Saturday 20 November 2010

Being Political Education Officer

As longtime readers will know since joining Labour last February I have become the Political Education Officer for Stoke Central CLP. Holders of the office can more or less do with it what they like and it's not unknown for members to simply take on the role so they can have a seat on the local party's executive. I'm not of that view.

One of the chief strengths of far left organisations is the emphasis they place on political education. The Socialist Party always had a political discussion as the chief item on its branch agenda. I don't know how they do things in the SWP these days, but when I attended Derby SWP meetings in the summer of '96 that was the same too. Yes, the quality of lead-offs and discussions varied greatly, but it offered an opportunity for members to learn about working class political history and helped round them out as activists who can effectively fight for their organisation's politics in a number of different settings.

I've taken this culture with me and tried importing it into the local party. My branch now has a political discussion in each meeting and it's gone down well with members. I'm told politics did used to take pride of place many years ago, but as membership dwindled and the party became ever more top heavy this tradition withered on the vine. I wouldn't want to jump to conclusions but now the local party is growing again and new faces are appearing at meetings, the readiness with which this has been adapted might be suggestive of a new mood and a new set of expectations members have.

Political discussion in the monthly CLP meeting is slightly different as this is usually a pure business meeting. A typical meeting has of late looked like this:

As Stoke is facing all-out elections for the council next year a lot of time has had to be put into the intricacies of candidate selection, the format of interviews, their progress and what have you. This has necessarily eaten up a lot of the agenda. We also hear from the MP, Tristram Hunt, who tells us about his activities over the last month in parliament and the constituency. The meeting receives other officers' reports, including my own. Members' presenting items are often heard and at times floor-led discussions can arise from questions to officers and the MP. And when all is done 90 minutes has passed and it's time to call it an evening.

My political education report, of which I give the briefest of brief verbal overviews, tends to follow a standard format. Rather than writing an essay stuffed full of my correct views on everything, I write a brief preamble summarising recent political developments and then produce a list of ten links referring to pieces that have caught my eye or feel are particularly pertinent. As the CLP has members from all wings of the party I try and ensure my selection covers every shade of Labour opinion. And of course, as a blogger (and because bloggers are producing the bulk of the freshest and most incisive political writing these days) I make sure they get the lion's share of the linkage.

As not all members are online I always append a complete piece. This month it was David Lammy's
defence of the liberal arts. The text of this month's report can be found below sans the full text from Left Foot Forward.

Producing a monthly report is just one aspect of the PEO role. When we've finally got Labour Students up and running at Staffs Uni I will assist those comrades in developing a programme of political education. Doubling up my responsibilities as Trade Union Liaison Officer I have received backing from two large union branches for a 'trade unionists in Labour' meeting in the city in new year, something which could become a semi-regular fixture. And there was the recent all-members meeting under the auspices of the city party on alternatives to the cuts (see 'Labour Councils and the Cuts', below). But the best political learning experiences come outside of programmes and meetings, and that's when you knock on doors or ring people up. The PEO role therefore is not just about education with a capital E. It is responsible for ensuring the experiences of every member becomes the property of the collective, of making sure that the party not only knows about the issues concerning real people (not medialand's constructions of 'real people'), but responds to them too.

The Political Education Officer's role is a crucial one. If Labour is to be rebuilt as the party of a renewed labour movement PEOs in every CLP have a part to play.

Political Education Officer's Report 19.11.10
If a week is a long time in politics, then a month must be an eternity. So many things have happened since the CLP last met that it would be impossible to list them all. Not that that will stop me from having a go: we’ve had the suspension of Phil Woolas from the party for defaming his LibDem opponent during the election (though since entering the coalition, our yellow friends have done a pretty good job of that themselves). George Osborne announced his package of cuts, a package tantamount to unleashing class war on millions of workers, benefit claimants, and service users. Tuition fees are set to rise to £9,000/year, which will result in tens of thousands being put off attending university. Meanwhile, the fantastic demonstration in London last week showed students are not taking this attack on aspiration lying down. Ireland and Portugal are on the brink of the economic abyss – again. One man was convicted and fined for posting a joke to his Twitter feed, and lastly a young couple from wealthy backgrounds announced their engagement to a hysterical reception from the press.

In this report and from now on I will be featuring pieces produced from the various think tanks, groups, and policy platforms that exist in the party, alongside the usual culled from bloggers and columnists. From Progress to Compass, from the Fabians to the Labour Representation Committee, each of these prove Labour remains a broad church of contending and clashing ideas. They all play a role in keeping the party's political life vibrant and help shape policy, set agendas, inspire members to become more involved, and (in some cases) get comrades off their bums and onto the phones and into the streets. So, without further ado …

All’s Fair by Tristram Hunt

Cutting It: The ‘Big Society’ and the New Austerity by Anna Coote

So Will Barclays Carry Out Its Threat to Leave UK? (Or the “Exodus” that Never Quite Happens) by Anonymous/Fabian Society

Housing Benefit Reforms Will Cause “Immense Human Suffering” by John McDonnell

Sinners and Sanctions by Eugene Grant

The Power of the Broken Pane by Laurie Penny

Will the Euro Break Up? by Arthur Bough

Labour Councils and the Cuts by Phil BC

Cuts? Women Will Take Them on the Chin by Fionnuala Murphy

A Short Guide to the Financial Crisis by The Flying Rodent


Alex Dawson said...

I have to give full credit to the Socialist Party for my own political education, and it's good you mention it Phil.

SP meetings gave a level of political discussion that left me hungry to discover more and find out more for myself.

It must be the case that CLP meetings do the same - it is not enough to simply sign up to the party and accept the leadership view as gospel to never be questioned.

The top-down "centralist" methods will ultimately fail in the modern age due to the internet and other communication advancements.

Well informed and well educated party members will win the battles - and only rigorous political education and robust debate will allow them to advance the socialist cause.

The days of control politics have gone. The sooner we accept that, the better.

Gary Elsby said...

Phil, our delegates to the CLP informed us some time ago that you were elected to be the Political Education Officer for the current term. You also have the responsibility for the TU liason Officer and I suspect this is why you sit on the Executive.

You take the place of Mick Williams (50 years Labour membership/55 years Trades Union Officer/life-long member CO-Op party). You will recall that Mick is totally responsible for removing the Elected Mayoral sysytem from Stoke-on-Trent.

Mick held a simple brief on behalf of Stoke Central, find information that we may have missed and give us their opinions and give us what he thought was the real issue behind the reason.
We found that this worked and created fervent discussion between those that generally agreed with the reasoning and those that felt we were being hoodwinked.

PEO discussions were held in every branch from the 1980's to around 2000 (inn my time), but they wained when the membership walked away.The converted and long stayers were being preached to in the branches and it didn't amount to much. It was betetr done in the CLP. Motions took the place of education and motions could actually amount to something.

Our belief is that there is to be a root and branch challenge to current Labour policy and my guess is that it will land on our agreed concensus, even though we sit outside of the Party. I also gather someone (our target) was sacked in the high command of Labour HQ. One down, a few to go, before we return to restore order.

Anonymous said...

Ray Collins left he wasn't sacked and he is going into the House of Lords you idiot!

Phil said...

Cheers for that, Gary. I share Loz's idea of what political education should be about. Ideas are about informing action, holding leaders to account, and struggling to steer Labour down a different path to the insipid social democracy-lite favoured by the current national leadership. This guides what I do.

Gary Elsby said...

I too share Loz's views and we held them to account for years,much to their annoyance.

So Ray Collins (identified as the super Regional Officer) has been promoted into the House of Lords, has he?
Excellent, I'm glad i'm now better informed.
I do, however, tend to agree more with the word doing the rounds and the telephone call I took from London 5 minutes after he got his 'promotion'.
I'm told that two others are to be promoted and one will rival Thatcher's demise.

modernity said...

"holding leaders to account,"

Hang on, where is that happening?

When I read blogs by LP members I rarely see any substantial criticism of the Labour leadership.

I can fully appreciate that people might want to be a bit "careful" lest they are chucked out of the LP for dissent but it is a noticeable feature of LP related blogs, the tepid, almost nonexistent criticism of the Labour leadership.

This is particularly surprising given the vicious nature of the Tory government and the LP's inadequate response.

Again, there is no holding to account as far as I can see, the LP leadership have almost a free reign.

Phil said...

I may not have Ed Miliband's ear, but it would be unfair to say this blog *hasn't* taken his leadership to task over a number of issues.

I think more centre Labour people are keeping mum about criticisms because they do not want to be thrown in with the Blairites. Not that they would have substantive criticisms, being centre 'n' all.

ModernityBlog said...


You might think it's unfair, but that's what I find, I am only interested in what people write.

I am not sectarian in this case, but I *notice* the lack of substantive political criticism from LP blogs, towards the current useless Labour leadership.

It might not be apparent way from where you're sitting, but that's what I noticed when I read these LP blogs.

I would prefer if that wasn't the case, but it is.

And the reason I remember it is that I find it rather surprising.

I am sure there is **some** criticism, but I am not arguing that these LP blogs are completely obsequious, rather that nothing to sharp, pointed or substantive seems to be made against Miliband's pathetic Shadow Cabinet's attempts to take on the Tories, and fail...

I hope you'll see what I am saying.

Gary Elsby said...

Phil, I agree with modernity to some extent.
The NPF killed CLPs around the Country, and sure, some enlightened bloggers in London think different, being in the centre of it.
CLPs are, in an nut-shell, leaflet monkeys and call centres blaming Cameron for everything.
Quite stupid really, considering it was us that ran it for donkeys years.
I'll bet you can recite those 5 questions off in your sleep now Phil!
Leaflets leaflets leaflets, door knocking campaigning knocking campaigning etc...
The general message is Vote Labour cos the Tories is bad.
Forget all that because being in opposition means it didn't work,
And yes, we know that the word is that us lot were useless-with our 100 years of Labour Councils and MPs but we suggest not.
100,000 people walked away from the Labour Party (myself included), why?
The ordinary member can do nothing to alter policy and the NPF is a complete stitch-up.

Anonymous said...

Elsby you didn't walk, you were thrown!

Gary Elsby said...

I was 'thrown' four days after I 'walked' on Radio 4, World at One.
I walked, on Radio 4, one day 'after' I suggested a challenge on Newsnight BBC2 10:30pm.
The BBC2 documentary will explain it a bit better for you, in a cat-sat-on-the-mat format.
I'm sure the Labour Party will continue to have the last word on these matters, as always, but at least you now know who tells the truth.

ModernityBlog said...


I have been watching LP shadow members criticising the Tories recently on the TV.

And you know what? They didn't land a punch.

Sure enough plenty of critical soundbites about Cameron, but it all comes over like a Westminster Panto.

The LP had better improve or the fucking Tories will be around for 8 years, and the would-be slogan "Vote Labour, we are less shit than the Tories" really won't work...

I can see WHY shadow cabinet members find it hard to have a go at the Tories, because the LP implemented very similar policies before and the Tories will throw that back at Labour, but I'd like to see LP blogs making a class case, pointing out the failing of the would make a nice change... for the LP to side with the poor... :)