What is to be done?
Ronnie McGowan says an empowered membership can help rebuild Scottish Labour from the grassroots.
The Dundee Citizen was a small, four-page, black-and-white Labour Party news-sheet with tightly packed prose. It wasn’t brimstone and fire, nor was it an easy read. I delivered thousands to the [still] quite new post-war council houses where I lived, in an era when Hugh Gaitskell was much admired and the Quarrymen were honing their skills in Hamburg.
What I remember most about the paper was the coating of black newsprint, stuck to my hands, which could only be removed with a sprinkling of Vim and scrubbing brush. My distribution method was unorthodox, sometimes launching four or five copies onto the lucky residents’ linoleum floor, hoping a keen political relative or two might be visiting. If I knew the family had a pet there would be one for that as well
This was an efficient way of shifting industrial quantities of papers but, inevitably, I would run out before every street had been finished. And when an unfortunate party member missed out on their dose of post-war socialism I’d soon hear about it. Their complaint would find its way back to my father and I’d be instructed to review this dubious practice. Delivering the next batch I’d give the pet a miss. I was still in short trousers and my years on the planet hadn’t reached double digits.
But this was a well-oiled, relentless operation, tight, focused, highly active and a natural component of the community, the mighty party machine run by small people, vorsprung durch technik. Today, the wheels have come off, leaving the once great campaigning party a fragile shell of the one I remember. Delivering leaflets today is liable to be met with a familiar hostile snarling and barking from behind the door. And that’s the houses without a dog.
This isn’t a plea for a return to some far off sun-kissed paradise. It’s more a request that every party member takes a long, hard, creative look at how to adapt so that winning elections is back on the agenda instead of us constantly being on the back foot and adopting a permanently apologetic pose – or at least that’s how it seems, especially when defending the referendum result.
A good starting point would be to develop what Kezia Dugdale proposed during the leadership hustings: a return to meaningful dialogue through the constituency organisation. This could then feed in, through a flexible delegate system, to geographical areas giving opportunities for members to talk through and share policy initiatives on a regular basis, every two months for example. Maybe then the upper echelons of the party structure would have a greater empathy with its membership.
Did anyone actually get hold of a copy of the manifesto? Who was responsible for its content and who decided what went into it and how was it put together? Does anyone know? The decline in party policy participation has been evident for two decades and it has brought consternation at local level. When did your constituency last receive a report back from the policy forum? These are vital issues requiring urgent attention. If the voters feel alienation towards Labour spare a thought for the poor activists who deserve greater feedback for their efforts of tramping streets and manning phone banks. Local elections are just round the corner and the electorate would welcome a rejuvenated Labour Party.
It would be a step in the right direction if party members could view themselves as leaders and willing to taking on small parcels of responsibility, working their own little patch. Volunteers’ time and ability to be involved can vary significantly – we are living in a world of more flexible employment and irregular hours – but every member of an organisation should be valued, and those with the energy and leadership should be encouraged to keep people engaged. It could be a simple thing, like asking an opinion, or carrying out some small but meaningful task, but involvement is key, and appreciation is essential.
These vital organisational principles have been neglected for too long. The Labour Party stands accused of taking the electorate for granted, and this perhaps reflects a similar attitude to its own members. This is an area ripe for improvement where the skills and experience of the party faithful can be utilised as fully as possible. A dynamic modern organisation with strong leadership must aspire to dovetail everyone into today’s challenging circumstances.
Leadership at all levels requires intellectual rigour. The party could take a look outside politics for inspiration. Recently the leader made a fleeting visit to a highly regarded secondary school in the east end of Glasgow – it is a school which demonstrates strong leadership at all levels reinforcing straightforward fundamental ideals on a daily basis, and it works.
Sometimes we have to shine a torch on our past to guide our footsteps to the future. Hugh Gaitskell would know exactly what to do. He would urge every single one of us to “fight and fight and fight again”.
Now is the time to ask what you can do for the party, not what it can do for you.