Wednesday 21 July 2010

Living in Labour

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 'Is socialism out of date?'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.


Jim Jepps said...

Thanks for this - I found it really interesting.

On the last question: I always hope that party membership (or membership of any campaign or grouping) will effect my politics.

New experiences can sometimes have quite profound effects.

For example although I'd been an active socialist for years it was only when joining the Green Party that I started to systematically knock on doors in one particular area and listen to what people had to say (as opposed to coming round in order to push a particular point).

I found that extraordinarily useful in terms of the way I see politics - making me less dogmatic and more open to what people have to say without immediately having to frame their ideas into pre-set boxes.

Overview said...

Recently rejoined the Labour party after a brief spell in SP and was surprised to find our branch meeting was largely taken up by political discussions.
I can't comment on the local CLP yet as I will not be attending until September but I have been informed that not many turn up.
A few years ago it was standing room only, so there is scope for improvement there.
We are currently involved in forming our own Unite Workplace TU Branch and this will involve politicisation of reps and members ensuring that we fill all of our allotted places on the CLP.
It isd essential that Unite reps get a nomination to CLP from branches because this leads to Unite Regional Political Conferences and Committees which will lead to greater input into LP from Trade Unionists

Boffy said...

I think Steve's point above about workplace LP Branches is important. Back in the 80's many of us had high hopes for them. Its a way of ensuring that TU involvement in the LP is rebuilt, and more democratic than it has been - i.e. basically just bureaucrats wielding block votes to manouvre.

I think the answer about electoralism and so on is - don't frame your activity around electoralism! Just because the LP is an electoralist party does not mean that Marxists in the LP have to focus their attention on it. To be credible you have to be prepared obviously to engage in canvassing and so on, but how often is that required?? For the other 99% of the time, a LP activist should be working in their Branch, trying to resolve community issues by encouraging those affected to organise themselves, just as we encourage workers to develop their own strength on the shop-floor rather than relying on the negotiating skills of shop stewards or full-time officials. Out of such self-organisation comes confidence, higher class consciousness, and te recognition of the need for new organisational forms - rank and file groups, factory committees, Tenants and Residents Associations,Housing Co-ops, Estate Management Co-ops, and workers co-ops. In turn all of these change material conditions and consciousness, each changes the balance of forces, and each changes the extent to which workers place their faith in electoral solutions. And the individual activist can apply that approach to turn the LP Branch outwards towards other struggles taking palce within their community, a local strike for instance. All of this activity not only keeps the individual Marxist honest, but is also the way of bit by bit, changing the nature of the LP away from electoralism towards the idea of workers self-government. It also means that by building these other organsiations within the community and workplace, a seedbed of new militants is developed, with a different set of ideas. It provides the material for creating the new leaders within the Trade Unions and LP, and the basis of workers applying effecctive mass pressure on existing leaders, and those of the future who do have to operate within the corridors of Capitalist power.

Gary Elsby said...

Phil, when you next attend your 200 strong 'all members CLP meeting' put on the agenda:

'Election of the Deputy Leader' which is currently held by Harriet.
Stoke Central balloted Crudass to no avail.

You may find that Harriet isn't up to going and that Crudass is being 'shood in' for the new position of Party Chair (a non-existent job).

Corruption goes on and dirty deals done.

Incidentally,it's a slur on the integrity of Stoke Central Officers to highlight that people had never been canvassed.
That view prevails but is nonsense as a whole.
One truth is that Reilly funded huge campaigns in Stoke South but refused to do similar in the 'serial rebel' Central CLP.
He denies this, of course but that is how the BNP got a foothold in solid Central.
Incidentally, we had a great TU liason Officer in Councillor Booth (Mayor,Group whip).
Reilly booted him out of the party along with the Leader and deputy Leader.

Anonymous said...

How can one be a sociologist and a party member at the same time? What about value neutrality? - I know, what a conservative way of arguing.

I am highly critical of Marxist Sociology of the type you are professing here because it impedes scholarship. Certain questions Marxists will never ask and certain perspectives they will never be able to understand which means that intellectual labour is restricted.

I am doing research on members of the Conservative Party which has been a very interesting process. I started off as a Marxist which is probably why I am so critical of it now. Very little British sociological writing is actually helpful in sociologically understanding what Conservatives are about, the main reason for that being that a lot of the writing is ideologically blinkered.

Working with the British sociological canon (Bourdieu, Beck, Giddens, Bauman according to Outhwaite, 2009)equals imposing symbolical violence on the group that I researched. Does that mean I should not have researched them? Clearly not. Should I have squeezed them into some sort of corset by which they were elitist, rightwingers unworthy of respect and scholarship? Well, I didn't need to do research on the Conservatives for that, right; that's what everybody thinks already.

I am just not convinced that party affiliation either way is a good thing in the social sciences.

Richard Smith said...

"One truth is that Reilly funded huge campaigns in Stoke South but refused to do similar in the 'serial rebel' Central CLP."

Knocking on doors is free, you don't need huge funds!

Brother G said...

"He denies this, of course but that is how the BNP got a foothold in solid Central."

The BNP got a foothold in Central because of Labour failings nationally and CLP laziness and infighting locally. The level of campaigning under your stewardship was appalling, no surprise given the way some activists were treated on your watch.

I for one am glad that the CLP seems rejuvenated and energised at the moment. Long may it continue.

Gary Elsby said...

I notice you don't address the main points but choose to nit pick using pure lies. Typical.

Stoke Central stood up to the closure program of the Elected Mayor. We won, he lost and he went.

The NEC via Reilly attacked those that won. Who runs Stoke now? Two non elected people who this City got rid of.

There was no 'infighting' in Stoke Central regardless of what you write. The fact remains that Stoke Central had the biggest turnout each Month and Stoke South today manages 8 people for its recent AGM. They refuse to discuss the Leadership question and are planning only two branches for a 're-structure' (collapse). 1 each side of the A50.

Reilly bussed in people from all over the West Midlands to prop up his stool pidgeon in Stoke South (denied) and this campaigning method gained unnatural advantages over Central (deliberate).

Then BNP got in (agreed by searchlight) due to all of the above which is proven elsewhere. If over-campaigning is done in one CLP, then the neigbouring CLP will suffer.FACT.This is why we complained when we got no resource whatsoever to fight a BNP stronghold.We were told point blank NO.
The lies are your comments of laziness and activists.They are just lies and nothing more.

Boffy said...

I am amazed that someone who claims to be an academic Sociologist, believes that someone only has Values, or makes Value Judgements if they are a member of a Political Party!!! Surely, individuals join parties, vote for parties etc. BECAUSE they have values, make value judgements???

Anonymous said...

If they are lies then why was Stoke Centrals contact rate 2% and that was gained by the theb elected mayor that you fought to get rid of.

Its not lies the facts speak for themselves, the figures speak for themselves also.

I knocked on doors that hadn't been touched in 70 years because of the lazyness on the CLP nothing more, nothing less. As I stated before knocking on doors is free so why didn't you do it.

Gary Elsby said...

Is it true that everyone in your branch answered YES to the question of 'is socialism dead in Labour'?:)

Mick Williams said...

Although I ceased to be a member of the Labour Party on April 6th I had been extremely active in it for the previous 46 years - mostly in Stoke and in Stoke Central since 1970.

During that time I changed from being in a manual occupation (30 years 'on the tools') to being an academic - but what didn't change was my commitment to my class, the working class. This, rather than being founded on 'book learning', was altogether more visceral and was shared with those of a similar background.

That is why I cannot recognise the scene painted by Phil of his very recent experiences in the Party. In particular his comments regarding the 'running down' of the CLP over the last few years culminating in a 'split'.

If he had any real understanding he would know that these stories are being peddled around by those who are really responsible for the disintegration. They are almost exclusively of the 'top-down' type of member who wouldn't recognise democracy if it smacked them between the eyes.

Phil's limited experience will no doubt also blind him to this to a great extent but I would have hoped his research methods would be rigorous enough to establish a greater degree of truth than he is presently exhibiting.

Evidence, very hard evidence, exists and will be made available as and when necessary to disprove almost all the claims he makes about the recent history of Stoke Central CLP. Some of this is contained in a book shortly to be published: "Neoliberalism, the State and Local Government" by an old LCOLG comrade of mine, Peter Latham. (And, as Phil knows, I have been trying to get N.Staffs TUC to follow SERTUC and Croyden Trades Council in promoting it.)

I would advise anyone who is tempted to rush into judgement of the situation on the basis of such skewed evidence as has been presented to hang fire until the full facts are made available.

I do not intend to swap insults with anyone and am reluctant to give any individual refutations at this stage but would advise all who are interested that the fight to secure justice continues.

Mick Williams.
Convenor, democracy4stoke.
(Also LP member 1964-2010, Lab. Cllr 1970-98, Lab Pty National Merit Award 2008, N.Staffs TUC Life Hon Member, etc, etc.)

ASLEF Annie said...

An academic should be able to spell Croydon!

Anonymous said...

Who cares anymore, labour Tory , Tory labour the difference is now academic, did I spell that right

Organized Rage. said...

Mmmmm interesting, it took me back to my AEU branch in the 1970s.

Good luck comrade

Gary Elsby said...

Mick Williams gets it quite right.
There was no 'split' it was just a few failures who lost out at every vote and remember, everyone only had one vote each.
Meredith and his failures were booted out by the public, not by me, I just agreed with the public.
The NEC and Reilly had a look who they saw as being in agreement with the public and took revenge.

So, who runs Stoke-on-Trent, who was booted out by the public and was part of a 'split', took us into £Ms worth of debt and let the BNP in?

No split, just people who got the political situation terribly wrong and being supported by the NEC and Reilly as being right and misunderstood.

A new dawn and a new beginning is wanted and needed and gesture politics such as 'all member meetings', challenged.

The 25% contact rate gained by the Mayor, as you suggest, came about in 2005 during the Mayor's election year. The Mayor's friends (deputy Mayor) ran all Stoke Labour CLPs and the City Party.
They closed schools, care homes and liesure facilities against all popular and public opinions and support.
Your point is what?
We had the worst Labour leadership ever, and it was in bed with the Tories.
Yes, I camapigned to remove the Mayor and I thank you for highlighting it.

Boffy said...

To be honest, I'm struggling to see the relevance of all this, or where it logically goes to. To be honest, I have little interest, and I'm sure that ordinary workers in Stoke have even less, in who did what to whom, and when. The question really is, how can the interests of workers in Stoke be best served.

Now you can see the most important thing as being your injured pride at what you see as injustices done to you, and you may have every right to believe that injustices have been done. Given the history of the right-wing, and LP bureaucracy I have every reason to beleive you do. You might feel that your only personal solution to that is to walk away from the LP. That is a personal decision that should not be wrapped up in other justifications, however.

There are plenty of left sects out there who can provide a plethora of such other justifications as to why they, and no one else should be in the LP. But, in the end they are just that "sects". Their success in building any credible alternative to the LP has been abysma. The BNP has done better. The old organisation I used to belong to won just 75 votes for its candidate in Peckham, less than two crank candidates who stood, and less than most LP candidates would score in a Parish Council election.

Mick Williams knows that former LP MP's like Dick Taverne have done no better in the past. No one doubts that working in the LP - certainly along the old lines of focussing on winning positions, and passing resolutions - is not easy. Who said the class struggle had to be enjoyable? But, if your focus is on trying to assist ordinary workers in the most effective way, there really is no alternative but working through the LP. The current situation is nothing new. Its a matter of forgetting about the posiitns and resolution-mongering, and going out and doing practical work in the community with ordinary workers, building their organisation and confidence, winning them to get involved in the Party, in their Trade Unions, in the Co-op etc., and from there beginning to build the forces that can make a change. Then when you have sufficient power on your side, the winning of postions and resolutions begins to actual mean something.

Richard Smith said...

My point is that the 2% contact rate (not 25%, 2% there is a big different) is quite frankly disgraceful.

I can not believe that you go around shouting that you would be a brilliant MP and that you have been so hard done by when, the CLP that you were on the executive of was lazy and ineffective. You failed the people of Stoke Central. Yet you still think that you could represent these people when you couldn't be bothered to knock on doors and listen to their problems. What a joke!!

Yes the mayor wasn't perfect but at least he wasn't lazy. At least he got onto those doors and spoke to his constituents, more than can be said for the old Stoke Central Labour Party.

Gary Elsby said...

Forgive me for noting but was the Mayor on £75,000 per annum as he was talking to his contacts full time? Are you comparing amateur part-timers with his role?
Do you not care that his (full time) assistant was in charge of Central's contact material?
They had virtual total control of the whole City-wide Labour Party and put out an agenda that saw all of them wiped out at election time.
What on earth are you on about?
We stood up to their nonsense and were beaten by the NEC.
Who is from Stoke and running the show now?

Richard Smith said...

Grow up, many many volunteers spent hours campaigning for nothing, people like Phil BC, Alastair Watson, Andrew Parsonage.

I am not comparing 'amateur part-timers with his role' at all. I'm saying its not hard to knock on doors, it's not hard to improve contact rates. You would know if you tried.

It was 70 years since those doors had been knocked on, there is no excuse for that.

Mick Williams said...

70 years ago (when I was 6) no-one was knocking on doors - we were at war. However, I was a 'number -taker' at the 1945 General Election (when I was 11) but only started knocking on doors when I got back from my own war (in the Far East) in 1954.

I don't know just who has been telling Richard that there has been no activity in Stoke Central - but he has been very seriously misinformed. (How on earth does he think that we remained Labour throughout the Thatcher years ?)

As Secretary of Hartshill (previously Ward 12) Branch I had over 200 members on the books and we had 35 - 40 at Branch meetings. You don't have to take my word for it as I have minutes to prove it. This sits most uneasily with the total membership of 138 of the CLP's SEVEN branches in March.

Compare that with the statement of the 'Senior National Constitutional Officer' in March of this year when he chaired the selection meeting for the Branch (under protest from the real and democratically-elected Chair) and said "we are not doing minutes". I ignored that and took minutes, later circulating them to members.

The only people who are afraid of recording facts are those who wish to avoid accountability and, of course, those who wish to replace facts with their owwn version of events. This is very much a 'New' Labour tactic.

I only know two of the three names Richard quotes as 'campaigners' and recognise that they have only been in the Party a very short time indeed. Perhaps Richard would like to ask Alastair why he told me how impressed he was with my work as PEO ? Again, there are (written) monthly reports going back well before Phil and Alastair were in the Party to give the lie to the current allegations that the CLP was inactive. (Come to that, who is Richard Smith and what authority does he claim ?)

On the contrary it was BECAUSE of our activity that we were feared by the apparatchiki in Regional Office and their unjustified and illegal attempts to control us - strictly against the rules of the Party - was ultimately successful only because of their cheating and duplicity.

My election slogan was "can't be bought, bullied or gagged" and I will remain so until the day I die. However, I do not intend 'popping my clogs' until I have seen the back of the present crowd who are subverting my Party.

Mick Williams.