I recently emailed you as secretary of our CLP to say that I would no longer be attending either branch meetings or those of the CLP. This open letter is to explain why more fully than I have been able to do in our brief email exchanges, and to raise issues that I suspect are of common concern.
You will recall that I was among many who rejoined the Labour Party in the wake of Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader. I am still not cognisant of how many others rejoined or joined in our constituency since data seem hard to come by, but I gather our local membership had a surge (we now have 150+ members in the branch, 400+ in the constituency?).
My first meeting, in a semi-derelict local Labour HQ, left me with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was a pleasure to meet and talk to like-minded people, a refreshing rarity in a rock-solid Tory constituency; but on the other it was a dull meeting. In fact the dullness trumped any enthusiasm by a country mile. I felt sufficiently strongly to email you about this, stressing that any newcomers would likely only attend a single meeting. You replied positively and we met for coffee, tea in your case, in October of last year. You filled in some background and context and appeared sympathetic to new ideas. This missive argues that too little has changed, for me at least, over the succeeding months.
Together with my partner I did my best to fit in with a core group of CLP officers and regulars. We resurrected the convention of providing tea and coffee and took on this minor task ourselves. Disconcerted that the CLP website was defunct and that there was no presence on either Facebook or Twitter, I pushed for action on these. I suggested reserving a slot in meetings for discussions and prepared handouts and chaired these – on housing and social care – myself. They seemed to go well. Although unknown faces were seen now and again, however, the overall attendance remained obstinately closer to ten than twenty.
Three factors have precipitated my decision not to engage further and to forego future branch and CLP meetings. The first refers to concerns from the very beginning that have not been alleviated, and I return to these below.
The second was my ‘non-election’ to the CLP management committee. Having attended every meeting to that point, I was obliged to miss the meeting in July of this year in which ‘elections’ were held; I was lecturing in Leeds. I had made my wish to be considered clear and rendered my apologies in advance, but in the event you opted to accept volunteers on the night, some of whom had barely attended to that point. I think this was deliberately done. It is clear to me that the CLP management committee will be the key local decision-making body in the future.
The third factor arises out of our latest correspondence. I made three proposals: (a) that you send me the chair’s email address since it seemed not to be publicly accessible; (b) that you carry out a leadership nomination ballot of our CLP members by email; and (c) that you email our members to ask if any would be willing to share their email addresses with other members to facilitate wider discussion.
It took a while to encourage you to respond. In the end you rejected (a), which is beyond my comprehension: how can a branch/CLP have a non-contactable chair? You tried a number of different responses to (b), variously asserting that a leadership nomination ballot would count as a CLP meeting and these had been banned by the NEC (which is false); that we did not currently have a CLP since we were in the process of ‘electing’ a management committee (which is disingenuous given that I had suggested we ballot all members); that you lacked the resources (which is odd – two group emails?); and that we were now too late (which, given your delaying tactics, is unsurprising). In the event 338 CLPs nationally managed to nominate (84% for Corbyn, which might be relevant). You rejected (c).
I could go on but I am sure you catch my drift. Here are a few changes I would recommend if I were an auditor:
- The branch/CLP chair should be invited to resign and a new election held. I like and respect him but he cannot chair meetings and simply defers to you as secretary.
- You as secretary should announce that you will resign in 12 months, allowing for the election of a ‘shadow secretary’ to learn what the role requires.
You will think these opening recommendations harsh, not least since the chair has reluctantly filled a gap and you have worked so hard for the Party and the local CLP over such a long period. But the bottom line is that you currently run the branch/CLP as if it were a personal fiefdom. You frame agendas, chair and manage all meetings and set parameters for local initiatives. Furthermore you discourage open discussion, either for fear of intemperate debate or division or as a form of control. It is exceptionally odd that after nearly a year, and one of civil war in the Party, I don’t know how anybody locally feels about anything! I have no idea how a ballot of members of the leadership would have turned out (although I would of course have respected the result). It has seemed it is rude to debate issues of any significance.
- The replacement chair and secretary must have IT skills for the 21st century. It’s not just that the website has to be reinvigorated and a Facebook presence established (I have set up and manage a CLP Twitter account but suspect you have not informed the membership of this), but efficient and effective techniques should be deployed for communicating and mobilising members. For all your experience, knowledge and commitment, you lack these skills.
- Meetings of branches and the CLP need to be fundamentally re-thought. It is not exaggerating to say that we are talking here of life after death (current meetings really are THAT bad). What is needed is an effective chair, the recruitment of younger officers, and social events and agendas that attract, retain and enthuse new members.
- Modes of intervention have shifted. It is no longer solely a matter of distributing Labour HQ handouts and holding stalls. I acknowledge your endeavours in these respects. In my view there is too much emphasis on standing for local and even national elections. Labour will become a movement or it will die. In a Tory area like ours we should look to alliances across political parties and interest and campaign groups on local issues. We should push the Labour ‘brand’ via an effective presence and impact on what matters to our constituents.
I know you will feel this is very negative and unfair. Nor has it been easy for me to write. But we cannot continue with a ‘canny’ one-man CLP show that lacks transparency and any meaningful consultation with and accountability to members.
The trajectory I foresee for our CLP is one of stasis. I have wondered if this is what you want, a cosy network with you at the centre and running things in the way you always have. If so, I am rocking the boat, but I do so in the hope of a radical rethink about the future.