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Building Corbyn’s Labour from the ground up: How ‘the left’ won in Hackney South

Heather Mendick has gone from phone-banker at Corbyn for Leader to Hackney Momentum organiser to secretary of her local party. Here, she shares her top tips on transforming Labour from the bottom up

October 6, 2017
7 min read

After a two-year war of attrition within the Labour Party, this year’s National Conference marked a decisive shift towards the grassroots socialism that so many of us voted for when we made Corbyn leader two years ago. This was evident in the big set piece speeches from Jeremy Corbyn, Naomi Klein and others. But it was even more evident in the shorter, less-celebrated contributions from the delegates elected by Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) to represent ordinary members.

These delegates railed against a lack of democracy and called on Labour to listen to its members. This was a radical departure from last year, when CLP delegates had voted to support the party establishment. In the interim, Labour’s members have gained democratic control of their local party machinery. How this has happened will differ in each CLP. In this article I tell a story from Hackney South.

In summer 2015, I was a regular at London’s Corbyn for Leader phone-bank. As we got towards the end of the campaign a few of us were talking in the pub after a session about what we needed to do when the increasingly inevitable happened and Corbyn won the leadership. We agreed that we had to join (or re-join) Labour and start going to local meetings.

I, like tens of thousands of activists, did just that – but found that many existing Labour Party members were suspicious and appeared to feel duty-bound to exclude us from meaningful engagement. It was left to Momentum groups to do the work of mobilising new members, and to support them in making inroads into the party itself. Here I identify five general principles underlying how we did that in Hackney.

1. Know your CLP

Every local Labour Party is different. On a basic level, some have all-member meetings at constituency level – where anyone can come along, speak and vote – and others have meetings where only those who’ve been elected as delegates from smaller branches, making a commitment to attend two meetings a month for a year, can vote. Obviously, delegate structures present greater barriers to new members who may be unsure about committing to regular meetings but willing to try one and see how it feels.

More broadly, getting to know all aspects of your CLP is key to organising effectively. Finding out what long-term members value (usually traditional door-knocking) and getting involved will help people to see that you’re in it for the long haul. It will also enable you to find allies and opportunities to create change. Getting to know the people on for-want-of-a-better-term ‘the left’ – along with their skills, interests and commitments – will mean you can build a team who can not just offer an alternative vision for your CLP but put it into action.

2. Build a buzz

The key meeting for all CLPs is their AGM (Annual General Meeting) as it’s where members elect the officers who will shape CLP priorities and actions in the coming year. Hackney South held their AGM just two weeks after the general election. This made organising easy. Many members who joined to support Corbyn but hadn’t yet engaged with Labour got active canvassing during the election. Watching the polls shift towards Labour and feeling part of that was exhilarating and when they asked what to do next, we told them about the AGM.

While you can’t generate the level of energy from the election in the run up to every AGM, you can create a buzz with a mix of political education, campaigning, and social events. These offer routes for members to meet others locally and feel part of our movement. Social media, phone-banking and word of mouth in the days before an AGM all build momentum, and explaining the meeting helps, so that people know how it works and what’s at stake and have an investment in staying involved.

3. Be inclusive

When we call for people to stand for positions locally, the people who come forward first are usually white middle-class men. Because of the way society is structured, women and people from working-class and minority-ethnic backgrounds are much less likely to share their sense of entitlement. We’re addressing this by encouraging people who might not otherwise think of taking a position to do so, and by suggesting that those with privilege stand back.

Being inclusive is also about building a coalition with people who didn’t vote for Corbyn but back him now he’s leader. The Labour left has been attacked for years, which can lead to a desire to exclude all but strident Corbynistas. Resisting this desire has given us a more diverse and effective executive. Corbyn’s new politics is about inclusivity and we have to reflect that in our approach, whilst always standing firm on our politics.

4. Be the change you want to see in the world

Sometimes, as we discussed strategy in the run-up to the AGM, people were selective about their principles. For example, one person suggested that we oppose an anti-Corbyn candidate for CLP chair on the basis that they’re a senior councillor but support another senior councillor for chair because they back Corbyn. In the end, principle won out and our slate, which we named Grassroots Left, included no councillors.

The most contentious issue was whether to have an open slate. After politically-motivated bullying and suspensions of members and CLPs on the left, some worried about declaring our hand. Against this, many of us argued that if you’re standing on a platform of making the CLP more accessible and transparent then you need to apply that to your own processes. So we created a leaflet that said who we are and set out our vision for Hackney South CLP and we circulated it far and wide. As well as being principled, this was a sound pragmatic decision as it enabled Momentum Hackney to endorse our candidates and to use their considerable database to help get us elected.

5. Think about the role of Momentum

At our AGM on 22 June, 10 out of the 11 Hackney South executive positions, including all the key roles, went to candidates from our Grassroots Left slate. This would not have been possible without Momentum Hackney.

None of the organising was done directly through Momentum, except towards the end after the local group had endorsed us. But when our local Labour Party meetings were limiting and alienating, Momentum gave us a place to meet each other, talk and build trust. Speaking personally, it was the space where I developed the skills I needed to take on the mammoth role of CLP secretary.

But Momentum too has limits. Nationally there was little support for understanding how Labour worked. Luckily I found local members who’d stuck with the party through Blair, Brown and Miliband and were delighted to have a new influx of comrades. One of them has patiently answered literally hundreds of my questions often in great detail. I also found the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, who are the powerhouse of the Labour left, ensuring slates, model motions and rules changes are there when you need them.

I hope this account encourages others to share stories from their CLPs. When a Corbyn-led Labour government transforms the country, it will be in small part because we transformed our CLPs first.

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