A Million Member Party—Part One

We invited submissions on what a Labour Party with a million members could be and do and will be publishing some of the ideas we received today and tomorrow.

We invited submissions on what a Labour Party with a million members could be and do and will be publishing some of the ideas we received today and tomorrow.

Prefigurative Social Relations

by Andrea Marie

In Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hilary Wainwright discusses how socialist feminists who joined the Labour Party in the 70s and 80s tried to bring their experience from organising in the women’s movement to bear on the labour movement, with a particular

Emphasis on creating democratic relationships, personal and political, here and now, in the organisations for which we were in some way responsible. This concern was partly a matter of necessity: the women’s movement would never have gained the momentum it did, if in its own ways of organising it did not provide some immediate relief and support for women 1.

Too often, I have sat through boring and male dominated Labour party meetings, without the courage to speak, and in the certain knowledge that, even if I did, nothing would come of it. With a million members, there are many things the Party could do in terms of reaching out beyond the Party and campaigning, as was seen in the general election campaign, but perhaps the first task – and possibly the best way to approach this goal anyway – is to turn our attention inward.

Wainwright talks about the importance of the idea of ‘prefiguration’, that is “prefiguring in the movement the practices and relationships of a socialist society” 2. This would mean transforming dull and bureaucratic meetings into spaces that are genuinely receptive to developing friendly and supportive relationships, and that, in particular, are cross generational and child-friendly. Perhaps the best way to do this is to make sure that the time people devote to going to a meeting genuinely delivers consequences; that people are, and feel they are, doing things that matter, together. Again, here internal struggles to democratise the party go hand in hand with efforts to reach out beyond it, for example, New Socialist has documented, in the campaign to win Croydon Central, how friendships are made through collective endeavour.

When there is not an election, that endeavour need not be restricted to voter id and #labourdoorstep. Of course, there is a place for this work, but it has too often been fetishised as the way to have contact with ‘ordinary people’, when in fact it is a fleeting encounter in which, due to the limited, dominant conception of politics, a set of talking points (potholes for local politics, immigration for national) are repeated and circulate. The fetishisation of #labourdoorstep further relies on the odd and, the larger the party gets, ever more unsustainable notion, that party members themselves are not ordinary people. If we start of with the everyday concerns of our members, it will come as no surprise that these are concerns shared by other people too. In using members collective capacities and an intergenerational socialisation of knowledge and experience in order to work to meet them, we are not only increasing our solidarity but building a consistent presence in neighbourhoods and communities. This will increase the sense of what is political, beyond the meaning that is repeated on the doorstep, and sharpen demands while showing who it is that can meet them. However, as Wainwright argues, to build that capacity we must start with

Democratising the style of meetings, welcoming new members, insisting on collective responsibility for child care, [which] all seem rather mundane matters without tremendous political importance for a parliamentary party. But glimpses of alternatives in accord with the values that you are fighting for come partly out of these everyday concerns. And, potentially, these enrich the policies and vision for which the party is seeking popular support 3.

Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise

by Mark Seddon

Some the Labour Party’s most publicised and popular election policies centred around work with the party pledging to increase the minimum wage to £10/hour, to scrap zero-hours contracts, and to extend workers’ rights. But, with a million members, Labour could play an effective role in supporting low-paid workers outside, as well as inside, Parliament.

My home, Sheffield, was once at the heart of the Industrial Revolution but lack of investment has left the local economy dominated by low-paid jobs in retail, fast food, and call centres. A report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation placed Sheffield at number 21 on a list of UK cities in relative decline. Hourly wages here are £1.15 less than the national average and 76p lower than they were in 2010. We’re the lowest-paid of all the UK’s major cities and many people are struggling to make ends meet in minimum-wage jobs.

To support low-paid workers in Sheffield, the local Trades Union Council established the Sheffield Needs a Pay Rise group in collaboration with major national unions. John McDonnell spoke at the launch of the campaign, which aims to build support for a £10/hour minimum wage, while also connecting low-paid workers with one another, promoting union membership, and offering practical assistance to those involved in industrial action.

The group has also sought to combat xenophobia by emphasising the shared interests of British-born workers and migrant workers. Florin Luca, a Romanian worker living in Sheffield spoke about the need for solidarity among all low-paid workers at a campaign demonstration in December. ‘The boss loves to divide the Polish worker from the Romanian worker, the Pakistani worker from the English worker’, he explained, ‘it is only when poor workers stand up together and fight to improve our lives that things will change.’

Of course, the problem of low pay is not restricted to Sheffield and a large Labour membership could take the lead in establishing, organising, and promoting similar campaign groups throughout the country. As well as working locally, these groups could link up at a national level to draw attention to common workplace issues and particularly unscrupulous employers. In so doing, this national network could help to increase public support for the sort of legislation around pay and working conditions advocated by Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour.

Trust & Pooled local Capabilities

by Ian Ellard

For the two or three hours a year we’re not fighting local, national or internecine leadership elections, members of the Labour Party interact with each other primarily at a branch level. For most of us that has meant grimly rocking up to a cold TRA hall or someone’s too-warm flat and chuntering through the order of the day: councillor reports on which committees they’ve been to, when the new cashpoint is going to get fixed, whether the branch bank account has £6 in it or £7.

Sometimes there are motions and everyone has a good shout.

But let’s say we hit 1,000,000 members; every branch doubles. My branch in South London would have 60 or 70 people coming to meetings. If new members are more engaged that could be 100. 120!

With branch numbers in the hundreds and meetings in the scores we couldn’t carry on as we currently operate. But we could engage in some serious hyper-localism by allowing – encouraging! – members to call STREET-, TOWER-, ESTATE- or WORKPLACE-LEVEL committees with delegated ‘voices’ to report on local issues at branch.

These ‘voices’ would be directly elected by members of their committees. They would hold local councillors to account and work together to provide services on their streets – breakfast clubs, cat-sitting, watering each other’s pots, even childcare in the right situation. Raising an issue or asking for help from the pooled resources and capabilities of the Party is done right there, at your doorstep, through a trusted relationship, not a daunting semi-public meeting.

However boss the national, my experience of the Labour Party has been fundamentally local, fundamentally geographic. We campaign locally, we meet locally, we love and care for our immediate environments and for our neighbours, we join with nearby wards and constituencies to affect regional policy.

But even at a branch level the Labour Party can also be scary and arcane, dominated by those with their eyes on higher prizes or by acronym-chuckers who’ve been doing it all for years.

To bring membership of the Labour Party to a street level would make it infinitely more useful to people, more meaningful. Moving from the administrative to the practical will bring the party back into people’s actual lives in a way that will strengthen not only the Party but the communities it serves.

  1. Hilary Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, London, Hogarth Press, 1987, p. 173. 

  2. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 176. 

  3. Wainwright, A Tale of Two Parties, p. 176.