Activists' Inquiry - Entering the Councils

by The Editors / January 10, 2020

John Bradley, Liverpool Town Hall Council Chamber, CC BY-SA 3.0

Activists' Inquiry  }
In the first inquiry of 2020, we ask for submissions which reflect on experiences of entering (or attempting to enter) local government 1259 words / 5 min read

Socialists and Communists, fifty years ago, were conscious of their parties as repositories of knowledge. The secretary was usually the most important position in a branch, often doubling as an organiser and sometimes paid. Typewriters were substantial but vital expenditures, and minutes were carefully glued or taped into books, or placed in folders – for accountability to the members, but also as a record for future generations. The letter columns of newspapers swelled with comment, not just on the big political questions of the day but on very practical matters of organising.

Though this consciousness persevered into the 1970s and 1980s, shifts in organising couldn’t help but pose problems. With some exceptions, it proved difficult for groups – non-hierarchical, informal or outright distrustful of a paper trail – to record the history which they were making. Minutes were frequently lost, if taken at all, and as the decades dragged on comment shifted from the letters page to the telephone, the email chain, the Twitter thread.

Today, the Labour Party does still attempt to fulfil this function. It has been a jarring experience for some activists, schooled in extra-parliamentary organising, to enter a world of minute-taking. But these minutes have a short shelf-life – referred to only in times of trouble, often precariously digital. And for all the teeth-chattering over the return of Militant, few activists today read a newspaper – much less write a letter to one.

Of course, the Labour and Communist parties of old were not perfect. Many of these records have been lost, and minutes have always been dominated by their absences. But the situation which prevails today is something else entirely. There is a real danger that future generations of activists – unless we are to see an unprecedented increase in the number of oral historians – will find themselves severed from their history, the lessons of our current political moment lurking on forgotten hard drives and on inaccessible social media websites.

But it is not just a problem of being severed temporally – we are also severed from each other, today. Whilst the Labour Party is highly centralised in some respects, it is also fragmented. Canvassing practices in one Constituency Labour Party would be alien in another; where one branch meets in someone’s front room, another has its own building. The situation is even worse when we look at the left and the labour movement in all their heterogeneity. We are constantly talking to people from all over the country and all walks of life, but our differences are seldom remarked upon – we may share certain conversations, but our experiences are radically different.

Good work has been done by Build, in the United States, to document projects launched by members of the Democratic Socialists of America. The Organiser, set up by Momentum last year, is a step in the right direction. But it’s important to note that the celebratory tone of the Momentum newsletter – whilst good and necessary – isn’t the only one. Activists need the opportunity to write in criticism, or plain comment, as well as praise. This is an opportunity which New Socialist sought to provide during the general election, collecting together accounts each week from activists on a series of themes pertaining to the campaign.

A study of a ‘trivial day in our lives’, Henri Lefebvre wrote, ‘would reveal that taken socially (examined in the light of the hidden social side of individual triviality) this trivial day would have nothing trivial about it at all1.’ Marxists before us have pioneered the practice of workers’ inquiry as a means to investigate conditions in the workplace – and the means to transform them. Of course, political activism is not quite everyday life, and nor is the meeting room usually the workplace. But with over half a million members, and many more supporters, we would suggest that the Labour Party is a reasonable cypher for society as a whole – its absences and margins a reflection of exclusion and marginalisation in contemporary Britain.

Learning about the Labour Party and other left-wing movements and organisations (and about ourselves), then, tells us something about the society in which we live. This project, therefore, is interested in the triviality of organising – in who is involved, in what they do, and how they do it. It will ask questions about the joys, miseries, jokes and costs of activism – about exclusions, inclusions, obstacles and opportunities. Monthly appeals will be made for submissions of 500 words or less dealing with some major aspect of organising – membership, political education, fundraising, direct action, personal relationships, and so on. These submissions will be collated and published, with a brief introduction, every month. More themes and questions, it is hoped, will emerge from the process of inquiry.

We are, of course, interested in how people organise within Momentum and the Labour Party – but we also want to facilitate a flow of experiences and knowledge with those outside both groups. Submissions may be anonymous, but we would invite contributors to be as specific as they feel able: numbers, places, anecdotes and perhaps names. This is not, however, an alternative to engaging with problems identified directly, or an opportunity to pick quarrels. Contributors cannot be prevented from making multiple submissions, but each submission should stand on its own – they are reminded that this is not the place for abstract, theoretical polemics, but for sharing and concretising. Within those limits, it is hoped that submissions will be edited and moderated only lightly.

As well as written submissions, we will also be inviting contributors to submit images – photographs or illustrations – responding to the theme, which will be posted alongside the texts.

The first inquiry of 2020, following on from Tom Blackburn’s article about Labour in local government, asks about our experiences with entering the councils. Questions to respond to might include: How successful have you been in electing left-wing members as Labour councillors? What barriers have there been? What did selection processes look like? Did any problems emerge in the course of these? What has been the criteria for determining whether a candidate is left-wing? What are the backgrounds of the people who have been selected as Labour candidates? Have any groups been excluded or marginalised? What has been the relationship between these councillors and Momentum or the left after they were elected? To social movements outside the Labour Party? What has been their relationship to the Labour Group? Have left-wing councillors been appointed to committee or cabinet positions? What compromises has that involved? What policy issues have left-wing councillors emphasised, and which have they neglected? How have left-wing councillors responded to the financial pressures which councils are under? Is there an awareness locally of historic and contemporary examples of left-wing councils? How have left-wing councillors worked to cultivate a ‘capacity to imagine’? How have they sought to change the structures of local government? Have the politics of place or locality posed problems? Has talking about local politics meant avoiding the language of class? Are there contradictions between Labour’s interest in your local area and nationally, or between your local area and a neighbouring one? How do local councils interact with other levels of devolved government in the nations and the regions? How do the experiences of comrades in other countries, or who aren’t members of the Labour Party, compare?

The deadline for this first inquiry is Monday 10th February. The form to submit responses can be found here.

  1. Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life (London: Verso, 2014), p.216. 


The Editors (@newsocialistuk)

The New Socialist editorial collective.