I am just getting over a big by-election. A lot of concentrated activity, when folks come from afar and locals wonder what all the fuss is about. At least our voters did. They stayed at home and we lost to an especially negative Lib-Dem campaign that hit hard at Labour.
The nasty negative nature of that campaign set me pondering about a real dilemma – and one that has coloured other aspects of this by election. It is an issue that, against the backdrop of the Collins review, has inspired me to return to my long neglected blog. In summary – do we work with the opposition in our local community or do we treat every day as election-day, slamming other activists for having the wrong affiliation?
The detailed content of the Collins review is about that special relationship Labour has with the Trades Unions. Last week I had one of those convivial meetings that keep me going, when I sat down for an informal meal with neighbouring constituency secretaries. We exchange dates, avoid all inviting the same speaker at once and swap notes on what is on our agenda at the moment. We frequently breathe a collective sigh of relief, discovering we are not alone. Mentioning the ‘special Trades Union link’ was one such moment of finding common ground. In unison we chipped in ‘what special relationship?’ Despite being welcoming parties with varied agendas and key campaigns to mount, not one of us could point to regular activists who joined in our activities because of their Trades union role. Yes we had union members in our midst, but not key campaigning links with local unions and their individual members. The reasons why might form part of that dilemma, for mixing with union activists brings with it a relationship with some who don’t share our politics – Socialist Worker types, Greens, those who drift in and out of various alliances and who invariably put a candidate or two in marginal Labour seats come election time. Are they potential friends or foe?
There are some points in the introduction to the Collins review I find a little contradictory. In one sentence we are both to reach out to all walks of life and let ordinary people back in. The truth, of course, is that one can’t happen without the other. To welcome people into Labour we need to go out and talk to them – and when talking to them in local community organisations that might mean talking to people with very different politics too. My own little bit of local community activism around green issues adds an additional complexity, for sharing Labour values is not always easy when the group concerned is rightly determined to be non-aligned. Even so, it did mean I was able to sympathise when the group found itself confronted by an arrogant anti-wind-turbine Tory councillor.
I entered the ‘refounding Labour’ phase of our organisation with some optimism. We are in better shape as a result, facing outwards more – but still in need of a real boost in numbers if we are to make any sustained impact. Can the Collins review help us find that, by encouraging genuine active mass membership? Glancing at another blog piece today I was reminded about one piece of our Labour history that might help us find the way there. Kirsty McNeil takes a look at Scottish Labour history and gives pride of place to Mary Barbour and the Glasgow rent strikes. Such early community activism rarely gets a mention in our historical analysis that focuses on building the centralised state and the machinations of heavy manual industry. When are confident we have community campaigns we can own as Labour, like those women in Glasgow, we might worry less about how we venture out into that big wide world, for then we will be able to speak to our opponents with confidence – and hopefully with the non-unionised activist as well as Trades Unionists alongside us.