Was Andy Burnham right to call councillors the “foot soldiers” of the Labour Party?

Leadership contender’s remark highlights the lack of grass-roots activists.

At a recent Labour leadership hustings, Andy Burnham praised the hard work of councillors by saying they are the "foot soldiers" of the party. I found this an intriguing way to publicly describe Labour's elected local representatives.

Foot soldiers are the lowest rank of an army, the "grunts" who execute orders. To the political outsider, it might seem strange to refer to councillors -- elected officials who are selected by party members -- as being at the bottom of the chain of command. It might seem more appropriate to view councillors as ranking officers, leading platoons of soldiers on campaigns, rather than being the troops themselves.

Burnham's use of language points to how in some areas, Labour candidates win the house-to-house fight for votes almost alone. In a ward of 9,000 people, Labour can win with as small an effective fighting force as the three candidates themselves and a couple of volunteers. By placing the workload for campaigning on councillors, the party's electioneering machine has been able to compensate in part for the precipitous fall in active members.

While this may be effective in winning a tolerable number of seats, it is not a viable way to genuinely renew the Labour movement so that it can become a force for radical change once more.

To do this, Labour needs to follow Peter Mandelson's call to arms that the party fight back "as insurgents". A successful insurgency relies on a groundswell of volunteers. It must therefore be popular in its methods as well as its appeal.

The Labour Party's decision in Birmingham Edgbaston "to stop doing and start building" delivered an unexpected victory for Gisela Stuart, on the back of a newly recruited army of activists.

An increase in party volunteers would leave councillors freer to engage with their communities and provide a leadership role. They could be captains rather than privates. Interested and committed activists could act as lieutenants in the movement, encouraging and directing other volunteers where appropriate.

Building a successful insurgency is by no means easy. It cannot follow conventional, rigid hierarchies, but must still have enough structure and organisation to ensure the variety and breadth of its manpower remains an asset and not a drawback.

Supporters of a mass-participation Labour movement should back the proposal by Caroline Badley, architect of the Edgbaston victory, that the party help fund local organisers to work seriously towards building a movement.

To return to the military metaphor, career soldiers in professional armies who fight on behalf of the people can be a good defence in peacetime. But sometimes the nature of conflict dictates that they must take off their uniforms, return to the people and inspire them to fight -- or they can stay the course in a conventional battle they cannot win.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor in Lambeth and part of the Labour Values project.

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I dined behind the Houses of Parliament in my sexually connected foursome

My wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple. We did not always check the significance of the date. 

I am self-employed and find that working from home, setting your own schedule, the days generally blur into each other, with weekends holding no significance, and public holidays, when those who are employed in factories, offices or shops get time off, meaning nothing. I am often surprised to go out and find the streets empty of traffic because it is some national day of observance, such as Christmas, that I wasn’t aware of. I find myself puzzled as to why the shops are suddenly full of Easter eggs or pancake batter.

Growing up in a Communist household, we had a distinct dislike for this kind of manufactured marketing opportunity anyway. I remember the time my mother tried to make me feel guilty because I’d done nothing for her on Mother’s Day and I pointed out that it was she who had told me that Mother’s Day was a cynical creation of the greetings card monopolies and the floral industrial complex.

Valentine’s Day is one of those I never see coming. It’s the one day of the year when even the worst restaurants are completely booked out by couples attempting to enjoy a romantic evening. Even those old-fashioned cafés you’ll find still lurking behind railway stations and serving spaghetti with bread and butter will tell you there’s a waiting list if you leave it late to reserve a table.

In the late 1980s my wife and I would sometimes dine out with another couple, he a writer and she a TV producer. One particular place we liked was a restaurant attached to a 1930s block of flats, near the Houses of Parliament, where the endless corridors were lined with blank doors, behind which you sensed awful things happened. The steel dining room dotted with potted palm trees overlooked a swimming pool, and this seemed terribly sophisticated to us even if it meant all your overpriced food had a vague taste of chlorine.

The four of us booked to eat there on 14 February, not realising the significance of the date. We found at every other table there was a single couple, either staring adoringly into each other’s eyes or squabbling.

As we sat down I noticed we were getting strange looks from our fellow diners. Some were sort of knowing, prompting smiles and winks; others seemed more outraged. The staff, too, were either simpering or frosty. After a while we realised what was going on: it was Valentine’s Day! All the other customers had assumed that we were a sexually connected foursome who had decided to celebrate our innovative relationship by having dinner together on this special date.

For the four of us, the smirking attention set up a strange dynamic: after that night it always felt like we were saying something seedy to each other. “Do you want to get together on Sunday?” I’d say to one of them on the phone, and then find myself blushing. “I’ll see if we can fit it in,” they’d reply, and we would both giggle nervously.

Things became increasingly awkward between us, until in the end we stopped seeing them completely. 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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