Nick Ward was raised and educated in Scotland and then lived and taught in London before returning north to co-found Education Fellowship Scotland. Here he sets out five ways he thinks local Labour parties can be revitalised.
‘The working class didn’t think we spoke for them anymore and the middle classes didn’t trust us.’
Islington. It is a name that brings up all sorts of connotations within the Labour movement: for some it is the heart of the renaissance within the party and for others it is a symbol of the pandering to middle class interests that will lead to ultimate electoral and moral oblivion. Thankfully, in reality, it’s neither. I was a councillor in Islington for four years and lived there for almost ten before moving back to Scotland and I am well aware of the many myths and misconceptions around Islington. But I also think there are a lot of great lessons we in Scottish Labour can learn from Islington Labour’s success on how we can continue to win elections and rebuild our activist membership.
Islington is London’s geographically smallest borough, with a population density on par with Hong Kong’s. It is a borough with huge wealth inequalities: it has one of the highest child poverty rates in the capital and also some of its most expensive and leafy streets. Critically, it is a council that until relatively recently was completely dominated by the Liberal Democrats. The working class didn’t think we spoke for them and their issues anymore, and the middle classes didn’t trust us to govern well. However, Islington Labour has now gone on to win 3 consecutive council elections so completely that we went from opposition, to controlling the council, and now to wiping out the opposition almost entirely.
So how did Islington Labour re-win the trust of the electorate, build a large and active local party and most importantly implement some truly progressive policies? What are the things that we, in Scottish Labour, should be concentrating our efforts on in order to rebuild our electoral support and our party activist base?
1. We need to know people. Let’s knock on some doors!
Islington Labour needed to rebuild our database of where our vote was, who they were and what mattered to them. We stuck to our ward system and rebuilt from local communities up. At first this is hard graft: we need campaigns that we can talk to people about and good infrastructure to gather and use the data properly. Also, we need to build in regular campaign slots.
In the ward which I represented, outside of election time, a group of us would meet every second Saturday. It was always the same time and place, we’d always make sure a councillor or ward office holder was there to lead and we’d always email everyone afterwards so they knew how many folk we had talked to and felt a real sense of accomplishment. This regularity is much more effective than ad hoc campaign days or one off street stalls in helping our members to build the habit of campaigning and also the data is much more useful.
In Islington we built momentum, we gathered data (our contact rate in St George’s, my ward, was 70%+ before I moved back up) and also people began to know us, knew that we were part of the community, so that when it came to election time we knew where to target strategically and when we asked for their vote it wasn’t our first face to face contact with them, in fact it could be our fifth or sixth.
2. We need the infrastructure… so we need Scottish Labour to be fun.
In order to knock on the doors we need local, engaged branches. I would argue at council ward level. How do we get the campaigners? How about we make being part of the Labour Party fun?
There are little things that many wards and branches do already, like always offering to go for a drink after campaign sessions or meetings, which is great and important but we really need to address what taking part in the party means. There needs to be a regular rhythm of meetings and campaigns that people can rely upon. We need those meetings to be about politics and I mean real political discussion and debate about the big issues of the day and not just a series of notices and pointless motions that most people haven’t read.
In St George’s our ward meetings were almost always themed, they lasted from 7.30pm until 9.00pm and we had a speaker who we would listen to, discuss and debate with. We stopped doing ‘rounds of questions’ because it stifled debate, not encouraged it. The last half hour was reserved for ‘business.’ This was because much of the business and planning was done by the executive committee of the ward.
People will come because they care, they will stay for the enjoyable debates and discussions and they will campaign because we will show how they can make a difference. We need to make sure that ward and branch meetings are once again the space for real political education and are interactive opportunities for our members to engage with each other, the speakers and the big issues of the day.
3. We need the right simple messages.
So we have the people to do the door knocking but what are we saying on the doors? We need clear, simple messaging that puts us on the side of working people. In Islington Labour our messaging was ‘Jobs, Homes and the Cost of Living’. It wasn’t poetry but it was practical, and showed people that our priorities were the same as theirs.
We stuck to this simple messaging, but it wasn’t easy. There were lots of attempts to over complicate it, to create abstract policy pieces that people advocated should be sent out the electorate. I have some bad news. The hard reality is that the electorate isn’t as interested in policy as you are, they are interested in the things that affect their daily lives. It is arrogant for us to say to the electorate: ‘ I care about this and so should you’.
We have to go to where people already are and then move them towards where we would like them to be rather than waving and shouting ‘come over here’ from afar and then berating them when they don’t share our opinions. It doesn’t work. We need to tell them how will we address the cost of living crisis? How will we make sure there are jobs, or that their streets are cleaned or that their cars don’t get wrecked by potholes? These are the issues that ordinary people care about and if they don’t feel that we in the Labour Party are addressing those issues then they won’t trust us with their vote and neither should they.
4. But we still need to be radical.
Having clear and simple messaging doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t have radical policies. Far from it. I believe that we should be bolder in our policy agenda, but we need to link our radical policies to real people’s lives and demonstrate how we would achieve them.
There is one example of this that really sticks out to me from my time in Islington: we took basically all of our council services back in house. Now this is a bold, very political and potentially expensive policy. However, we knew that we could only deliver the better levels of service that were needed if we had control. By bringing the services in house we could ensure that housing repairs were done to our schedule, we could promise to improve waste collection and street hygiene and deliver better conditions for the council staff, the majority of whom were Islington residents themselves. We would deliver what the electorate wanted through our ambitious political policies.
5. We are one team – we need to act like it so that we build credibility.
You would think that Islington would have been a raging conflict of ‘moderates’ vs ‘Corbynites’ but far from it. Indeed there was very little infighting or factionalism because we had an agreed strategy: we needed to demonstrate to the electorate that we had the credibility to deliver on our clear messaging and radical policies and the number one way we could and can do this is through internal discipline. This was not forced on us from above or without, but enforced by ourselves.
I am a big environmentalist, I wanted to have two pages of our main mailout to be about the environment but I knew that that wasn’t the right thing: we would be a green (small g!) council but my personal passion was not the policy platform that would win us the election. So I didn’t push it, I didn’t wage internal war for my own agenda. We had agreed our policy, we had the policies in our manifesto but I understood and accepted that it wasn’t the right strategy to lead our campaigning with.
This collective, cabinet-like, responsibility is really important. The moment that we as a party are going to the press criticising each other in public is the moment that we begin to throw away our credibility as a party of local or national government. Let’s make sure that we have heated, passionate, democratic debate within the party but once we have agreed on our strategy, and on our policy platform, then united we go to the electorate.
Many of these things are being doing in CLPs across Scotland and already we can begin to see the benefits of a revitalised party holding the SNP to account with credibility and ambition. My call to you is simple: if you are in a CLP/ward that is doing these things then keep going. The slog does pay off. If, like many, you are not so lucky and are looking for that leader to get things moving then you need to be looking to yourself. We need leaders within our party who want to make the positive changes that we know, from examples like Islington, can make the difference. You are that leader. Let’s rebuild our party together.