by Sean Cummins
Let’s face it, local politics can be pretty humdrum at the best of times. Mired in stultifyingly dull procedural detail, it will always struggle - in its formal configuration at least - to appeal to those of a radical bent. Since 2015, hundreds of thousands of people have been inspired to join the Labour Party by Jeremy Corbyn and his offer of change to the status quo - yet lots of new members still remain inactive, and stimulating into action that latent membership is one of a variety of challenges faced by the Labour left.
It is absolutely true that the 2017 General Election inspired an immense mobilisation of people hitherto derided as virtue-signalling, Trotskyite clicktivists. Nevertheless, our colossal potential as an ongoing campaigning force is yet to be fully realised - indeed we’ve barely scratched the surface. In my ward, the gentrified and fairly politically-minded suburb of Chorlton in Manchester, we have around 1000 members - 720 or so of whom have joined since 2015. Remarkably, roughly one in ten households in Chorlton is now home to a Labour member, and yet only around 50 odd time-served stalwarts tend to turn up to the dusty branch meetings, with new members largely nowhere to be seen. Decent numbers turned out to canvass in our now-safe seat (Manchester Withington, held by the Lib Dems for a decade until 2015) during the election, but nothing that felt particularly out of the ordinary - and that election fervour is now on the brink of fizzling out almost entirely.
Run competently by perfectly nice people, normal branch meetings are and will remain necessary and vital. But the very nature, structure and drudgery of those meetings means they are limited both in scope and in their capacity to invigorate. When I attended my first meeting in 2015, I was immediately struck and bewildered by a deluge of jargon and acronyms - PLP, CLP, EC, GC, NEC, NPF, BLP. The recondite rules and party structures felt jarring, impenetrable and, frankly, downright boring - and that was before we moved on to overgrown local shrubbery and dog shit on the pavements. I’d been excited to get involved, but it felt as if Corbyn hadn’t happened. I duly trudged home that night for a couple of hours’ unplanned swotting up, untangling the arcane web that is the Labour Party structure.
And so, despite that influx of new members and an intoxicatingly exciting general election campaign in the summer, at our recent AGM the left lost every single vote for positions in the branch - bar the one role nobody wants to do, auditor - sinking our hopes of introducing bold new ideas to engage the rank and file. All’s fair in love and politics, and we lost fair and square - but it still felt as if our CLP existed in some sort of bubble where the last two years simply hadn’t happened.
So what do we do? In Chorlton we have decided to proceed regardless, and seek to transform the ward, the CLP and beyond into a more inclusive and participatory community hub of culture, activism, solidarity work, education and discussion. To that end we have set up the not-for-profit and independent Chorlton Socialist Club - a grassroots cooperative that aims to enthuse, energise and mobilise Labour members and local socialists, harnessing the enthusiasm of a buoyant party membership that for the most part feels it has no outlet for its verve.
We have no real blueprint, no money and nothing other than our own zeal. Momentum’s ‘The World Transformed’ is, however, an obvious touchstone. It has been able to dispense with the dreary grey and do politics in technicolour. It succeeds in opening up spaces for ideas, debate and culture - and Chorlton Socialist Club strives for something similar. Integral to the Labour Party becoming a radical and transformative government is the revitalisation of the way we do politics in this country, and that rejuvenation must be reflected not just at an annual Conference fringe event, but at local level too. Revitalising our own ward cannot be the limit of our ambitions, however. We hope to forge new relationships and engender a camaraderie on the left in Manchester that goes beyond our own ward and the slew of local pro-Corbyn Facebook groups.
Our first goal has to be simply to create a bit of a buzz and to do nothing more than put on a couple of great nights, to let people know that we exist and what we’re about. We’re kicking off with a launch party and a gig, with a just a little bit of politics, and will be doing likewise for the December / Christmas renewal. But, assuming people actually turn up to the first events, in the New Year we must push on and find ways to connect with and engage those existing and inactive comrades, as well as attracting new members, and step up the political aspect of our initiative and make our presence felt in the community. A film night and Q&A is slated for January, for which we have a pretty great panel lined up - including Prof Hillel Steiner and Dan Carden MP.
There’s no reason why this model can’t be emulated in other wards and constituencies. In injecting fun, accessibility and participation into local politics, we hope to channel the capacities and strength of our membership and collectively play our small part in helping Corbyn’s Labour advance towards the levers of power and bring about radical change.
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