by Steve Davies
On Saturday 8 July, 200,000 people marched through the narrow streets of Durham city centre to the Racecourse to celebrate the 133rd Gala - the Big Meeting - of the Durham Miners’ Association (DMA). The sun shone, the bands played and the banners swayed in a festival of working class culture and confidence.
Crowds gathered outside the County Hotel, while up on the balcony the Big Meeting’s great and good stood to ‘take the salute’ of the bands as they marched past, one of which played a haunting and beautiful, slow version of the Internationale.
We were at a proudly pro-union event. And yet it was run by an organisation which was obliged by the Certification Officer to deregister as a union in 2007/08 because it had no working members and therefore could not fulfill the function of a trade union. Not only that, the thousands of marchers followed lodge banners from collieries that no longer exist, spread throughout a coalfield that closed down years ago. But this was no heritage fair.
The speeches were fiery and well received from Matt Wrack of the firefighters’ union, Unite’s Len McCluskey, Angela Rayner MP, film director Ken Loach, Steve Gillan of the Prison Officers’ Association and Clare Williams, Northern Regional Secretary of Unison.
It’s been a long time since I’ve heard so many platform speeches at a labour movement event that explicitly mentioned socialism, class, the working class and directly linked these to the idea of justice. It made for quite a change and was perhaps proof of Corbyn’s point that Labour’s campaign over the last few months has changed the political debate in Britain.
Corbyn’s speech was broadly based on that of his election campaign with some additional references to the Gala and the loss of two leaders of the DMA, Davey Hopper and Davey Guy. He also reflected on what the election meant and the Tory behaviour since, including the deal with the DUP and their response to the Grenfell disaster (although there was no mention of Brexit at all), and he called for an early general election.
In line with this, he talked about the campaign continuing throughout the summer, targeting the 73 marginals that Labour aims to win. But the most important section of his speech came next when he said:
We also endorse, work with and enjoy the strength, the solidarity and the support of trade unions, of community organisations and of people altogether. Parliament alone will not change this society. It’s what we all do in our daily lives and in our campaigns that is so important.
And it is this that he should have developed. There needed to be more action content to the speech - there needed to be some indication of how he believes that the gains of the general election can be built upon, how the potential support that exists can be realised above and beyond the achievements of June.
It is obvious that there needs to be a strategic campaign in Parliament to pressure the Tories, to take advantage of their weakened position, to create splits and confusion among their ranks and to push them back on their attempts to carry through their continued commitment to austerity and ‘hard’ Brexit.
But as he acknowledged, Parliament alone will not do it. So what could Corbyn have added to give some direction, to provide an indication of how Labour can move from the strong base established by the election campaign through to building a movement that can win the next election as part of a radical transformation of British society?
Labour now has an enormous mass membership. At over half a million members, in reality it may be the largest it has been since the war (as from 1956 all Constituency Labour Parties were each forced to record a minimum membership of 800, regardless of whether or not their membership actually reached this figure). The mood of the party membership is buoyant, as is that of party supporters. This is a huge resource and is likely to get bigger if the impetus can be continued.
An average of a thousand members in every constituency in the country would provide the party with the sort of reach that is unimaginable for other parties. It also starts to make the idea of rooting the party in the local community a realistic goal. With this kind of presence in the localities, it will be commonplace to know someone in the local Labour party. It starts to normalise political activity, and allows the possibility, at least, of a real dialogue between the local party and voters.
With an attentive audience of tens of thousands on a day attended by 200,000, the Gala was an opportunity for Corbyn to suggest some practical steps that could assist in transforming a passive crowd into an active movement. He should have appealed for everybody who was not yet a member, to become one. He should have asked every member to become an active member – not in the sense of taking an avid interest in Matters Arising at the next ward meeting, but in taking part in public activities organised by the local party. He could have called on all local party officers to audit the work of their ward or CLP and to develop a strategic turn outwards, identifying key issues in their local areas and targeting potential new members and supporters. Fewer meetings, more action. As membership grows, new talents and expertise become available to the local party and need to be deployed. This is particularly important in reaching young members and BME members with ‘like recruits like’ recruitment approaches.
Most local party activists have a pretty good handle on their local area, but maybe this knowledge could be systematised and used as the basis for targeted action in the same way that some unions have developed strategies to ‘map’ workplaces. By getting an accurate picture of the types of job, types of worker, and likely issues in a particular workplace, many unions have run successful campaigns to build membership and improve conditions. A similar approach could be applied to the demography, geography and employment pattern of constituencies. In fact, using the experience, expertise and talents of members of affiliated unions to do this would be an ideal way to strengthen and build the relationship between local parties and unions.
The Labour Party does not appear to have a dedicated trade union strategy at the moment and it badly needs one. Although Corbyn referred to the unions in his speech and is always positive and supportive of them, he could have begun to develop a strategy by calling on all affiliated unions to push for their members to join their local parties. Unions could provide details to their members on how to do this through the branches or using email, text messages, Facebook, Twitter or whatever other medium is available. A strong union presence in local parties anchors the party in the world of work and potentially provides a strong link to issues around which to campaign. Identifying the big employers in each constituency and the main types of employment and developing a relationship with the relevant unions could also pay dividends. If there is no union in the main workplaces of the constituency, this provides an ideal focus for joint party/union campaigns for unionisation.
He also mentioned working with community organisations but took it no further. Many CLPs doubtless work closely with a range of community groups but it could be extended and developed into a coherent practice of identifying relevant community organisations, building links and working together on specific campaigns. This could be a way of integrating the political campaign work in relation to the different levels of government (local, devolved, UK) as well as in relation to non-state organisations and direct action. By digging deep roots in the local communities and being prepared to work with other organisations, local parties increase their reach, build their influence, increase their membership and can achieve results for and with their local community. Labour movement organisations in the past (such as the South Wales Miners Federation) built the sort of local presence that reflected the fact that they earned the trust and support of local communities to the extent that they were seen as the leaders of their local community.
Corbyn needs to use the opportunities provided by an increased party membership and support to deepen and broaden the party’s base among working people, to integrate the trade unions and individual trade unionists locally into the work of the party and to engage with community organisations around specific campaigns to win gains for local people.
The next step must be to link the rhetoric on social change to action, using the experience of the longstanding members and engaging the new members in activity to begin the process of transforming the Labour Party into a movement that is not just able to change the electoral make up of the House of Commons but is able to fundamentally change society itself.
Photo: Darrel J. Rohl]
Admittedly in different circumstances to today (before the advent of the welfare state) many working class communities and trade unions set up their own services and activities. Even as late as 1934 there were over one hundred miners’ libraries in the Welsh coalfields, many of which were part of larger miners’ institutes with a wide range of cultural opportunities on offer – from amateur radio to drama, from photography to opera as well as political and trade union education (‘one of the greatest networks of cultural institutions created by working people anywhere in the world’ (Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class, London, Yale University Press, 2010, p. 237)). ↩︎
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