Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Help me out, Charlotte - letters to a Labour activist from the political wilderness

The second in a series of conversations with political activist friends has taken a little longer to produce than I hoped, but following a long chat to Liberal Democrat Stephen Duckworth, here are some ideas and thoughts shared between me and Charlotte Morris, a Councillor and now an Executive member on Bury Borough Council. 

Hi Charlotte,
Thanks for agreeing to this. As you know I’ve had a very troubled relationship with the Labour Party. I hated it under Corbyn. In fact I wasn’t that keen on Miliband and I fought a General Election in my home seat on that manifesto. I left when the anti-semitism was out of control and the NEC, the leaders office and local infrastructure of the party was dominated by people I had no interest in working with, or had any desire to see get into power. I supported Ann Coffey, Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger when they had the courage to leave. I was disappointed more didn’t follow and that an alternative wasn’t possible – and it really isn’t, I get that. 
I also thought that after the general election wipeout that Corbyn could truly own his defeat when it inevitably came. But he hasn’t and the Left were quickly back on social media with a ready made betrayal narrative because they discovered the kind of Whatsapp group I have been in over the last few years. 
And though I can’t for one minute support a Boris Johnson Conservative government, I’m relieved in a way that the government we have now is not the one Jeremy Corbyn may have led. I wasn’t convinced Kier Starmer would be able to shape Labour into an electoral force, but I think he’s made a very good start. To be clear, despite three seperate messages from Labour MPs urging me to 'come home' as Starmer was elected, I don’t really see the point of rejoining and yet, at the same time, I think our society is faced with an opportunity to really change and emerge from this terrible virus and the economic catastrophe with a better heart and a sense of common purpose. I know that’s a bit of an offload, but I value your view.


Hi Michael,
Sorry for not getting back to you sooner on this. Given I’ve kept you waiting for a response, I won’t hang about. Let’s get to the nub of the issue; you’re looking for someone to give you reasons to re-join the Labour Party. 
Well, sorry to disappoint, but I’m not going to indulge you in that.
I’m not really sure you should re-join. You said yourself in your email you “don’t see the point”. So why are you even considering it? 
Seeing as we both work for esteemed academic institutions, I’ve done a bit of Google bashing and it turns out there is plenty of clever sounding academic thought around why people join political parties. The ‘General Incentives Model’ (Seyd and Whiteley, 1992) is a widely accepted approach to understanding why people become active in political parties. So why don’t we start there?
This model outlines the following reasons why people take up membership of political parties:
- Perception that participation will achieve a desired collective outcome.
- A desire to see particular policies introduced. 
- Selective benefits of membership e.g. material or career benefits. 
- The intrinsic pleasure of political engagement. 
- Altruistic motivations. 
- A desire to conform to social norms and behaviour and expectation of personal contacts. 
- Personal affection for a party and / or leader. 
(Isn’t it amazing what you can learn after a few minutes on Google, by the way …)

I don’t profess to you know you super well, but we’ve shared many conversations about politics over many brews over the past couple of years, so if you don’t mind I will make a couple of observations on what I think motivates you. Please tell me if I’m off base.
I think you are fascinated by politics, see it as the vehicle to achieving things that make the world a better place and enjoy the intellectual stimulation of being involved in political debate. You’re not a Tory. Not even a shy one, I don’t think. You’ve got too much water under the bridge locally with the Lib Dems. And that lot you had a brief dalliance with last year are no more (hurrah!).
You’re politically engaged, but politically homeless.
Perhaps you could consider the motivations for joining a political party against your own feelings of the Labour Party in its current form. Ask yourself why you want to be a member of a political party at all and what you want from that membership, and then you might start to find your answer as to whether that party should be Labour. I’d be interested to know what you come up with.  
I know I could have used this email to tell you all the reasons why you should come back. Anti-Semitism will be stamped out once and for all. We’re going to focus on winning elections, not just the argument. The Shadow Cabinet and its diverse talent shows the ambition the Party has. Sir Keir Starmer’s hair. The truth is I don’t think you should have left in the first place and I’m not too sure I want to legitimise that decision by saying “it’s alright now, we’re back to normal and you can return to the fold”.
It somehow normalises the idea that those who resigned in protest at anti-Semitism were morally right. And that those who didn’t were morally wrong. How can you support a racist Party? Why won’t you take a stand? How can you ask people to vote for that man? My membership of the Labour Party certainly has caused me issues with people I love at times over the past couple of years. It’s been hard to justify. And I accept that. I know that for those who quit, like you, it wasn’t an easy decision. And at times, neither was deciding to stay. But ultimately I believe that my values are in line with those of the Labour Party and those who espouse anti-Semitism in the name of the Party or in the name of the Leader are the ones that are out of step.  
I think ultimately what you need to ask yourself is do you think the Labour Party best represents your values and is it the best vehicle for seeing those values put into action?
But don’t forget, with your chequered past, the big question isn’t whether you should re-join the Party, it’s whether we’d have you. 
Speak soon. 


Very good, Charlotte. Maybe we should have carried on talking about our pets.
I’m not all surprised you’ve cut to the chase and put the hard word down about joining. You’re right, but I thought I made it clear I’m not joining, and I think I’m probably done with parties. Not least because you raise the obvious issue that they wouldn’t have me anyway. So let’s park that thought for now.
There’s an element of the last five years that I still find troubling though. In an effort to keep the party together plenty of people kept their heads down and didn’t speak out against the basket of deplorables that presided over the most shameful political leadership of a major party in our country’s history. There’s a sense now that papering over the shame can suddenly make everything OK. It’s fine to laud Keir Starmer now with his impressive words and deeds and his grown up approach to political management, and his forensic and calm dissembling of Boris Johnson at PMQs is masterful, but there are going to be sterner tests when the EHRC publish their report that WILL declare Labour to have been institutionally racist. 
Anything less than a sweeping of the stables, withdrawl of the whip, expulsions and firm statements of intent, will render any attempts to reach beyond that current base utterly redundant. 
I put it back to you then, what should non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? How do parties seek to coalesce allies with whom they find common cause around campaigns. Maybe later we can think about what Build Back Better might mean and how you and I as various elements of our personas - Councillor, University execs, community activists – can imagine that at local, regional, national, global level. 



The past five years is all I’ve known as a Labour Party member. I joined in the summer of 2015 following the General Election defeat. As a political observer both personally and professionally I’d never really felt party political and certainly not tribal, but by the time the exit poll came in I had had enough of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition (I’d voted Lib Dem in 2010, don’t tell anyone, we were all young once). I was absolutely gutted that Labour wasn’t going to be able to form a minority or coalition government. Maybe it was the heady days of the Milifandom and we all got a bit carried away with ourselves (I confess I came for the memes, but stayed for the politics). Regardless, there wasn’t much I didn’t agree with the Labour Party on and I wanted to see the Party win. Ed Miliband wasn’t perfect nor was that manifesto, but much of it spoke to me at that time and, actually, still does. 
So to have gone from non-party political and very non-tribal to suddenly being a member of a political party that has been tearing itself limb from limb in a factional war for the past half a decade has been a bit disconcerting to say the least. I can’t disagree with you that Corbyn’s tenure has brought shame to the Labour Party and I tried to explain briefly why I stayed with the Party even though I felt that way in my previous reply. 
But I don’t agree that by moving forward in the way that the Party is doing now we are somehow papering over the cracks. Following a meeting with Keir Starmer after he was elected leader, the Board of Deputies said he achieved more in four days more than his predecessor had in four years. That’s a good start and there is much more that needs to be done; I agree that we need action. I guess it’s the old “the proof of the pudding is in the eating” and we shall await the publication of the EHRC report and judge Keir Starmer’s response accordingly. 
Beyond political parties, community activism is alive and well. In my own ward where I’m a councillor I’m lucky enough to know and work with a number of really proactive, passionate and dedicated community groups. These are non-party political although the people that run them have political views and in some cases party allegiances. They come in different forms, from a volunteer-led community centre to local litter picking groups, and from a traditional residents’ association to a constituted ‘Friends of’ group that hopes to take over management of the local country park. I don’t think they’d call themselves ‘activists’ as I don’t think they see themselves as campaigners, but they are making a real difference in their communities and isn’t that the ultimate aim of activism?
So to answer your question, what do non-aligned, non-partisan community activists do? You find something in your community that you’re not happy with or that you think could be improved, you get a group of like-minded people together and you take action. In today’s society with social media and the multitude of ways in which we can stay connected, this is easier than ever. 
Ultimately, however, a degree of political engagement will be required, but political engagement doesn’t have to be aligned or partisan either. 
A great example of successful community activism, again from my patch in Bury, has been seen around the climate emergency. The Council passed a climate emergency in July 2019. In response a local group, Bury Climate Action, was set up. They’ve got engaged, got online, got in our faces by asking questions at Full Council, held meetings and asked us to attend, and they’ve lobbied local councillors to take appropriate action. They’ve put pressure on us. Asked us hard questions. And we’ve had to find answers. They’ve changed the debate and held us to account on our promises. 

I hope that answers your question. 



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