Labour has long claimed to be active in every community up and down the country and whilst this is not an untrue statement, there are many parts of Britain where the Labour Party is exclusively encountered in the press. For many citizens political activity is something that is people want to do but do not know how to get involved with issues they care about. My suggestion would be to make the Labour Party into a grassroots movement that is active at a level that is much more localised than just parliamentary constituencies. Empowering local people should be the future of the party and this requires a new approach to party organisation.
The first thing the party should do immediately is adopt rules than ban the parachuting of candidates into safe seats. The British parliamentary system is based on the idea of representation and this cannot be done if the MP has no knowledge of the area that they are serving. I’m not saying that the Labour candidate necessarily be born in the area that they want to represent because if I was born in Cornwall and moved to London when I was 10, being barred from representing a London constituency would be bizarre. However rules should be put in place to make sure that local residents are sent to the House of Commons. This can be done by insisting on people having lived in the local are for a certain number of years and making sure that they live in, or at least adjacent to, the constituency.
Take the case of Tristram Hunt. He was born in Cambridge and lived in the city until he went to school in London. After his A-Levels he went to the University of Cambridge where he stayed until he completed his PhD studies. After this he worked in London both in a professional capacity and as a campaigner including for Oona King in Bethnal Green and Bow. The reason I’m outlining this is that in no way did his background qualify him to become the Labour candidate for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Call me a radical but I am of the opinion that the people of Stoke could have selected a Labour Party candidate who actually lived there. This is in no way an attempt to single out Hunt as many people have been parachuted into constituencies over the years, but this modern case perfectly sums up the abuses of the selection system.
As well as getting local residents involved in the party as candidates, the Labour Party needs to increase its visual presence in communities. In my eyes there are two types of visual presence in an area: primary and secondary. Primary is when people physically see party activists, offices, advertisements and so on, whereas secondary is what people see indirectly in the press. Politicians often focus on how their perceived in the press because it is seen by a larger audience, and whilst this is important, showing the party as having a static base of operations in an area builds confidence in the community that the party is in touch with their concerns. And the way that I suggest that Labour does this is by radically increasing the number of offices that the party operates.
Let’s take the example of my constituency Manchester Gorton. In this constituency the Labour constituency office is located in Fallowfield, however parliamentary constituencies often contain a number of different communities. In the case of this constituency there is Longsight, Levenshulme, Rusholme, Whalley Range and, of course, Gorton which is subdivided into two wards (North and South). It is my suggestions that to make Labour a more community-centric organisation, the party should seek to have a visible office in each of these electoral wards.
Obviously this would be highly expensive so this idea would be based on sharing offices with like-minded civil society groups like charities, single-issue campaigns and trade unions. But the crucial thing is to have a wide a presence as possible across a constituency because it gives local people the opportunity to go to a specific location and speak to a volunteer or party official. By providing people with a space to collaborate and organise, the party will have a fresh crop of activist coming through in communities where there was very little political activity.
The final point that I would like to emphasise is that of collaboration with other parties. In order for Labour to have a sustainable electoral model, I suggest that the party works with other smaller groups that share their aims. This doesn’t mean that the party should abandon its manifesto and adopt a smorgasbord of policies from multiple different parties, but should work with groups so that Labour can be the party that represents the Left on the ballot.
For example, if the Labour candidate was in a tight race against a Tory and the Green Party were standing as well, I would engage with that smaller party so that common ground can be reached. If that Labour candidate is an environmentalist, then have regular meetings with Greens and come up with common policy goals that would justify the Green candidate standing aside. There is no point splitting the left-wing environmentalist vote when these two candidates may often not disagree on much. So often it is the case that candidates smear one another and don’t engage on the policy substance. A more collaborative approach would unite the Left behind a more coherent policy programme.
Nothing I’ve suggested above is particularly revolutionary and some things like he sharing of office space is already somewhat common practice. However if Labour is to be the grassroots party that I would argue most of its members want it to become, it needs to more effectively embed itself into communities. Parachuting candidates alienates local people, community offices increases the party’s profile across constituencies, and collaboration builds large networks of activists.
Reforming how the party interacts with communities will be an invaluable part of how Labour gets back into power. These proposals will require additional investment but this can be targeted at swing seats in the short-term so that the quickest electoral advantage can be harvested. These funds can be raised from increasing trade union membership so that these affiliated organisations make larger contributions to the party, but obviously increasing the membership of the actual party would also increase party funds. Investment in this network of activists will ingratiate the party in communities up and down the country so that Labour becomes the go to organisation for community activism.