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Diary of a Corbyn Foot Soldier (February 2019) February 11, 2019

Posted by guestposter in Uncategorized.
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Many thanks to Michael Murray for letting us reprint this.

 

Dictionary definition of “foot soldier”: “…a dedicated low level follower…”

 

Michael Murray: murraymicha@gmail.com; FaceBook: Michael Murray London

First published in Labour Affairs

Contents:

(1) Field promotions

(2) Back on the canvass

(3) Proportional Representation v First Past the Post: contrasting demands on the foot soldier

 

(1) Field promotion

In the first Diary entry submitted to Labour Affairs this year I should mention a couple of things that have happened to change the nature of my involvement as a foot soldier.

At its December AGM  I was elected unopposed to the  Steering Committee of Momentum Hackney as “Facilitator of Action Planning.”  What this signifies and why I was excited at this new turn in my Labour Party foot soldiering will be discussed in later Diary entries, when I’ve got my feet under the table, so to speak.

But, in a nutshell, it implies working in the critical space between an individual’s first thoughts about becoming more involved it their community and full participation in the Labour Party. February’s monthly membership Assembly, as it’s called – and only our second since being elected – was a  great success and augurs well for the future of Labour politics in Hackney.

To cap that, in January, attending the AGM of The Cooperative Party, in part, to support like-minded fellow foot soldiers in their bid to be elected to various representative bodies for the coming year, I found myself being nominated too as a delegate to the London Regional Cooperative Party.“I second that,”someone said. What could I say, other than I accept the nomination? To clinch it, the Branch Chair, an outgoing delegate, didn’t contest the nomination.  So, trust me on this, I was proposed by the Parties’ left wingers and given the nod through by the right. A good place to be, and I don’t intend to abuse it.

The thought did cross my mind: more bloody meetings, fewer free evenings to enjoy the fleshpots of London, Later, when I got home, I checked out the LRC web-site and was instantly reminded of why I should be glad things had gone the way they had. Feck the fleshpots of London, and the retirement bucket list,

It may not be apparent to outsiders but there are exciting things happening within the Labour movement, amidst the chaos of Brexit and the widespread misery of seemingly inexorable and relentless Tory austerity measures.

A major one is the movement for “Community Wealth Building.”  This is “a place-based approach to economic regeneration which empowers local government and enables communities to create and retain wealth locally.” (6 Steps to Build Community Wealth: policy document, The Coop Party)

This will transform local politics, the role of councillors, and entire neighbourhoods, acting cooperatively to impact politics at the grassroots.

 

(2) Back on the canvass

Knocking on doors is practically the raison d’etre of the foot soldier. My Brownswood, Hackney North and Stoke Newington Labour Party ward resumed campaigning mid-January. We met up at our usual starting point – outside the Brownswood pub – on a chilly and damp Saturday morning. As we stamped our feet and rubbed out hands to get warm, our dynamic ward organiser, Sharon, swept into sight, arms laden with a big box of leaflets, full of business. “Now,” she reminded us,”we may all have our opinions on Brexit, “ but we’re here to present Labour’s policy, as decided at last Annual Conference, but most of all to get our members and supporters views and feelings on how things are going for Labour since we last called.”

She then went on to remind us of some local issues that may be raised on the doorstep, asking us to refer residents, if necessary, to one our local councillors, Clare, who accompanied us on the canvass. We were each issued with a bundle of leaflets: ones with contact details of our councillors and mayor; ones with a summary of Labour policies and a card giving to new occupants details of how to register to vote – very relevant in the dense, multiple-occupancy houses of “bed-sitter” land we were about to visit.

A “churn” is how the more experienced canvassers describe the turnover of residents and Brownswood is a high churn area.  When the ubiquitous clip-boards were distributed  with the boxes  on past, present and future voting intentions to be ticked, she exhorted us to engage with people about their issues,  not be satisfied with just ticking boxes. Bloody music to my ears!

In the five, or so, years since I re-joined Labour, on my retirement to London from Ireland, I’ve canvassed as far afield as Croydon in the south of London to Stoke-on-Trent in the north of England. In that time, I’ve rarely seen as organised an approach to canvassing. She even had a bundle of pens and note-paper for those who may have forgotten to bring their own. But, mostly, and importantly, she set the tone. And it all paid off.

Many of our members that we spoke to were confused and disappointed with how Brexit was going,  and there was the odd negative comment on Corbyn leadership.  It reminded me of the early stages of the 2017 General Election campaign – though then the Lib Dems were regularly mentioned as an alternative to Labour, which doesn’t seem to be the case now, at least in our part of London. The job of the canvasser now and in coming by-elections or a General Election is to listen and reassure – and plead. Ticking boxes alone won’t cut it. People need to be heard too – especially our own supporters and members.

At the monthly Hackney North delegate conference a programme of canvasser training was announced, I’m pleased to report. No details were given. But, from observations on canvassing   I think it should have three, inter-active elements.

 

One: political education, ideally based around a familiarity with the 2017 Manifesto, to give it focus.

July last,  I attended a Momentum workshop in Durham on how to run a Manifesto Study Group. It included sessions on the Manifesto content, run by Mike Phipps, editor of “For The Many: Preparing Labour for Power,’OR Books, 2017, a collection of critical essays examining each of the 12 sections of the Manifesto. John McDonald gave us an inspirational foretaste of the Manifesto “Mark-2.”

 

Two: role-plays around talking to peopleabout Labour policy on the doorstep, via phone-banks and the street stall (my favourite campaigning activity). No question in my mind, any future election, General or By-Election will be won or lost on the issue of people’s perception of Labour’s ability to run the economy, and our ability to convince them that “For the Many, not the Few” is real and achievable.

 

Three: electioneering tactics. In my experience of foot soldiering outside my own ward I’ve seen a squandering of Labour activists commitment in the way election campaigns are organised. In fact most of what I’ve seen on the ground has been wasteful, sometimes shockingly so. The foot soldier puts his hand in his own pocketto finance a trip out to a distant marginal constituency to have a clip board and a street map extract shoved into his hand and be pointed in the general direction of where the canvass is to take place. No local person allocated to brief on local issues in the area to be worked; often, I don’t exaggerate, insufficient leaflets provided.

 

The worst case of this squandering of resources was a canvass of Kensington/Chelsea in the 2017 general election headed up by Owen Jones and Emily Thornberry. So many arrived, we were tripping over ourselves, the local party couldn’t be expected to handle the number of volunteers that turned up. There was insufficient election material. Meanwhile, other, nearby,  constituencies could have done with more bodies.

Before I end this diary entry. I’d like to present a positive example of electioneering organisation I participated in: what electioneering tactics should look like done right. .

In last year’s local elections, when it was clear that my ward’s two councillors were home and dry,  I was asked to go, instead, to a neighbouring ward in Hackney North, Cazenove, to help “Get the Vote Out” on election day. Well, it was like a military operation. After a briefing – and plentiful home-made cakes and buns, washed down with welcoming tea  – teams of people were directed by Laura in the election centre to the parts of the ward where the turn-out was low and the potential vote was highest.

So, under the leadership of John  and Sam, himself a candidate, we moved back and forth across the ward  throughout the day getting the vote out, with a purposefulness that was inspiring. Access to the large council blocks of flats, often gated, the bane of canvassers, had been, in many instances,  pre-arranged with the council Caretakers that John and Sam had  obviously made it their business to get to know.

The result? Three council seats were won in a ward not held by Labour for over 20 years. I rest my kit bag.

To mark his gaining a council seat, I gave to Sam, of East End Jewish Labour stock, a copy of David Marcus’s fine “A Land not Theirs,”  the story of a Jewish family in Cork and their part in the National Revolution. Both his parents, also Labour Party members in. Cazanove, are looking forward to reading it, they told me at a recent delegate meeting. Sam, a new councillor on a steep learning curve, can forget about novels for a few years.

 

(3) Proportional Representation v First Past the Post: contrasting demands on the foot soldier

All this talk about electioneering has brought me to making comparisons between my experience of foot soldiering in Ireland and England.

Outsiders may know that in southern Ireland we have a Proportional Representation (PR) election system, not First Past the Post (FPP), as in Britain. What they are less likely to know is that Ireland also has Multi-Seat constituencies, where a variety of political parties compete. One party might be aiming at taking all of, say, 3 seats in a constituency. Another (such as Labour, or Independent candidate) might be attempting to take the last of the 3 seats in a constituency through the transfer of surplus votes from the earlier rounds of the vote count. The electioneering tactics required to maximise a candidate’s vote in the PR Multi-Seater are way above and beyond the demands of the FPP system.

While recognising the political crisis brought on by Brexit might well end in a re-configuration of parties – and the electoral system, I’m not going to get into a discussion here of which is the most democratic.

 

I’m just remembering.

Comments»

1. Joe - February 11, 2019

I read something in the [virulently anti-Corbyn] Guardian that Labour membership has fallen recently. This alleged fall was attributed to disillusion with Corbyn’s leadership on Brexit.
Anyone any other info or sources that might corroborate that? There was such a positive grass roots groundswell around Momentum and Corbyn just a couple of years ago. How much, if any, of that has dissipated due to Corbyn’s approach to Brexit?

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Aonrud ⚘ - February 11, 2019

I presume Brexit could be hurting membership; or those who signed up at the peak without too much engagement aren’t renewing?

The report I saw said it’s based on ‘internal figures’, so could well be New Centrist Party™ leaks. Timed quite well for the Guardian’s revival of that evergreen ‘breaking news’ anyway. Various denials from activists on Twitter, but it’s all mystery numbers either way, as far as I can see…

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Joe - February 11, 2019

Yep, the Guardian revival of the New Centrist Party story has been fun. One report had two new parties coming soon. A sort of Extreme Centre Party to be made up of five or six extreme centrist MPs to be followed by the Slightly Less Extreme Centre Party to be made of a whole load more slightly less extreme centrist MPs…

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Aonrud ⚘ - February 11, 2019

Whatever happened to that one last year, funded by some ‘online entrepreneur’ type?

A quick search for “”new centrist party” site:theguardian.com” is revealing… It’s a long legacy of churn (occasionally interspersed with opposition from Owen Jones, to be fair to him).

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Aonrud ⚘ - February 11, 2019

While I’m here 🙂

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Dermot O Connor - February 11, 2019

Let the ‘centrists’ go. Not exactly the gang of four, this bunch of featherweights.

http://averypublicsociologist.blogspot.com/2019/02/a-new-centrist-party-is-still-stupid.html

Continuing the fine tradition of the diminishing number of MPs said to be champing at the bit for a new party, Toby’s exclusive puts the latest tally at six, which is down six on the proto-party talks alleged to have taken place last summer, and the 30-40, and 80-100 before then. Who are our dramatis personae on this occasion? There’s Angela Smith, the MP who has curiously chosen the private ownership of water has her hill to die on. We have our mate Chris Leslie, or as I prefer him, vacuity in a suit. And, on this occasion, Luciana Berger’s name is roped in. Hers has proven a career noteworthy in two respects – she’s more famous for quitting the shadow role for mental health than anything she did with it, and her murky selection in 2010 thanks to knowing the right people over and above any discernible talent. Who could be the “three others” on the verge of quitting? Mike Gapes has recently been straining to get in the news, so one shouldn’t rule him out. With gravitas like this on their side, how could they not succeed?

Well, they are going to fail and hard if they ever have the guts to follow through their tiresome threats. When these stories started circulating in the summer after the last general election, the conditions against a new party then still apply. There is zero name recognition for the people involved except perhaps, ho ho, Tony Blair. Apart from money, they have no leader, no activists, no profile with the wider public, and not even a pool of voters – despite their best efforts at trying to win one. Though, to be honest, whatever this gaggle of has beens and never weres decide to do they’re doomed anyway. There’s more of a chance of Donald Trump showing some humility than any of these getting adopted again by their constituency party as Labour candidates.

Why go through this tedious, rinse-and-repeat ritual of announcing their intentions? Just as matters have come to a head for Theresa May, so Brexit is forcing the petty scheming of the Blairists to a conclusion. This last week has shown there is no way to get their beloved (and undesirable) second referendum through the Commons. For all their disingenuous arguments like “how can more democracy be undemocratic?” (an point, we’ll note, they never accept when it applies to the left’s efforts at democratising the Labour Party), and the huge amount of money spent and unrivalled media access, they’ve succeeded in persuading absolutely none of their colleagues that a rerun is a good ‘un. They’ve finally hit the brick wall of reality, and they think a new party – or at least the talk of one – will help scrape them off.

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2. Jim Monaghan - February 11, 2019

I find the term ” in southern Ireland” irritating. In can live with the R.O.I.

Liked by 1 person

Joe - February 11, 2019

I noticed that too Jim but I made a conscious decision not to let it irritate me! Not only can I live with the RoI, I positively embrace it.
In fairness to the writer, maybe he was using the term cos his audience, if he has one, in the UK would be used to and comfortable with it.

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3. GW - February 12, 2019

“People need to be heard too – especially our own supporters and members.”

Great report and inspiring. But is the leadership listening on certain issues? Recent experience suggests not.

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