Lessons for local parties from the Corbyn years

Just over four years ago, Labour suffered a humiliating general election defeat. At times, the party’s decline felt terminal. Under Keir Starmer, however, the turnaround over the last five years has been truly remarkable. We’ve gone from a devasted, out-of-touch, shell of a party to a serious government-in-waiting. 

As Chair of Labour’s National Executive Committee, it was an honour to work with Keir Starmer and his team to reform the Labour Party and restore voter confidence that we could be trusted to run the country. How the Labour Party functions, even at a very local level, matters to our electoral credibility. As we look to the future with hope, it is worth reflecting on the basic organisational lessons we can learn from our recent history, to ensure that Labour continues to reflect the aspirations of the communities we seek to represent. 

Rebuilding relationships in local parties

The Labour Party is a broad church made up of different stakeholder groups united by a shared sense of purpose and values. But things broke down when people joined the party who did not share Labour’s aims and values. Things broke down when conflict at party meetings got out of hand. Constituency offices were vandalised. Fights broke out at party meetings. Members felt unsafe and the NEC was forced to cancel all CLP meetings.

Robust political debate is healthy. It helps us test and refine ideas, approaches, and policies. But Labour Party meetings must be welcoming, inclusive places. In the 1980s, and at times in the recent past, fringe groups sort to gain control of local Labour branches. One method of achieving this was deliberately disrupting meetings, harassing and even bullying members – in the process creating an environment so toxic that normal people would decide there were far nicer ways to spend their free time. 

The culture of party meetings is often cited as a barrier that prevents people from getting involved in politics – this came up time and again when I co-chaired the LGA Labour Group’s Women Leadership Taskforce. The Forde Report and EHRC Antisemitism Action Plan included welcome measures to improve the culture of local parties. This included better training for CLP officers and specific training in chairing meetings and managing conflict. The measures taken to improve Labour’s complaints process also makes a significant difference. 

Another issue arose during the pandemic. Many meetings moved online, meaning more people could potentially take part – something I welcomed when I was looking after a newborn baby. But people behave differently online, and, in some cases, people became more confrontational, rude and self-righteous. In the past, active members had gone for a friendly drink after meetings, and regardless of their politics, had built relationships at meetings or through campaigning together. As we head towards the most important general election of a generation, it is important to strengthen these relationships.   

Discussing and debating policy

When things are particularly toxic within Labour, meetings are often consumed with process and inward looking, internal politics. Labour is at its best when it is outward looking, focusing on the policies that matter most to voters and can transform the UK to deliver jobs, growth and prosperity. 

Labour Party meetings can be “quirky” and confusing to people unfamiliar with our language of standing orders and emergency motions. Party democracy is extremely important, and we are where we are today thanks to everyone who turned up to the CLP meeting to vote to nominate the NEC/NPF/CAC reps who wanted Labour to win elections and support Keir Starmer’s agenda. But meetings that focus entirely on process or internal matters can be off-putting. 

I was co-convener of the Labour National Policy Forum Justice and Home Affairs Policy Commission. Whatever people’s political traditions, and despite the intense factionalism of some of the low points of the last decade, there was always a remarkable consensus and cooperation when it came to meetings with members to discuss policy. 

It turns out that most people joined Labour hoping to make the country a better place and care about a lot of the same issues. It was a pleasure to chair so many meetings where people – who are often very experienced and knowledgeable in particular policy areas – listen to each other, put forward policy ideas and respectfully discuss them. It is certainly more rewarding than spending a meeting arguing about the minutes of the last meeting. If Labour does form the next government, it will face many economic, political, and geopolitical challenges. It would be healthy and helpful for party meetings to dedicate more time discussing policy and feeding into the National Policy Forum process.  

Listening to voters

Campaigning in elections is a lot of fun. You walk the streets with likeminded people striving to win elections and make the UK better. The sense of community and shared purpose is special. One of the most important aspects of campaigning is speaking and listening to voters and feeding back what is being said on the doorstep. 

I remember in the run-up to the 2019 election, being told by one new member that we “shouldn’t pander to voters” that they were “stupid and racist.” Open hostility to people you want to represent does not end well. Voters won’t vote for a party that doesn’t respect them – and why would they? The shift in polls has mirrored a shift in how Keir Starmer’s Labour views the public. Labour is patriotic, caring and dedicated to public service. But we should never take any voter for granted and continue campaigning and organising in communities, every year, all year round, regardless of whether elections are taking place. This builds genuine trust, mutual respect, and an understanding of what really matters to people.

 

To read more about local parties and government, see How can we help? Reforming financial assistance in local government.