Thank you Owen, this was a brave article to write. The leadership campaign has forced people in the Labour Party to take sides at a time we should have been working together in the realisation that the only side to be on is against the Tories. Your article has been a breath of fresh air.
I am now thinking aloud, this exposes me a bit but I will take a leaf from your book — as a supporter of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 here’s my response to your challenge.
I joined the LP in September 2015 after voting for Jeremy Corbyn, and doing some work to elect a new Labour MP in my then marginal constituency in 2015. When I called my local CLP office to volunteer for the 2015 election I wasn’t sure how I would be welcomed — I explained on the phone that my views were very much on the left of the party and I was nervous about offering my time as I wasn’t confident I would be representing ‘the party line’ but I wanted to help elect a Labour MP in my constituency, the person taking my call couldn’t have been more friendly, she welcomed me to a ‘broad church’. That felt so positive but since the split in the PLP I have felt bereft — I no longer feel I am part of a ‘broad church’. I feel alienated because the parliamentary members of the LP are not showing signs of working together and putting aside differences.. A long drawn-out leadership campaign (why so long?) and a ban on meetings doesn’t help. Like Owen all I can see is the precipice. There must be thousands who feel like me.
Since I joined the LP I have been active in the last year, I belong to the largest CLP in the country but the vast majority of new members do not appear be active or attend branch meetings. Why is that? What is the point of a party on the left with apparently the largest membership in Europe but seemingly little activity from new members? Is this paradoxically symptomatic of a dying party? The party has to be ‘saved’ but I think that means a change from how it has engaged with its membership in the past — unfortunately the new leadership election for me makes engagement with the party harder not easier. The essence of the campaign is about division rather than cohesion. The rumours — and that’s all people like me have to go on — are about plots, attrition and all-out war. Deeply unattractive. Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign has to address how, in a mostly post workplace-organising world, a mass membership organisation like the LP inspires its membership to be active. What should members do? Do they have the time and inclination? Are we being naive to expect participation at a grassroots level beyond electioneering? How do we cooperate with one another in a party that now feels split? How do we reinvent a true ‘broad church’?
Maybe these inactive new members feel the message hasn’t really changed since Ed Milliband dropped the baton so early in his leadership. They may still be waiting for the new narrative to emerge. Stories are critical in how we communicate — they are like the air we breathe. Where is Corbyn’s story? I heard it begin to emerge at the LP’s inspiring New Economics day I attended in May — but although 700 people attended (and stayed the whole day) there were only 700 people there and, like me, they were the converted. That day was only ‘once upon a time…’, on May 21 2016 I naively believed the LP had a few more years to create the compelling and gripping 3-act play with an accompanying synopsis.
On referendum day when I was campaigning for the Labour Party to ‘get-out-the-vote’ I also had to deliver the last Labour leaflet of the campaign. Here was a chance for a new Labour story to be told but the leaflet I distributed was inadequate: too wordy and dull with no catchy, ‘gut’ slogans that resonated with the undecided. The Labour Party’s story wasn’t articulated strongly or clearly in the LP’s referendum campaign. In any case it was too little, too late. The Referendum was the chance for those who had felt they had no voice to find one. And they did. The Labour Party has to listen and articulate a compelling and just set of policies that resonates with those who wanted to ‘take back control’ — that requires activity on the part of the membership. We were not appealing to people on a gut level, this is not the only answer but it is important. The LP needs to make itself feel relevant to those who have felt disenfranchised for decades — we need to understand and articulate feelings better — that surely is also the mark of a more caring society.
We also need a thorough debate (including those from other parties?) about proportional representation. It may not be the perfect system (which voting system is?) but properly constituted it would give everyone more of a voice.
However I despair most about the arithmetic that does not stack up for the Labour Party to win another UK election especially while we have our first-past-the-post electoral system. If we knew the knives would be out for Jeremy post-Referendum they will surely be out for the left of the LP post GE. We hear them being sharpened now. It seems to me to state the obvious that Scotland is now lost to Labour for possibly a generation (I’m not an optimist here). Along with boundary changes and without a coherent alliance with the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems there is no chance of getting the Tories out of power. If we can’t overcome the divisions within the Labour Party what hope is there of alliances beyond it? That feels deeply, deeply tragic. All our lives will be more impoverished as a result. The ‘broad church’ that I was offered less than 18 months ago, and that seemed so welcoming, now feels so distant.
I am currently feeling at a loss in this leadership campaign and I wish this contribution of mine was more positive. I am not drawn to Owen Smith but I want more from Jeremy Corbyn’s team. I hate the way marketing-speak has taken over our culture as much as anyone but Jeremy Corbyn’s team has to create simple, passionate, inspiring alternative slogans presenting as, Owen Jones says, commonsense radical policies that thousands of people like me joined the Labour Party for. I am confident they can strongly resonate beyond Labour Party members. We need a left-wing government more than ever.