Jeremy Corbyn is confirmed as the leader of the Labour Party, with an increased mandate, after a contest that seemed to be mainly about MPs vs grassroots members and Westminster vs everywhere else. Now Labour has to overcome two big challenges: bringing together its own membership and transforming its grassroots supporters into voters. Both are necessary if there is to be any chance of ousting the Tory government at the next election, whenever that may be.
But the hard work doesn’t stop there. In confronting these challenges, there is the danger that Labour could become (more) self-preoccupied and inward-looking, especially as it also has to grapple with the issue of shadow cabinet elections, possible deselections and how to deal with the change to constituency boundaries. And though it’s early days, the internal conflict doesn’t show signs of abating.
Appearing on last week’s BBC Question Time, Caroline Lucas, co-leader of the Green Party, threw down the gauntlet to Labour to prioritise fair electoral reform, which more specifically means proportional representation. Despite being carefully ignored by the other panellists, this is a suggestion Labour would do well to heed. Not only for its own sake, but, more importantly, for the sake of fair votes and democratic representation for everybody. What’s more, in addition to sorting out its own affairs, Labour has to seriously consider its relationship to other opposition political parties (Greens, LibDems, Plaid Cymru, et al.) and work towards a progressive, anti-austerity alliance . The exact nature of such an alliance — be it cross-party primaries or non-aggression pacts — need to be local and collaborative, not a top-down diktat. Above all, though, it means reaching out and listening. Not only to what grassroots members and like-minded groups and individuals have to say (although that’s also essential), but also to people who are frankly fed up with party politics and feel thoroughly disengaged from parliamentary democracy. But how to go about it?
meanwhile, in dresden…
A couple of days ago, a social media post by the co-leader of Germany’s Left Party, Katja Kipping, really caught my attention. Local party members in Dresden were about to spend the day out and about in a neighbourhood of the city, knocking on doors and simply asking people what’s on their mind. And then listening. This makes a lot of sense to me.
A bit of background: both the Left Party and the conservative CDU are strongly represented on the local council. However, the right-wing AfD received around 10% in the last council elections and therefore represents a clear threat. Recently we’ve seen the party not only eat into the conservative vote in regional elections, but also win support of the Left Party’s core constituency, working class voters (in Berlin the AfD is now the largest party among this group) as well as non-voters. The AfD and its supporters often claim that none of the ‘mainstream’ politicians are listening. So there is a real chance that the right will perform very strongly in this district.
Given the Left Party’s struggle to make its voice heard above the rightwing rhetoric dominating the media, the Dresden campaign seems to be a smart way to engage directly with people and their everyday worries and frustrations. Sure, the efforts won’t be universally welcome. Judging from comments on social media, volunteers have had to reckon with doors slammed in faces and verbal abuse. But other comments expressed surprise, curiosity and respect for the Left Party activists, including Kipping, for taking the time (and having the nerve) to reach out to people and just listen to them. I’m genuinely interested to see the outcome of this event — what the party learns, and how it responds. Ideally, it’ll generate ideas on how to improve day-to-day life in the neighbourhood — the things that risk being overlooked as politicians and activists focus on the political and strategic ‘bigger picture’. And of course it’ll also hopefully counter the AfD’s ‘they don’t listen to you’ narrative.
All in all, I think the Left Party is onto something interesting. Too often, the only time local political activists seem to take an interest (very loosely speaking) is a couple of weeks before an election. A leaflet through the letterbox, maybe a knock at the door and a rosetted activist telling you what they think and asking for your vote. But what about the rest of the time? And who is listening to who?
and in the uk?
So where’s the connection between what the Left Party is up to in a district of Dresden and party politics in the UK? Well, our parties not only need to speak to each other (although that would be a start) and like-minded sympathetic supporters, but also to venture out, knock on doors and listen to what people have to say. Just like the activists in Dresden. It won’t be comfortable, but it could start to repair relationships in local communities and help counter the rightwing rhetoric of distrust and scapegoating. It might result in a few bright ideas that improve everyday life in some small way. It might make people feel like politicians actually give a damn.
 See ‘A progressive alliance for positive, democratic change‘ for more on this topic.
Images: frogs: alexas_fotos; ravens: jeanettesozpix, both at pixabay