Jim of The Daily (Maybe) fame has sent me a series of questions about being a socialist in the Labour party. As there are readers who've only just joined or are thinking of joining the party I thought I would share my answers.
a) Do you feel there's space for you to make an individual contribution?
It depends what you mean by contribution. In terms of an activist contribution, then yes. Our CLP has effectively been run down over a period of years and has recently undergone a split. So there is plenty of space for people with an activist conception of politics to get stuck in. If by contribution you mean being listened to and taken seriously by other, longer standing members then the answer to that is yes as well. I haven't hidden my politics from anyone. People know until recently I was active with the Socialist Party, and some have proven curious about how we organised things there and how that experience can be applied here.
To be honest, any half decent ward branch and CLP should be able to accommodate the experience and energies of those who cut their teeth in the far left and/or other radical political traditions.
b) Do you feel there's space to influence your local branch from the left?
Yes, and in a modest way I already have done. The bottom line for any socialist not involved in one of 57 varieties of party-building is to spread socialist politics the best they can and encourage "normal workers" to get involved in political activity.
At our annual general meeting just over a month ago I was elected the CLP's political education officer. Some might see this as an opportunity to lecture the membership on their hobby horses once a month, but I don't. I outline what I think can be done in the role here. The first thing I did as PEO was to organise a monthly political discussion in my ward branch on a topic of members' choice (readers familiar with the SP and SWP will know the deal). The first discussion? 'Is socialism out of date?' In addition to this, I put together a monthly report every CLP member gets to see. This is an opportunity to plug a few hobby horses and introduce members to decent political writing they may have otherwise missed. But I am balanced and draw attention to pieces from all wings of the labour movement.
I've also been elected the trade union liaison officer. I intend to use this position to encourage the sizeable number of local affiliated union branches to send representatives to our meetings and encourage them to become more involved in the political process. While it is true the upper echelons of the party have treated unions with barely-concealed contempt since Blair captured the leadership in 1994, the failure of unions to not properly use the thousands of links they have with party organisations did nothing to strengthen their hand when it came to confrontations with the previous government and local authorities. A politicised trade union movement active inside the party it founded is the best way of insuring the sorts of neoliberal excesses we saw in the Blair/Brown years are avoided in future.
c) Is there an active membership to engage with?
Yes, there is. In the SP you had the inactive members, the comrades who'd infrequently attend meetings, and those who would attend and do the bulk of the work. There's a similar pattern to local Labour membership, though as you would expect the numbers are bigger for all three categories. My CLP's new executive has an activist conception of politics and are looking at ways of encouraging the bulk of the membership to become more involved in party work. Part of the PEO role is making this point of view part of the CLP's common sense too. During the election we spoke to people who'd never been canvassed by Labour activists before, despite Stoke Central being a stronghold since the year dot. That, frankly, is a scandalous situation and one we're still in the process of rectifying.
d) Do you feel membership is affecting your own political positions?
No I don't. But I cannot give a solid guarantee this will always be the case. It's a basic truism of Marxism that social being conditions consciousness. You only have to look at the numerous examples of militants who've entered Labour and come out the other end with knighthoods and gongs to prove this. It wasn't because they lacked sufficient will power or didn't have enough Bolshevik iron in their souls: it was years of commitment to electoral politics around ever narrower definitions of 'what is possible' that did the job. Now I'm in the Labour party and know I will be constantly exposed to the same processes I cannot say, hand on heart, it will have no effect on me. But at least in my case there are things about my political activity that can shield me from this. First there is my existing politics - 17 years of professing Marxist views in circumstances one could hardly describe as "germane" do not pass quickly. Second, among my closest comrades are a group of ex-SP'ers who've come to similar conclusions about Labour as I have. Third, I write left wing political stuff on an (almost) daily basis and mainly read the blogs of like-minded folk. Fourth, I do work outside the Labour party too. And lastly, I am conscious of the "moderating" influence Labour politics has had on others and could have on me.