believe that socialism is a distinctive form of social organisation will propose very different solutions. Ruth did not not develop her options in this respect.

Ann Black argued that a prolonged leadership debate would not be helpful. She said:

My concern is that there is no consensus and we could have a year in which people reiterate the positions that they already hold and we would end up with no conclusion. It is something that would be best settled by having a range of leadership contenders, and deputy leadership contenders, from various parts of the party.

She appealed to MPs to make this possible by using their nominations to allow that diversity to be expressed in the candidates able to participate. Nothing wrong with that, but the acceptance that no consensus can be reached however well-informed the debate seemed to me to be a strange approach to the determination of political policy.

The general tenor of the contributions was, however, if only we organise more methodically, discipline ourselves, and work harder then victory is possible. I doubt that this analysis-free approach can bear fruit. Jeremy Corbyn said

We’ve also got to have some greater vision of the kind of society that we want. Is it going to be market forces lite or is it going to be some kind of different society to that?

He did not, however, develop any ideas about this “different society” that Labour could opt for and instead stuck closely to the the script of opposition to the Tories.

However, despite a general lack of willingness to address the differences that divide Labour (only Ann Black referred directly to them and even she did not address them) I think that the event has to be counted as a great success. For a start it showed, as Jeremy Corbyn said, that the era of the public meeting is not dead. If things are presented in an interesting enough format there are enough interested people to make them work. We need much more of this. Crispin Flintoff’s heroic one-person efforts should be given official backing by the Labour Party. It is absurd that he has to fork out considerable sums of money hoping to recoup his outlay from the ticket sales (fortunately that was not a problem for this event).

The panel-led discussion was followed by a break for food and drinks and that was followed by a Stand up for Labour comedy event with three comedians. All in all it was a great evening and something that I hope will be repeated regularly. Bringing nearly two hundred people together to listen and contribute to political discussion is a significant achievement. It was clear from both the panel and the audience that a very wide range of opinions were held and many of them were clearly mutually incompatible.

What is just as clear is that the more people get together to articulate their ideas and listen to those of others the more likely it is that a consensus will emerge. Labour needs such debates. They are currently in very short supply. This event shows that there is an appetite for them and that they can be successfully organised. The Labour Party should recognise this and use some of its resources to organise such events – they could even invite Crispin Flintoff to act as advisor and coordinator. He is the one with the most experience, contacts and know-how.

29 Comments

  1. Barry Ewart says:

    Sounds an interesting event David and I agree we need more of this.
    On Saturday morning I went to a Labour Representation Committee public meeting at Leeds Civic Hall and although there were only 8 of us it was a quality discussion.
    It was initially to be about taking rail into democratic public ownership (which we all agreed upon) but of course we got onto discussing the leadership campaign because we wouldn’t get one without a decent other.
    I think the overall feeling was that we weren’t particularly impressed with what was on offer.
    I said a visionary leader would be nice but we really needed a visionary grassroots, with power back with rank and file members.
    1. We need to make conference the policy making body again.
    2. We need to give CLPs the power to draw up their own Parliamentary shortlists and pick their own candidates.
    3. I said I would also like a minimum membership fee of £5 and fees to be on a sliding scale based on income (like some trade unions) to help build a mass party.
    4. I would also like positive working class action re candidates and all Parliamentary shortlists to have at least 2 working class (democratic socialist) candidates on every shortlist (social classes 3-6 based on occupation parent/s) but before some of the middle class accuse me of ‘workerism’ this would be out of 5/6 diverse candidates and then may the best democratic socialist win; but this could help us to become more representative.
    So we should be passing resolutions on all of these at branch meetings, CLPs, and trade union branches.
    To support this I saw a lovely quote in a piece by Paul McFarlane in the June Issue of Labour Briefing where a co-member of the Campaign for Socialism said he “could remember the days when it was possible for a postie to attend his local Labour Party branch meeting, propose a motion and see that motion go from branch, to conference, to government to law.” We need these days back!
    We don’t need a visionary leader but a visionary faciltator who reflects the wishes of the grassroots members “and speaks for our dreams.”
    We need to get power back to the grassroots and to get our party back!
    Yours in solidarity!

  2. Robert says:

    Andy Burnham has moved to bury his reputation as the left-wing candidate by calling for Labour to take a tougher line on welfare.

    The Labour leadership contender said the party had given the perception it would give an “easy ride” to some people on benefits.

    “Labour does need to win back those people who have that feeling about us,” he said.

    Mr Burnham also hinted he could back some of the Tories’s planned £12billion welfare cuts, including the further reduction in the benefit cap from £26,000 to £23,000.

    He said there was a feeling on the doorstep during the election that Labour wanted “to be soft on people who want something for nothing.”

    I can see the final solution coming, so maybe I must look at a better deal from the political party that leads, not the party that follows time to look at the Tories as a party.

  3. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

    Burnham like Harman exemplifies pretty much everything that’s rotten, (and unelectable,) about post Blair Labor, particularly his expenses shenanigans and his responsibility for the NHS during the period where there prevailed under his management and on his watch the culture of, “appalling abuse,” at Mid Staffs and the continuing privatization of the NHS.

    Burnham and co are just a shabby bunch of displaced career politicians on the make, to whom principle and politics are simply irreverent; now desperately seeking commercial sponsorships, (re the recent antics of Jack Straw and others,) at any cost to rest of us, who should not be encouraged by anyone.

    As for Labor’s future:

    “Hope is the last thing a person does before they are defeated.”

    ― Henry Rollins

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      For all this talk about grass roots, most Labor party officers and MP wouldn’t been seen dead associating themselves with people on low pay, or befits or with disabilities, (ie, the majority of the population,) after the precedent established by Blair, they’re far more likely to have a bunch of hired rent-a-thugs to clear the room of anyone who might demure or disagree with them, the of case Walter Wolfgang, (ejected and detained under anti terrorism law just for hacking Jack Straw,) was seminal, but more recently Miliband had disabled delegates moved out of camera to make way for odious Tory low life like Rachel Reeves and her ilk.

      1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

        “…………….it was a great evening and something that I hope will be repeated regularly. Bringing nearly two hundred people together?”

        As many as that?

        The next election’s on the bag then; in fact it’s astonishing that you lost the last one.

        1. James Martin says:

          troll

          1. Robert says:

            No a voter why ios it so many of those trolls did not vote labour.

          2. Matty says:

            He is a troll because he continually spreads right-wing lies. He might not even be a voter – it seems he is from the USA.

  4. David Ellis says:

    There used to be an opportunist bureaucracy that sat like a dead hand on the labour and trade union movement. This bureaucracy found even this arrangement too threatening and it managed to rid itself of the labour and trade union movement leaving only the self-perpetuating bureaucracy dominated by the New Labour clique with all of its alternative sources of funding and connections to the ruling class. The Labour Party is a lost cause. The objective conditions for its existence have disappeared. There is only on way that anything at all whatsoever can be salvaged and that is if the few remaining Left Labour MPs decide they will not sit behind some New Labour drone for the next five years whilst the party evaporates and them with it and they set up an alternative anti-austerity bloc in Parliament. Unfortunately the Labour left is as degenerate as the right. Its foremost representative is an 83 year old whose sole and only concern is where he sits in parliament and that has been the case for a very, very long time. Skinner is still considered a hero of the left but what exactly has he ever done? He sold Tony Blair to us I know that.

    1. David Ellis says:

      In fact it is extremely pathetic how the Left Labour MPs keep ducking their responsibilities by saying there is nothing they can do and it is all about a mass grass roots campaign. Give us that they say and we might do something but of course they do nothing to bring it into being themselves.

  5. David Pavett says:

    Crispin Flintoff, the organiser of the event, has now put up an account of it on his website with includes audio files of the main contibutions from the five panelists. We need this to become a common practice so that meeting can reach far beyond those who are able to attend them. I did offer them to Left Futures but they were not included in my report for some reason.

    P.S. Comments, like some of those above, from people which are in no way a response to the article they are allegedly commenting on detract from the valuable work done by Left Futures.

    1. David Ellis says:

      David don’t become an apologist for the reformist left. Any grass roots movement in the labour party will be headed off and destroyed as you well know. The only chance one has of arising is if the so-called Left Labour MPs give it leadership instead of constantly deferring to some mythical grass roots but it is clear they have opted to sit behind another New Labour drone for the next five years whilst the party dies.

      1. David Pavett says:

        Not sure how anything I have written would suggest that I might become an apologist for reformism.

        My point about this event was not that it was a game-changer or that the contibutions were particularly insightful (if you listen to them on Crispin Flintoff’s website you will see that the political content ranged from very poor to mundane). My point was it is possible to get a good crowd together for a political debate given a sufficiently attractive format.

        I do not believe that there will ever be real change if there is not widespread grass roots discussion about real alternatives. I agree that movements need leaders but I have less hope than you that this might emerge from the PLP. I agree too that any really lively and open debate is something that Labour control freakery would try to stop. However I don’t share your view that they are always in a position to do this. The events organsed by Crispin F have had no official Labour backing. That hasn’t stopped him from organising them. Can Labour be changed into a Party of radical social change. I doubt it but I am open to being persuaded otherwise if anyone has a good.

  6. swatantra says:

    Very commendable. More CLPs should do this kind of event.

    1. Robert says:

      All six in my local CLP that would be a feat.

      1. swatantra says:

        … good excuse for a pub crawl ..

        1. Robert says:

          We have a meeting in the pub no need to crawl stagger home maybe..

          1. swatantra says:

            with 6 pubs lined up on the night, you might well have to

  7. James Martin says:

    I think we urgently need something again like the old Chesterfield socialist conferences to bring things together on a national scale, and that could pull in trade union activists as well as socialists from both inside and outside the Party.

    Of course the Chesterfield events had Benn and a relatively large Labour left to act as the nucleus, today we would start from a lower and more modest level.

    But key would be a forum where we could build political links with the union stewards again (and look to support and give new life to local trades councils) given they will be in the front line of fighting this government for the nest 5 years, and also develop some themes that we can unite around to give opposition to the Progress wing on the Party.

    In many ways the LRC/Labour Briefing model is a good base, but the LRC seems to have struggled recently. Likewise the Campaign Group remains confined to a few MPs, while other groups (CLPD, Grassroots Alliance) are either tiny or only come out (just) for an internal election. But we desperately need groups and left MPs to stop hiding and take the fight for socialist ideas outside of a PLP or CLP meeting and to where it needs to be, in union branch meetings, upstairs rooms in pubs, national and regional conferences etc. etc.

  8. PETER WILLSMAN says:

    James M is winding me up with his comment about CLPD and CLGA.Our slate took 6 of the top 8 places in the NEC ELECTION and we took 1 of the 2 seats in the NCC Election.CLPD won all three of it’s rule changes at last year’s Confce.and we circulated many Contemp.Motions that were crucial in backing up the TUs.We are now seeking a progressive candidate who could get on the ballot paper.The point is CLPD always seeks to win and change things.Long ago we realised that simply generating hot air may make comrades(?like James)feel good but it doesn’t achieve much else.Yours in comradeship,PW.

    1. David Pavett says:

      Peter, I can’t see why James M’s comments wound you up. He said that groups like the CLPD focus in Labour’s internal structure and elections as opposed to taking socialist arguments outside the PLP and CLPs. A glance at the list of CLPD aims on its own website show that this is indeed the case.

      1. James Martin says:

        Well I’m not criticising the CLPD, but what I would say – and the reason for my comments – is that in the 30-odd years I have been a LP member I have never met a CLPD supporter, can’t remember seeing any publications and can’t remember any local meetings in any of the CLP areas I have been a member of in the NW. Now the CLPD may be ‘big’ where some of you lot are based, but where I am it is invisible and I only hear about it on sites like this but nowhere else (but then I’ve never been to national LP conference – except sometimes to prtotest outside – so I don’t get that side of it). I wish it were otherwise comrades, I really do!

        1. David Pavett says:

          I wasn’t criticising the CLPD either (although I do have critcisms) but merely pointing out that on their own account their focus is as you described it. I didn’t see why that should wind anyone up.

  9. PETER WILLSMAN says:

    James,which CLP are you in and I will tell you the local CLPD supporters if you give me your no.For the last 42 years we have sent at least two send outs to every single CLP Sec’y every year and these send outs include at least two annual publications every year. Also for the last 42 years we have had at least 1 and usually 2 Fringe meetings at every Annual Confce.and for the last 42 years have produced a daily guide every single day at Confce.For some 10 years we have had a fringe meeting at every TUC.Last year we had a Fringe meeting at some 6 of the Party’s Regional Confces.Over the last 40 years I have addressed some 200 local meetings and you can double this no.if you add in the rest of the EC.The Editor of LeftFutures is a member of our EC.We have a Young CLPD Group and they are standing a youth in all 11 Regions for the NPF.Indeed, we have almost a full slate for all 55 places on the NPF.The message is,action counts more than hot air!!

    1. Matty says:

      James, feel free to give Peter a call on 01865 244459. You’d be very welcome in CLPD.

  10. PETER WILLSMAN says:

    James,at the last two regional confces.in the North West( in Blackpool) CLPD has had a Fringe meeting.I recently spoke at a Party meeting in Salford.Our two local reps.are Gaye Johnston in Hyndburn and Paul France in Bury North.

    1. James Martin says:

      Thanks Peter, that’s useful. My own situation is that I have always in activist terms been a trade unionist first and a LP member second as regards my time etc., so have been very active at union branch, regional and national level and attended many nationals and regional union conferences over the years, but not any for the LP. So from my perspective I am a long standing Party member with a reasonable understanding of the various forces and groupings in and around the Party, but have never had much of a clue what the CLPD is – and while I take on board your undoubted activism the existence of CLPD appears to me to barely register outside of internal Party elections, and on a national level they are a complete mystery to me in terms of how slates are put together etc (and how someone like Livingstone still gets on the left slate!). I would contrast that to the LRC which has a bigger public/union profile and where I am aware of various meetings and events it has held over the years because I have actually seen the invites (although as I mentioned it now seems to be struggling to maintain momentum).

  11. peter willsman says:

    James,slates are put together by the CLGA,which consists of CLPD,LRC and other centre-left groups.CLPD’s AGMs are well attended and open to non members.See our website for details of 2016 AGM and report of 2015 AGM.See you there!PW.

    1. Matty says:

      Just to add that CLGA is the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance. Founding members were Labour Reform and CLPD later expanding to include groups like LRC, Scottish Campaign for Socialism etc

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