Tuesday, 26 January 2016

It's a lesson too late for the learning ?

A curious mixture of melancholy and excitement fills my sleeping hours and most of my waking ones too.
last night instead of counting sheep I lay awake thinking of old the comrades who have passed away,when I first became a Labour Councillor way back in 1973 I was trying to count the number who have died-I lost count in the forties!
this was prompted by the sad death of an old comrade Tony Deasy just before Christmas.Tony represented all that was good about the Labour Party and his death also reminded me of the excitement and exhilaration of those times  when to be young and idealistic and effortlessly looking to the future.
it seems to me that spirit of change in how we do politics is alive again in the huge support Jeremy Corbyn has created-a sense that together 'we can make it happen'.So how do we rebuild what was once a large social democratic party with a pronounced list to socialism,before the pragmatists and naysayers once again get their paws on the structure and the power.
The left has a small window-it must use it wisely.
Here comes the nostalgia bit.
I've just finished reading David Aaronvitch's autobiography 'Party Animals' and it staggers me how only a few years apart we have lived parallel lives.His parents knew people my parents knew,we lived in the same part of North London,went to the same 'Daily Worker' bazaars,why we even went to the same school!
Like him I was called a 'red diaper' baby by American Communists who visited our flat.Like him I was wrapped in the cosy certainty that when we talked about 'The Party' we only meant one party- the Communist Party.
There by the way the parallel lives end,he went over to the dark side and writes a column for 'The Times',I only write for the 'Chronicle & Echo-a part of Johnston Group newspapers !
Coming to Northampton was a real culture shock, from the frantic politics of the Stoke Newington Peoples Paper' and the 'Theoretical Practice' study group (don't ask!) the pace was very different and the rhythm,shall we say,somnambulist provincial.

One neighbour in Western View was a remarkable woman, 'Doll' Pickering. Her husband had been a local Labour Councillor and she was a widow, but very active in the community-in her local church at Castle Hill, local charities and Castle Ward Labour Party.
She heard us bitching about the government in our garden, invited us to a ward meeting and the rest is history.
Now Doll was no fierce revolutionary,far from it,she worked hard for Reggie Paget the right wing Labour MP, but she recognised that the Party needed young blood,renewal and above all a shift in enthusiasm.
It was people like Doll that were the glue that held the party together.Rooted in the community,rooted in her neighbourhood and understanding what they were talking about.
Which brings me back to Tony Deasy. He was a tall kindly man who would talk to anyone,and talk and talk....
He lived in Thorplands and for a number of years represented that ward on NBC.He didn't need to run surgeries because everyone knew where he lived,he didn't need to knock on doors to 'listen' to people because he knew them and heard them everyday and he didn't need to organise litter picks to get his photo in the paper-he would argue with the Council officers that they had to do their job properly and not rely on volunteers.

Since the 1970's the party has changed.When we first joined the newly created Northampton South CLP there were dozens of union branches affiliated, there were I think 5 TGWU branches,2 NUBSO (boot and shoe workers) several AEU branches,several NUPE branches and so on.
Wards sent delegates as did the unions andthe organisation was both welcoming and relatively efficient.we also had our own building at 97 Charles Street, once the NUBSO offices but bought I think by Paget for Labour Party use.
Later we converted the ground floor into a club with Party rooms above.Every night there were meetings and any party or Union member visiting Northampton knew that there at least like minded companions could be found.
There were often fierce arguments and passionate debate,both upstairs and in the bar sometimes,
factions met,plotted,dissolved and re-formed.The party was alive to all sorts of currents in the broader movement.
It was a time when Local government was central to party strategy, when the GLC, the London Boroughs,Liverpool,Sheffield,Edinborough and dozens of other places were the centres of resistance to central government.
Even wee Clay Cross in Derbyshire played a part in the resistance.
My point is that there was a coherence within the movement and the party, a comradeship and a vitality.members were not simply used as leaflet deliverers and door knockers.The battle in the aprty during the 70-80's was to wrest power from the parliamentary elite,or even the council elite and bring it back to the wards and branches.
There is a new enthusiasm abroad in the movement that needs to be brought out before frustration sets in.There are only so many litter picks you can support before you think maybe joining a Keep Britain Tidy group might have been a better option.
So what must the local Labour Party do ?
First it must create real meaningful branches throughout the town that have autonomy to do more than leaflet but be able to initiate campaigns.
It must ensure that as many members as possible are encouraged to get involved,not just in ward activities but in broader community activities too.How many are members of local tenant or resident groups for instance ?
There must be an opportunity at ward level to discus ideas,and not just await the word from on high.The Labour Party is not organised obn democratic centralist lines (at least not when I last looked)
And above all else wards must attempt where possible to select local candidates from their community.that may mean training,not simply in how to canvass or how to fold leaflets, but how to speak in public, how to deal with council officers,how to write leaflets and use social media.
I am very optimistic that the party can move forward, as part of a broader movement.But it needs to be brave and it needs to learn from its history,from its mistakes and its successes.
But already time is short and there are too many unleashed dogs of war, and they all seem to be in the party.

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