Finger-jabbing at HQ over the party's handling of the Rennard allegations isn't right. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Blaming Lib Dem HQ over the Rennard allegations is wrong; party members must step up

In a party that prides itself on the power its members have over procedure, perhaps it's they who should be blamed for the handling of the Rennard case.

The men in grey sandals (as I saw my Westminster betters in the Lib Dem party memorably described this morning) are getting it in the neck again.

What’s sparked the party’s ire is the news that Susan Gaszczak has resigned, together with her entire family (including her father Brian, a councillor for 24 years up until May and one of my own local representatives), over the party's handling of the Rennard allegations.

Dedicated, passionate, liberal to the core, Susan is exactly the sort of grassroots activist who has built the party up into a party of government. Without the thousands of members knocking on doors, shoving leaflets through doors and manning stalls on wet high streets in November championing the Lib Dem cause, we are nothing. There is a strong sense of irony that the person most folk in the party credit with building that local community machine has been the catalyst for Susan’s resignation. There are no winners here.

And there seems little doubt that whatever the rights and wrongs of the issues that have led us to this unhappy place, the due process and disciplinary machinery of the Lib Dems has once again been shown to be lacking. Any complaints process in which progress can be measured in years rather than days, weeks or months would seem questionable in the extreme.

But I don’t think on this occasion, finger-jabbing at HQ is the right answer here. I’m not sure it’s the Westminster elite is where we should be apportioning blame.

I think it might be my fault.

You see, we’re meant to be the party of the members. The party where the local activists decide what goes. The party where it's meant to be impossible for the Westminster folk to "win" policy debates or decide what goes in the manifesto, because the members will decide that at conference, thank you very much. Or where, if enough folk feel we lack credible leadership, a mechanism exists to trigger a leadership election, without volunteers having to run a seat-of-the-pants totalizer to see what the mood of the party is.

And if those things don’t happen, or if we put up with MPs and peers defying party policy when they vote in parliament and we don’t do anything about it, or if we see that seven years after a complaint is first made against a senior member of the party, the procedure for dealing with that complaint is still running… well then the people who make policy, who shape procedure and who have the power to do something about it who should take the blame.

And that’s me. And the other 40,000 plus members of the party.

I suspect it may be time for the men (and women) in grey Doc Martens to step up to the plate. Because if we don’t sort this stuff out, no one else is going to do it for us.

Richard Morris blogs at A View From Ham Common, which was named Best New Blog at the 2011 Lib Dem Conference

Getty
Show Hide image

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.