Tuesday, 8 February 2011
Winning in the South: Labour's relationship challenge
Kathryn Perera explains why building a meaningful relationship with local communities over the long term is the key to success for Labour in the South
Labour in the south faces a long, hard road. The tasks of restoring a reputation for economic competence; of finding the language to appeal to people’s aspirations as well as their fears; of actually listening to people’s views on immigration, jobs and housing – these are just some of the challenges which lie ahead. But to win again in the south, Labour must also focus on the ‘how’, not just the ‘what’. It is not enough to undertake policy reviews, to identify voters’ key concerns and to find useful labels and phrases. Without the ability to communicate our messages at a local level within myriad communities, Labour cannot win again.
I stood as Labour’s parliamentary candidate in Aylesbury, a Tory stronghold with a strong Lib Dem presence on the local councils. Labour used to have councillors here. Labour used to be a political force here. Labour used to run the Conservatives a respectable second in parliamentary elections. Now the local party is a far more modest organisation, with a growing base of young activists but no sitting councillors at any level. Aylesbury is a prime example of what Jim Murphy MP meant when he said there’s a risk that it’s becoming “counter-cultural” to vote Labour in the south. Running a parliamentary campaign on a tiny budget with very few activists, I learned a great deal in the months building up to May 2010. It helped that I grew up in the constituency – longstanding issues, current concerns, even the local personalities, were all familiar to me. But I still came up against two realities which I believe define campaigns in these southern seats. One: it takes a lot of time and effort to build the kind of relationships with constituents that will change their voting habits and culture. And two: without a vibrant local party which invests that time and effort year-round, regardless of the electoral cycle, very little is going to change.
That gives Labour in the south a dual challenge. First, local party members must focus on building meaningful relationships within our local communities. At the very least, I believe that means running campaigns which take a long-view rather than ones which are fixated with winning. This may sound perverse given the scale of Labour’s challenge in the south, but at its heart it requires us to listen to people, involve as many people as possible and then give them reasons to work with local Labour candidates for change. Winning elections is an important (and likely) result of this kind of politics, but it is not the main focus of the campaign. Once the fixation on short-term electoral success ceases to dominate the picture, it’s possible to contemplate a ten-year strategy (even fifteen years in some seats) in which local campaigns foster growing support in local elections, and activists then use that base to push for national electoral success.
Second, in order to build those meaningful relationships we need to start by focusing within our CLPs. Too many CLPs in the south have a small handful of committed party members but lack the kind of network of activists that they need in order to form an effective political machine. Our relationships must start with each other: making concerted efforts to welcome and involve new members (before they attend meetings); delegating activists to meet with all members of the CLP individually to discover what motivates them and how (big or small) they can make a contribution; holding campaigns-focused meetings which agree actions, rather than committees which deal solely with administrative tasks; and spreading the load so that no one member becomes a central cog without which the local party cannot survive.
From the building blocks of this work will grow successful campaigns. My experiences suggest those campaigns will need to be deeply embedded in local issues, with messages delivered by local activists who have a detailed understanding of how campaigning works. That’s why I’m excited by the potential of Movement for Change, the grassroots community organisation which grew out of the leadership contest and which Ed Miliband has committed to supporting as part of his reform agenda. Its principles of community organising are not new to Labour – indeed, that realisation is central to understanding its place within the Labour movement. Yet its emphasis on building relationships which increase Labour’s relevance at a local level is both refreshing and urgently needed. It is the antithesis of Cameron’s top-down, tightly orchestrated and deeply flawed Big Society. It is an approach which does not condescend to those people, up and down this country, who are already volunteering their time and investing in their communities. Rather, it seeks to bring the Labour movement into that work, accepting that we may have far more to learn from existing community activism than we would ever presume to teach. Labour does have a long, hard road ahead in the south. But the attitude and culture we bring to the task of walking that road will define our future success.
Kathryn Perera is the National Communications Officer of the Labour Women’s Network. She stood as the parliamentary candidate in her hometown of Aylesbury in May 2010.
Posted by Stuart King at 08:18