We invited submissions on what a Labour Party with a million members could be and do and will be concluding the series today. Yesterday we published Part One and Part Two, and we published Part Three earlier today.
Corbynism and Conversation
My brother works as a primary school teacher. He’s smart and well-educated, but not particularly politically engaged. While only in his second full year of teaching, he speaks movingly about his experiences of working in underfunded schools with children who arrive hungry. How those children find it hard to concentrate. How their education suffers as a result. How teaching staff often take it upon themselves, at their own cost, to feed them. Unsurprisingly Labour’s free school meals policy, rooted as it was in his daily personal experience, resonated with him and with many of his colleagues. Although he may not have seen the minutiae of what Labour was proposing, he didn’t need to, intimately acquainted as he was with the social ill it sought to address. When we discussed that policy and others in depth he was enthused. He took this enthusiasm to his workplace, to the pub and to social media. To his colleagues, his friends and his acquaintances. Although it’s unlikely that he’d ever join the party or knock on doors, he became a passionate, eloquent and convincing advocate for Corbynism nonetheless. I recount this not to flaunt my (not inconsiderable) powers of political persuasion, but to highlight the role of ordinary members in promoting Corbynism in small and ordinary but meaningful ways.
Labour’s manifesto offered several policies with the persuasive power of universal free school meals. These policies led to many conversations like the one I outlined above. Trapped in low pay and on a zero hour contract? We’ll increase the minimum wage and ban them. Desperate to send your children to university but fear the burden of debt it will place upon them? We’ll abolish tuition fees. These are what commentators often disparagingly refer to as a “retail offer” and what many of our political opponents continue to deride as “bribing the electorate”. The reality is that the manifesto, at least partially, met the promise of Corbyn’s much abused “kinder, gentler politics”. A politics rooted in everyday experience. Policies firmly grounded by the unmet needs of the many, not the loudly voiced desires of the few.
While it may be trite to state that politics is not communicated through press releases and policy documents, but through conversation, that does not make it less true. It is patently insufficient to produce a manifesto, hit ‘publish’ and sit back. Equally, the answer is not as many on the party’s right do, to fetishize door knocking alone, which often resembles little more than a voter identification exercise. Speaking to the electorate only at election time is only a little more useful than ignoring them entirely. A mass membership must not be regarded as a reserved ground force, to be mobilised only at election time.
Many commentators and politicians view political disengagement as a personal failing; as a dereliction of one’s democratic duty. Our analysis and our emphasis must diverge: disengagement can only be understood as the inevitable outcome of an uncaring and disinterested politics. This is where the radical potential of Labour’s mass membership lies. One lesson of the election is that our message, when unmediated by a right-wing press and our bankrupt political class, is a powerful one. That it chimes. This is particularly true when it’s conveyed by those we love, trust and respect. Of course, those of us who possess the confidence and the ability to do so have a duty to take our politics out into the country at-large. But the country, lest we forget, is also our friends, our families and our colleagues.
Bridge the Political Generational Divide on Social Media
by Kate Flood
The 2017 election was a tale of two parties. The Conservative Party banked on voter apathy and low turnout among young people and a fear of change among older people. The Labour Party made change seem possible, at least for the former group: Using Ipsos Mori data, The Guardian reported that “age was one of the most significant factors in the general election. Under-45s came out in force for Labour, while over-54s voted in greater proportions for the Conservatives than in 2015. Young voters favoured Labour, with 60% of those aged 18-24 voting for Jeremy Corbyn's party, while 61% of over-64s voted Conservative.” Generational division is Labour’s last hurdle. Social media campaigning was a significant reason for Labour’s strong performance in this election. However, the differential use – particularly by age, of social media, both in general and in terms of specific platforms, does limit quite how far this sort of campaigning can take us. Nevertheless, a mass Labour Party, bridging generations, could have the capacity to resolve some of these limits, and through promoting digital inclusion, can reach out to older voters.
Social media gave Labour considerable traction during the Party’s 2017 election campaign, particularly among young people. The Labour Party and Momentum mounted powerful social media campaigns that utilised Twitter, Facebook and video sharing. Leading up to the election 40% of tweets containing election-related hashtags referenced the Labour party and more generally Labour make up 62% of references to political parties on Twitter. It is unlikely this trend goes unnoticed by the 64% of 18-30 year olds using Twitter regularly in the UK - but the same cannot be said for older voters.
Similarly, social media has played a pivotal role in exposing media bias, but older voters are both the largest consumers of mainstream and print media and the least likely to see these critiques. Older voters are also the least likely to use social media and the least likely to be distrustful of the mainstream media.
Social media has obvious benefits: the rapid spread of information and interaction between groups who may not otherwise mix simply cannot be reproduced in physical social spaces. Virtual social spaces can alleviate issues of accessibility, mobility and geography that are exacerbated at the intersection of age and class and it was precisely this notion of unity, and of building a movement collectively, that inspired such impassioned support for Labour. The Party must be careful not to undermine this message by isolating older voters from what Ben Tarnoff describes as 'an alternative public sphere'.
However, although only 27% of those aged 50+ use Twitter in the UK, dropping to 20% for the over 65s, 69% of over 50s use Facebook, including 66% of the over 65s. Yet Twitter exposure operates differently to Facebook: hashtags and retweets have the potential to diversify and grow audiences on Twitter, whereas Facebook exposure is often limited by a more carefully cultivated circle of friends.
With a million members from across the generations, who predominantly meet in local branch meetings, Facebook might not be a bad place to start. As older people are more comfortable using Facebook, with its close connections based on personal acquaintance, it is a medium suited to branch level organising and socialising. Moving some branch activity online will leave space for meaningful contacts to be cultivated off-line, including getting younger members to help older members with ICT and social media skills, encouraging older members to use Facebook as a campaign tool.
Without being mindful of the generational divide in campaign participation, we risk compromising our shared vision.Cross-generational unity is Labour’s answer here: campaigns must unify younger and older supporters, and with one million members, Labour has the potential to do this, both in the actual and the virtual social sphere.
Instigate a Census of Popular Needs
With a one million person membership, The Labour Party should instigate its own census. Every door in the country should be knocked to provide the party with a thorough and wide-ranging data set of what people care about in Britain in 2017. One of the most common charges levelled at politicians is that they don’t listen: many people in 21st century Britain feel powerless and that their voices aren’t heard. The Labour Census would be a bold, ambitious, headline-grabbing undertaking, which would aim to amplify these voices, and show those who have stopped voting for Labour that the new Labour Party values them and wants to hear what they have to say. It would give legitimacy to a Labour government to pursue policies that respond to salient issues that arise from the census, but most significantly provide consent for a large-scale democratic, grassroots project that would seek to embed the party, and notions of solidarity and community, into working class areas again.
Importantly, the census will generate localised information, down to each street and house. The census questions should be written to prompt information about local shared concerns with the end goal in mind being to bring communities together to self-organise to overcome these issues. Anti-gentrification, housing and anti-cuts campaigns would likely flourish, putting greater pressure on councils to listen to their constituents. More radically, elements of social reproduction – care, food shopping, cooking – could potentially be socialised amongst the community. Momentum’s Digital Hub, rather than just focusing on fine-tuning its electoral campaigning, should widen its remit to look to create new forms of technology that help this process; encouraging solidarity and a strengthening of communal bonds. Momentum’s successes with mynearestmarginal show that this is possible. This local democracy should be aimed at trying to ease the burdens of late capitalism; consequently showing our lived experience of capitalism as contingent and subject to political action. This conception of politics – the politics as personal – would undermine the current conception of politics as a frivolous game played out between various Oxbridge PPE grads.
What role should the Labour Party play in all of this? The relationship with the grassroots should be symbiotic: the party should outwardly encourage local democracy and provide resources and materials, in exchange for loose involvement in the party’s official structures and campaigning during elections. In order to change society irrevocably for the better we need a socialist government that can pass through radical legislation, but as importantly we need a grassroots political movement that can embed a socialist politics into every community. A Labour Census is perhaps the first step to doing this.
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