A grassroots lesson for Labour

How the party is leading the fight to save Cromer's crab factory.

Read my Observer article today, and you'd think that a bunch of celebrities are leading the fight to save Cromer crabs in North Norfolk. Stephen Fry, Matthew Pinsent and Alan Titchmarsh have been catapulted to the front of the campaign for doing little more than sending out a couple of tweets. The real story - cut down by my editors - is much more interesting. It's about the rejuvenation of real grassroots organisation in the Labour party, and it holds lessons for us all.

It started when Samuel Rushworth, campaigns co-ordinator for North Norfolk Labour, heard that the factory processing the iconic Cromer crabs was likely to close at a cost of some 230 jobs. The largest private sector employer in the town, this would have huge knock on effects. Youngs Seafood, which owns the factory, said there was no alternative. They had recently undergone a large merger and the proposals were backed by their venture capitalists, Lion capital. Interestingly, Rushworth said the news came the day Ed Miliband made his conference speech on market "predators", which he said seemed eerily appropriate.

Within three days Rushworth's local party had launched the "Keep it Cromer" campaign. They sent out press releases, designed leaflets and made banners. They produced a red crab logo, and put up flyers in local businesses. Their petition has already amassed some 6,000 signatures and support continues to grow. Their literature reminded residents that seven other businesses had also gone bust in the town and gave the closure a political and economic context. Rising inflation, unemployment and VAT meant that people just didn't have enough money to spend.

The first and most important advantage of such a campaign is obviously that it serves the interests of the workers and the town. Sitting in their canteen smelling faintly of disinfectant, the mood of workers I spoke to this weekend was otherwise low. Fathers at the plant were talking about how the choice between going on benefits locally or moving away from their families to find work. I can still hear the words of one guy as he stamped out his cigarette, "It's going to be a real happy new year".

But by actively campaigning in their community, North Norfolk Labour is also gaining political support. Rather than making empty statements on leaflets, they are winning votes by earning trust and walking their talk. They are also attracting new members and rejuvenating the party. Two years ago the local group had just six active members; now thirty are regularly attending meetings because something is actually happening. Dispelling the myth that areas without safe seats can't do anything, they have rattled the high profile Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb, who is having to follow their lead.

Of course there are challenges. The first is a real tension between wanting to speak for the whole community, and branding the campaign as party political. At the moment there is no Labour badge next to the Keep it Cromer logo - is that strategic? The group don't want to come across as running the campaign for simple electoral advantage, but they need to make sure that local people know it's Labour putting in the work.

The second problem is that the factory workers themselves are not taking a leading role. North Norfolk Labour leaders are local, hardworking and dedicated, but none of the factory workers I spoke to were attending their meetings. We need to reach out beyond the usual suspects, so workers don't feel that something is being done for them, but with them. The unions could also do more here.

But what's happening in Cromer shouldn't be underestimated. The local party has captured the attention of the town and the country. Whatever the challenges, that's a lot more than celebrities like Stephen Fry are doing for Cromer. The rest of Labour should take note.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99.

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.