Ghosts in the machine

The decimation of its activist base hurts Labour's left as much as it does its leadership. To have any political influence at all the Labour left must reach out beyond the party.

October 1, 2004 · 12 min read

The Norwich Labour Party looks back at the 1980s with fondness. Even though Labour’s fortunes were at their lowest ebb nationally, this local Labour stronghold was in its glory days. The Labour Club’s main hall, opened by Harold Wilson in 1968, was a hive of activity, holding 200-strong meetings, branch socials and bingo. Non-members would call in at Saturday teatime for a quick pint after shopping or to play the tote, helping to fund the local party in the process. Even Norwich’s trade union movement was incorporated, with the TGWU and GMB housed in the building.

And then there was the politics. Former shop stewards Sheila and Robin Dyball, party members for 40 years, remember the heady days of the miners’ strike, when Norwich Labour Club twinned with the Nottinghamshire mining town Ollerton. ‘We really helped that village,’ says Robin fondly. ‘We delivered catering to the miners; we had a stall on the market everyday supporting them. Those were some of the best days.’

Fast forward nearly two decades to the historic second term of a Labour government, and Norwich Labour is in crisis. For the past 18 months the Labour Club building has been up for sale. ‘It’s just too big for our needs,’ says Robin. The main hall resembles a dilapidated school gym; the lights are out in the locked-up bar, a layer of dust coating the pumps. This winter staff worked at their desks with their coats on: the boiler broke down and never got fixed. The courtyard where Tony and Cherie once commended local activists is thick with weeds; the door leading to it jammed with cobwebs. In 1998 the unions walked out, apparently over ‘political differences with New Labour’. And the offices of Norwich’s two Labour MPs, education minister Charles Clarke and his tuition-fees adversary backbencher Ian Gibson, are about to move to the centre of town.

Norwich exemplifies how the Labour Party is dying at its grassroots. But in a traditionally staunch Labour city, with a strong working class rooted in shoe factories, engineering and agriculture, and left-leaning academics in the university, losing the club is only a hint of the local party’s decay. Norwich Labour’s general committee has shrunk from 150 to 25 members. The executive committee, responsible for the day-to-day running of the party, is having trouble filling positions. Over the six-month period ending July 2003, nine members of Gibson’s Norwich North Constituency Labour Party resigned; in Clarke’s Norwich South constituency 40 members resigned. Even the city council, dominated by Labour for 70-odd years, now shares power with the Lib Dems. And new Labour recruits are not forthcoming: the University of East Anglia’s Labour Society, once a seedbed for future activists, ceased to exist two years ago.

Members point to social changes to explain the club’s demise. The National Lottery has killed off the tote, and political clubs are rarely bustling with activity these days: their male atmosphere, cheap drinks and friendly but amateur bar staff seem from a bygone era. But they also admit that politics have played a major part. And not just Iraq and Thatcherite economic policies. They feel powerless to influence the Labour leadership, and complain about the ‘gutlessness’ of Norwich Labour’s general committee.

Robin says he stays in ‘to keep the right-wing sods out’. But the nature of his party activism has dramatically changed: he no longer works for the party in general, but to ‘get Ian re-elected’. ‘We want socialism to stay in Norwich,’ he says. One long-time Norwich activist described Labour as a ‘party in waiting; waiting for Blair to go’.

A similar tale is being told around the country. In Hartlepool, the lack of activists has meant that three quarters of the people campaigning for the Labour candidate in September’s by-election are paid staff, many of whom have been bussed in and put up in hotels for three months. Neighbouring Sedgefield, Blair’s constituency, could only find a car-load of supporters to help. Not surprising, though, when it was discovered that Labour Party head office had already designed election materials for its favoured candidate, even before the selection process had taken place.

Mike Watts, the Labour Party’s finance and personnel director from 1987 to 1993, is one of the disillusioned. ‘I would never join today’s Labour Party, but I was a member long before Blair came in, and I will be a member when Blair is just a bad memory,’ he says determinedly. ‘But I find it difficult to motivate myself to do anything to support the regime.’ Watts has instead thrown his energies into the left-leaning think-tank Catalyst, and also spends time campaigning for CND.

Nationally, Labour membership has hit a new low of 190,000 members, half of what it was when Blair came to power and the lowest it’s been since the party split during Ramsay MacDonald’s leadership in the 1930s. Trade union support for Labour is also beginning to crumble (see ‘Union wild card seeks to trump modernisers from within’). The remaining members are hardly representative of British society, or even Labour voters. In a recent study, political scientists Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley found that 60 per cent of Labour members were male and a high percentage were graduates aged over 40. ‘What worries me,’ says NEC member Ann Black, ‘is that the decline will carry on until we lose an election, and that’s when the party will collapse.’

Labour’s membership crisis is no secret. But it is not only bad news for the New Labour hierarchy, which needs foot soldiers to knock on doors and deliver leaflets for the forthcoming general election. It undermines the very essence of the party as a grand coalition of the left: what do the ‘Reclaim the Labour Party’ clutch of left-wingers have left to reclaim?

There have been numerous attempts to take Labour back from the modernisers: the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, Labour Reform, the Ernest Bevin Society, Chartist, the Network of Socialist Campaign Groups, Socialist Appeal, Socialist Conference, Labour Left Briefing and Labour Against the War, to name but a few.

Recent initiatives have focused on removing Blair. Under current rules, however, he can only be deposed if a majority at conference demands a leadership election; this is something the longstanding Campaign for Labour Party Democracy is currently trying to achieve. Then there’s the cross-party campaign to impeach Blair, which has only one Labour MP’s signature so far, that of former defence minister Peter Kilfoyle, though 60 more Labour backbenchers have apparently expressed interest.

But while dozens of Labour MPs want Blair out, these efforts are dead in the water because of MPs’ increasing dependence on the party machinery for help in their own re-election campaigns given the absence of an activist base. ‘The first thing that MPs who are in marginal areas ask for is staff support,’ says a party insider, ‘and if Blair says “no canvassing for so-and-so” then there’s no support for them.’

Against this background, the two latest initiatives to reclaim Labour seem as doomed as their predecessors. Save the Labour Party (STLP), with backing from the likes of leader of the House of Commons Peter Hain and Home Office adviser Sir Bernard Crick, focuses exclusively on internal party structures and is open to all members of Labour’s left-right spectrum. ‘I’m absolutely convinced that if we were to talk about specific policies we would split up into small factions,’ says STLP chair Peter Kenyon. STLP is hoping to create a media frenzy by challenging the party’s top brass to hold a conventional AGM on the first day of conference. So far, Labour’s apparatchiks have not agreed to hold the meeting.

In contrast, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC) is a left-based body tackling the party’s neo-liberal policy programme head on. Founded this summer mainly by Socialist Campaign Group MPs, it aims to provide a new way by which ‘rank and file members and the trade union movement can re-engage in a much wider democratic debate and promotion of socialist policies and campaigns’. John McDonnell MP wrote in these pages that the whole purpose of the LRC is to be part of and fully connected with the much wider anti-neo-liberal and anti-war struggles (‘There’s life in the Labour Party, yet’, in our September 2004 print magazine). But membership of the LRC is only open to party card-holders and affiliates: talk of uniting the extra-parliamentary left is quashed on grounds that ‘we’ll all get expelled’. The LRC’s launch attracted fewer than 400 people, most of them white and white-haired, and no one talked openly of the resignations, the expulsions, the possibility of working with other parties and organisations.

More optimistically, for the first time in ages all the centre-left organisations seeking to reclaim the party are cooperating in an informal network. That network is trying to create a constituency liaison committee within the party to counterbalance the power of the Parliamentary Labour Party and the unions.

Critics say, however, that the Labour left has already missed its opportunity. Not a single pro-war MP has been deselected. Labour Against the War never achieved a mass following, even with the big rebellion in last March’s House of Commons vote on the motion opposing war in Iraq. Neither that rebellion nor the one over top-up fees led to popular campaigns.

In the meantime, most dissident MPs and party members refuse to contemplate damaging Labour’s electoral prospects. ‘The year before a general election requires maximum unity,’ Black argues. She tries to make the most of the current structures: at the party’s National Policy Forum at Warwick University this July, she submitted 29 proposals, ranging from tackling the gap between the rich and poor to ending selection in specialist schools; she withdrew most of them when it became clear that the unions, having cut their own deal with the party leadership, were not going to back them.

The main problem confronting the ‘reclaim the party’ groups is the same one Blair and co will face at the next general election: the decimation and disillusionment of the rank and file. Of all the people I talked to in Norwich, not a single one mentioned any of the ‘reclaim’ initiatives, except to say they were ‘too London-based’, ‘too inaccessible’ or ‘too sectarian’.

Outside of the party, a seismic shift is taking place, which the nostalgic Labour left seems quite unwilling to tap into. Witness the many thousands of people expected at the European Social Forum in London this month. But extra-parliamentary movements are forcing themselves onto the agenda: Blair’s second term will be remembered for the large anti-government demonstrations over Iraq and not much else; lively grassroots campaigns around specific issues have also ended up on the negotiating table: at the National Policy Forum, one of the few victories outside the trade union consensus package was that conference will debate a proposal to guarantee that council housing tenants will not be financially disadvantaged if they choose that their homes remain under local authority control. This was the result of an energetic campaign organised by Defend Council Housing (DCH), a broad alliance based outside the party but with support inside it (see ‘Pressure grows on government for council housing U-turn’ in our print magazine).

The experience of interacting with DCH provides a possible marker for the Labour left’s future direction: seeing social movements and single-issue campaigns as complementary to their work inside the party, and not as a threat. This way of working might contribute to making the left a coherent force, even if it meant supporting initiatives that already exist or that make only small gains: the party becomes a base but not the base for wider political struggles. Surely, the bottom line for any initiative is that it should be open to all.

Although hopeful that a post-Blair party could experience something of a renaissance, NEC member and former Tribune editor Mark Seddon believes that if Labour continues its slide down the US route, where political parties are shell operations fuelled by slick media campaigns and corporate donors, the left will need to look to US-based initiatives to fight back. One such example is, which aims to bring ‘ordinary people back into politics’ through electronic advocacy groups around popular causes such as Iraq and media reform. It has a nationwide network of 2.5 million online activists who are too amorphous to be a political movement, but who come together to maximise their impact by backing progressive candidates at election time.

Seddon seems to be on the right track: the left that remains in the party needs to ask itself who it’s talking to. In Norwich there are a number of people hovering on the margins of the party, waiting for something to happen. Some of them have become armchair revolutionaries; others have vanished from the political scene entirely, too heartbroken to get involved; others still have put their energies into the city’s long-standing peace movement or campaigns about services or the environment, even joining the rapidly expanding Green Party. But none of these people are entirely satisfied with their new positions. Maybe they would do better to think of themselves as preparing a ‘party in waiting’, and to feel that what they were doing outside the party could influence those within. For Robin and the rest of the Norwich Labour gang, there’s hope yet that the city’s Labour Club will be filled once again.

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