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15 August 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 10:58am

Doorknocking and divisions: a year in the life of a constituency Labour party secretary

In the last 12 months, our MP has had a death threat, and relations between different factions have become febrile.

By James Coldwell

I’d always assumed that no one became a constituency Labour party secretary without at least a small amount of coercion being applied. Last July, these suspicions were confirmed. At the start of Bermondsey and Old Southwark CLP’s monthly meeting, the outgoing officer gently twisted my arm after I asked her about an unrelated matter; an hour later I was elected to the role. I was happy enough to take this on, though if I’d had more of an inkling as to how the next 12 months would pan out, I might have put up a firmer resistance.

At that same meeting, our constituency cast its supporting nomination for Labour leader. We plumped for Liz Kendall, who (in that room) won by a narrow margin over Jeremy Corbyn. Though the vote hinted at a divided local party, the debate was cordial and comradely: many of us were still basking in the glow of our brilliant local victory in May, when Neil Coyle won the constituency back for Labour for the first time since the notorious Bermondsey by-election of 1983.

My tenure as secretary began promisingly. Our monthly meetings took a thematic focus, with topics chosen by members: adult care, housing, child poverty. I invited guests to speak – MPs, Southwark Council cabinet members, non-partisan experts – but members shaped the discussion. “More politics, less procedure” was the mantra I sought to follow. Our women’s officer pressed ahead with a mentoring scheme designed to encourage more women to seek election as councillors. Our new youth officer, inspired to join Labour during the leadership contest, organised a networking event in Parliament which attracted 60 young people. Though Jon Lansman, director of Momentum, transferred his membership to our constituency, I was hopeful that his organisation wouldn’t undermine the good work we were attempting.

As autumn turned to winter, divisions appeared. In the run-up to the vote for British airstrikes against Isis in Syria, and when rumours swirled a few weeks later that a vote on Trident was imminent, I was bombarded with emails expressing outrage at a perceived lack of consultation on these matters. The increase in traffic to my inbox was accompanied by the emergence of a darker tone to the debate on social media. Open talk of deselection appeared on Southwark Momentum’s Facebook page. Our MP received a death threat via Twitter.

Despite these flashpoints, there remained a desire among most activists to draw strength from our shared values and to harness this in our campaigning activity. Corbynsceptics, myself included, became more accommodating. I had already been impressed at Labour conference in Brighton by John McDonnell’s announcement of an economic advisory council, including Thomas Piketty and Danny Blanchflower, to help shape a more convincing policy response to Conservative austerity. Now, conversations with Corbyn supporters – a retired teacher following a branch meeting, a university lecturer while delivering leaflets, a local mother completing the school run as I left for work – went some way to persuading me that he deserved a fairer hearing than he had been granted hitherto.

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Substantive discussion of Labour’s trajectory under Corbyn was paused in the spring as the London mayoral election campaign began in earnest. It started slowly, the first doorstep sessions attracting only long-standing party stalwarts. But as the debate descended into innuendo and smear, more activists mobilised. Members took to the pavements to get Sadiq Khan’s message across: our “contact rate” – the number of voters we speak to – and “promise rate” – the number of voters who tell us they intend to vote Labour – improved concomitantly. With the prospect of Khan winning back power for Labour in London increasing, I was able to smile when one returning member described his lifelong relationship with Labour thus: “Whenever they’re in opposition I sign up, then as soon as they’re elected to government I resign in disgust.” Shortly after the mayoral result was declared, Southwark’s borough organiser sent an email confirming that our activists had been the busiest in the capital.

Success in London and other big cities was not replicated across the country. Some local members were convinced that Labour’s overall performance – becoming the first opposition party to secure a net loss of council seats – showed that the Corbyn experiment had failed. Others were equally zealous in their consideration that any talk of a leadership contest amounted to a betrayal of the membership. The divisions which had, on the whole, remained beneath the surface, briefly erupted. Our Facebook discussion group became a forum for tit-for-tat provocations. My inbox suddenly flooded with emails containing the word “URGENT” in the subject line. A packed meeting soon after the local elections allowed members from both “sides” (for voices preaching unity at all costs were now in the minority) to let off steam.

At that same meeting we heard from London MEP Seb Dance, who gave a rousing pep talk on how we could mobilise Labour support for a Remain vote in the EU referendum. Most people warmed to this theme, and suggested ideas for a more tailored message than that offered by the national party literature. An exception to this was Momentum’s Jon Lansman, whose denouncement of TTIP (the proposed EU-US trade deal) during the meeting hinted at a willingness to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Relations became even more febrile following the shock of Brexit. “Peak outrage” was reached with the NEC’s suspension of all regular meetings. “This is ridiculous”, one member took the trouble to tell me via email. “Give me a clear and detailed explanation for this decision by the NEC”, demanded another, apparently without irony. A Corbyn supporter began copy-pasting my CLP notices, contact details included, to public websites. On social media, an Owen Smith supporter mansplained to a new recruit in our closed Facebook group: “You don’t seem to understand the difference between winning an election and winning a vote with party activists.”

It came as something of a surprise, therefore, that our CLP leadership nomination meeting for this year’s leadership contest passed off without incident. The vote was close, Owen Smith triumphing by 104 votes to Jeremy Corbyn’s 94, and the debate good-natured. But the fact that relief was the emotion I felt most strongly after the meeting says a lot about current relations among party members. This time last year, there was optimism, ambition and a determination to make a strong recovery from the devastating election defeat. Now, there is anger that our energies are being directed inwards, frustration at how little scrutiny has been applied to a new Conservative prime minister and continued suspicion of Momentum. What will the lie of the land be this time next year? Given how different the local party feels today compared to the summer of 2015, I wouldn’t rule anything out. 

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