Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred or so Days

I wasn't raised to identify with any particular party. That's not to say I wasn't exposed to politics by my parents from an early age, but tribalism of my parents was not to any one organisation. The chief item of my political thought I obtained from my parents was not devotion to any particular ideal (although I was raised within a resolutely leftist/liberal value system,) it was to hate the Tory Party above all else.

As a consequence, I never grew up with an active involvement in political systems. If there was one institution that defined our rough outlook, it was probably, as with so many middle class Britons of the left, the Guardian newspaper.

That changed about three months ago, when I joined the Labour Party. That's not due to any particular loyalty to its current policies. I was against the Iraq War and marched against it in 2003 (although I was briefly for it about a year later before the situation began to really deteriorate), I opposed the introduction of tuition and top-up fees for universities (not just because as a student I'd rather not have to pay fees, but because I don't view it as a scheme that's either financially effective or good for society), I'd like to see the railways renationalised, I think the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) schemes have been a national scandal, rewarding cronies and shafting taxpayers and there are plenty of other smaller policies I can take issue with.

At the same time, while I may adhere to a lot of ideas that Blair's government rejected as out of date and doctrinaire socialism, I was brought up in a very middle class household in a fairly rural area. I'm a supporter of grammar schools and I don't agree with much of the government's policies on field sports and gun control (although that still places me worlds away from American gun control advocates - I'm proud to say that I own a shotgun licence and had no objection to having to be checked out by the police in order to obtain said document.)

In many ways, particularly in terms of class, I'm more of a natural Liberal Democrat voter, but they've alienated me through their current insipid leadership and the manner of the ouster of the last leader, their lack of coherent national policies and the signs that their more libertarian wing is defeating their social democratic wing in the party hierarchy.

Besides, the Lib Dems are just not going to be the party of government any time soon. Add that to the fact that Blair was about to leave office, creating a race for a new leadership team, and joining the Labour Party seemed like a way to make my voice heard. More particularly, I was worried that John Reid might run for Party Leader, and was determined that I would do whatever I could to stop that happening (I was lucky - he elected not to run and actually announced his resignation from the Cabinet).

That's not a very auspicious start to party membership, but over the past few months I've begun to feel a little bit less cynical about the whole exercise, even though only Gordon Brown picked up sufficient nominations to actually be on the ballot for Party Leader. Partly the Deputy Leadership race, and particularly the candidate I supported, Jon Cruddas, helped to build a little faith in me that the party was more than an unresponsive top-down behemoth. Partly my recent hesitant involvement with various enthusiastic but rather ineffective hard left student political groups reminded me once again of the values of pragmatism and working within the system rather than against the system as a whole. Partly my reading of the American blogosphere showed that political activism did hold the potential for achieving something. And to be brutally honest, partly it was the realisation that I'm a politics junkie and would one day like to be involved in that sphere professionally in some form or another.

So on Friday, two days after Gordon Brown became Prime Minister, I turned up at Cambridge Labour Party's offices to help out with envelope-stuffing.

I can't say my first impressions were that great. There was one guy there clearing up in the hall, but the person in charge of envelope-stuffing was out of the office at the time and no other volunteers were present at the time, so I spent about ten minutes milling around aimlessly. In the defence of the branch, I didn't turn up until about half three in the afternoon for one reason and another and there had been volunteers there earlier in the day, and the guy clearing up (a local councillor, I was to learn,) offered me a cup of tea and engaged me in a bit of conversation before the woman responsible for organising the volunteers returned and I was given something useful to do - sticking addresses onto envelope.

I spent a little over an hour sticking addresses onto envelopes, and it was every bit as dull as it sounds, but there was a certain satisfaction in at least doing something concrete and I was invited to return for the branch meeting later that night.

So at 8PM I and around 20 others were back in the hall for a meeting of the Constituency Labour Party. At twenty years old I was probably the youngest one there by about five years, although most of my fellow students had already returned home by that night, so it may not have been representative. Most of those present were in later middle age and many of them were local councillors or officials in the Constituency Labour Party. Also present was the Labour candidate for Cambridge at the next election, Daniel Zeichner (we don't have primaries in Britain, nor fixed election cycles, so candidates are chosen in advance by constituency parties and Cambridge picked particularly early) and a couple of officials from regional offices.

The meeting consisted of three presentations, with a period of friendly comments and debate after each one. The party membership seemed to be active, willing to disagree with one another but prepared to put aside their differences once each point was resolved. There was a certain degree of joking camaraderie amongst them.

The meeting kicked off with one of them giving a presentation on strategy for the next election, mentioning that the constituency (which passed from Labour to Lib Dem at the 2005 election) was a target for the next election, which he suggested might be as early as spring 2008. I can't say I was massively impressed by his performance, as whilst much of what he said was sensible, and his warning that there was no "Army of volunteers" waiting in the wings to be Labour's activists in Cambridge was a very necessary warning, he appeared to be taking a somewhat simplistic view of the political climate.

He argued that single issues such as Iraq and top-up fees would be less important when next we go to the ballot box, and largely dodged my question on potential future single issues, such as (God forbid) Iran or increased top-up fees. He suggested swing voters should be courted but didn't concentrate much on disaffected Labour supporters aside from a mention that leaflets had been sent out to them once Blair had stepped down, asking them to return to the party.

Somewhat disquietingly, he suggested that campaigning should be almost entirely negative, pointing out to voters that not electing Labour would risk a Tory government, rather than that the campaign should dwell on the achievements of Labour government. Most worryingly for me, in response to a question about who the core Labour voter was nowadays, he appeared to perceive it as solely a matter of voting habits, not of political beliefs.

I'm going to skip over the second presentation entirely, as it was generally fairly esoteric and my recollections probably aren't helped by my having spent the time between volunteering and the meeting in the pub, and go straight on to the third presentation, by the candidate, Daniel Zeichner. It wasn't big on specifics, but I can tell you it went down well. It played well to the audience of activists, warning us that having been selected candidate, he was no longer specifically trying to win our vote, he was looking for the votes of consituents at large and that our help was needed for that. He then proceeded to pass out a sheet listing roles that needed filling in his campaign and to solicit applications to them.

Given that previous mentions of new media and the like in the meeting had been met with open minds but a large dollop of incomprehension (the first speaker mentioned that he'd been told the party should look at using RSS feeds, before revealing that he had no idea what they were and asking if any of those present could tell him - only I could), I went home and prepared an application to run the online side of his campaign. I don't know that I'd get such a post (I'm probably just barely qualified for it, but I certainly hope there's somebody else more computer literate than me who's applied) but I certainly know that I intend to help out with the campaign in some form, even if it's no more glorious than leafletting.

For all that I'm still cynical about the national party (if anybody wants my thoughts about the Cabinet reshuffle, I can bore you at length in the comments) I've acquired a certain faith in the local party members.

Tags: Activism, great britain, Labour Party, uk (all tags)



Re: Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred

Thoughts? Is this vaguely readable? Is there anything you want me to flesh out?

Alternatively, is there anybody who's run the web side of campaigns in the past who can give me some advice on what I'm likely to need in terms of technical know-how or what I should include in my application?

by Englishlefty 2007-06-30 05:32PM | 0 recs
Re: Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred

It was readable.

I worked as a field person (that means I ran actual contact with voters) way back in the dark ages of 2002.  It was extremely obvious that the internet had changed things. The biggest thing that the internet has the power to do is to reduce the cost of contact with voters.

My advice (take it or leave it) is to emphasize the cost savings, and opportunity for targetting you message at the individual level.

You have a huge advantage in that you have party time on the TV, so the fight to get on TV isn't there.  This is a huge fight in the US.  A well run TV ad campaign for Congress needs at least $800,000 to get on the airwaves.  Less than that and you have to either go cable, radio, or newspaper. The main use of the internet in these broad functions is to deliver broad messages and themes.  For this, you have two essentials.  First, you've got to have a website.  Second, you have to have someone who can upload video of rallies and the like onto a site like Youtube.

Back to the field area.  By focusing on getting a supporter database together, and above all getting a working email address, you can have contact with hundreds supporters at no cost.  Compare this to direct mail where you have the cost of producing the literature, and then postal fees. Speaking from the US, in unit cost terms, a well executed email from the campaign has no cost to the campaign, where a direct mail piece may have a cost of up to $0.20-0.25 per piece mailed.  Multiplied by 10,000, that means a direct mail action may cost $2,000-$2,500.  Email has no post cost.  You can also create issue lists, to target particular messages to certain constituency groups.

For example, something on topping up fees is a particularly good point to make with students.

Also, consider the power of social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook to link supporters together.  This also makes it easier to bring in student support.

Finally, there's a lot to be said for having a running blog where the candidate can have a conversation with supporters. Soapblox can set you up a pretty sweet site for cheap.  Something like $100 for set up, and $15 monthly hosting.  

That's (hopefully) a start.  I'm intrigued about the idea of using lessons from America in Britain.

I've got my email listed on my id page if you've got more questions.  

by ManfromMiddletown 2007-06-30 08:22PM | 0 recs
Re: Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred

Cambridge is apparently pretty good at voter ID and the picture is probably rather different than to that to the normal experience in America.

For a start, an MP represents an area that usually has a population that's around a fifth of that of a congressional district (and in remote areas, such as the Scottish islands, they may represent far fewer people than that). Secondly, the constituency whose meeting I went to is based around the city of Cambridge. It's almost entirely urban and I could walk across it in a few hours without difficulty.

Thirdly, the population of Cambridge is fairly transient, due to a large student population (two university campuses, one with as many post-grads as undergrads) and a lot of temporary workers.

Certainly voter ID is important, and the Cambridge Labour Party does it in a big way (and the results are certainly stored on computer, even if they're still collected in the old way), but I suspect that the small size of the constituency in terms of population and geography reduces some of the advantages of a more electronic element.

As to e-mail, it's used to a degree, but it's less effective at getting a response and some of our key constituencies are fairly poor (and may not have regular e-mail access) and very low turnout, so other methods of contact are probably more important.

Also, the CLP is, like most of the Labour Party right now, heavily indebted, so cheap solutions are key and nothing's cheaper than free stuff.

I should add that top-up fees are not a Labour issue, because I'm afraid it was my government that forced them through rather than raise taxes on the population at large.

With those codicils, thanks for the comments. A few of the ideas I'd had myself but confirmation's welcome. And elements of that are going in to my application. Thanks.

by Englishlefty 2007-07-01 08:50AM | 0 recs
Re: Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred

Thanks for the insight into British politics!

From my (very limited) perspective, Brown is a vast improvement over Blair, and I am eager to see what changes occur. Though I am amazed Blair was in power as long as he was - ten years I think?


I'm proud to say that I own a shotgun licence and had no objection to having to be checked out by the police in order to obtain said document.

Right on! I'm actually a proponent of gun rights, but gun rights advocates in the US seem to be somewhat insane. Yes, people should be able to have guns. But, NO, not any gun, whenever you happen o want one!

by LandStander 2007-06-30 07:54PM | 0 recs
Re: Thoughts on the Labour Party: My First Hundred

Brown's probably better than Blair, and certainly far less tarnished, but having been at the heart of government for the past decade, I think it's unlikely that he disagreed massively with Blair's agenda.

Also, whilst his Cabinet has positive elements to it (it's young, it includes critics of the war, it shows a focus on education and housing) it represents the right of Labour much more than the left and some of his advisors are not the people I would ever take advice from. For example, Digby Jones, who's to be made a life peer, was the head of the CBI (British equivalent of the Chamber of Commerce, and just as right-wing) for six years, is to advise the government on business issues.

This is despite the twin problems that the man probably approves of slavery and that he is (according to my mother, who knew him slightly two decades ago when they were both solicitors in Birmingham) "really fucking stupid". Indeed, the core of my political thought is this: if I don't know what I think about an issue, I just make sure to think the opposite of whatever Digby Jones thinks.

You can expect some changes, mostly positive, and perhaps a little more independence on foreign policy now that Bush is looking more and more like a lame duck, but unless appointments like that were done solely to confuse the press and the Tories, we've got a way to go yet.

by Englishlefty 2007-07-01 08:37AM | 0 recs


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