A local party member describes the ‘shouty’ atmosphere in her constituency – and suggests ways to make it more accessible to new entrants
Journalists often talk about “lucky” reporters, meaning those who go somewhere and find themselves in the middle of a story. I think I am a lucky reporter. Or maybe it is just that when you get out of London things happen.
I visited Angela Eagle’s Merseyside seat, Wallasey, last week in the vague hope of attending a constituency Labour party (CLP) meeting. I have got to know many party members on Merseyside through this project, but it was always a long shot. These are private meetings and if only one member present objected to the presence of a reporter, I would not have been able to cover it.
Just hours before members were due to meet, party officials were told that all meetings of CLPs and their branches were suspended until after the leadership election in September. There was no such suspension during last year’s leadership contest. Maybe feelings are running so strong that MPs did not fancy facing critical members of their CLPs.
In response to the suspension, members of the New Brighton branch of the Wallasey constituency went ahead anyway with an unofficial meeting – which meant there was no bar to me attending. In Birkenhead, there was a similar act of defiance, with members there holding an “unofficial” pub meet-up, which I also attended.
I wrote about both events at the end of last week, sent out tweets and emails, and received hundreds of responses from Labour members applauding the actions of Wallasey and Birkenhead and saying they too had held – or were planning to hold – unofficial meetings.
What was happening on the ground locally was mirrored elsewhere around the country. This was always the point of this project: to tell the story of what is happening to the Labour party at grassroots level across the country through the prism of Liverpool.
And that story has turned out to be of a divided and dysfunctional Labour party. Even before the failed coup and the new leadership contest, I’d heard from Sarah Byrne, a party member in Liverpool, about how CLPs were handling the influx of new members.
Sarah, a marketing manager, had switched from the Greens to Labour when Corbyn became leader last year. She had not found the Liverpool Riverside CLP’s meeting a positive experience, she said. “Each time I have gone, I come away feeling worse and less engaged.” It is the paperwork, the lack of objectives and loads of jargon, she said, but also the “shouty” atmosphere.
One of the reasons for the “shouty” atmosphere is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Liverpool Riverside MP Louise Ellman is a member of Labour Friends of Israel.
Sarah wrote a letter to councillors offering feedback as a new member, and asking for advice on how she might better learn, engage and participate. I spoke to her this week about the response she had had from party officials, which she said has so far proved to be limited. There was an attempt to respond, she said. “But in a super-defensive way.” We approached them for comment for this piece, but they declined.
Determined to remain positive, Sarah has put forward a seven-point plan to make CLPs more welcoming to new members, which she last week shared on our Labour and Liverpool facebook page. She is sticking with Labour for the time being but if there is no change, she might go somewhere else.
Joining a party is one of the few ways ordinary people have to participate in the politics which affect their lives. If joining means only attending meetings which are unpleasant and ineffective, we are left with a democratic deficit.
1. Clarify the meeting’s objectives. Are we here to listen to a report from our MP and a councillor and have a discussion on each? Maybe that is more than enough for two hours and little else should be scheduled. Perhaps the reports could be emailed in advance to allow time for more discussion.
2. Consider ward meetings for all wards so that there is extra opportunity for engagement and discussion. Smaller meetings could help develop friendlier relations between members and thereby facilitate friendlier, less confrontational CLP meetings.
3. Consider an online forum for the constituency and/or ward so that debate can continue after meetings.
4. Consider topic-based meetings or organised debates so that members have further opportunity to learn about and discuss wider political issues. Some ward meetings (eg in Chester) have 45 minutes of a topic-based debate added into each ward meeting. Members take turns researching and presenting for the debates.
5. Ask for feedback from members on meetings in order to facilitate continuous improvement on how we communicate and organise.
6. Offer welcome/induction meetings to new members to get to know them, find out why they joined and give an introduction to current issues, how the party operates and how they can get involved.
7. Consider alternative ways for people to volunteer and engage other than leafleting and canvassing. To some members this seems to be an old-fashioned way to campaign. Could there be a use for those with skills in research, presentation, event management, social media etc?”
The call to make CLPs more welcoming for new members – and the overarching need for reform – has become more pertinent in the last few weeks, with more than 100,000 new members reported to have joined since the EU referendum.
What do you make of Byrne’s proposals? Should they be embraced? Does the party structure need much more fundamental changes? Are reforms likely to be even on the agenda any time soon given the bitter infighting under way at present? Have you had a similar experience?