Power in numbers

“WE have people in there, calling for a People’s Vote on Europe so that everybody gets a say, but in their own local party they want delegates to decide everything,” complained a Labour Party member on the steps of St Pancras Church as it became apparent that changes to the way they run things in Holborn and St Pancras were not going to pass.

In contrast, another came out proclaiming that the party had been saved from “mob rule”.

This was the special meeting last week at which Corbyn-supporting members pushed for a new one member one vote system so, they said, that Labour’s vast number of supporters would feel more engaged with the party’s local activity.

Nearly 500 turned up (a big number, and still less than a fifth of the local membership) and more than 300 voted to keep the status quo, defeating the motion. Trade unions and some left-wingers too had argued that their traditional links with the party would be weakened, while others simply said it would be too costly for the party to organise a vote for everybody on everything.

Whether the changes would’ve been a good thing for the party or not isn’t for me to umpire from behind the locked doors of the church thankfully – there are bits of persuasive arguments about the sense in both systems – but peering into the foyer what remains interesting is the numbers who will turn up for a meeting like this.

We are, after all, talking about an issue which is relevant to our local politics, especially given Labour’s dominance in Camden and up for discussion on niche blogs, but if we are honest an eye-glazing subject to most of the general population. I daren’t tell my friends how I spend my Tuesday evenings.

The amount of internal energy expended on this techy, structural point suggests that there could be an  almost infinite resource for Labour to tap, if they play their cards in the right order. How many CLPs have members releasing their own web-ready video shorts on a subject like this; objectors here did and even though Momentum’s viral video unit will not be losing any sleep, the fact it was made at all shows how gripped some people have been by… The Battle Of All-Member Meetings.

Some members said they had been contacted more than five times with pressure calls to attend the meeting. The most excitable, although by no means all, spread a message that the party would fold, that that nice Keir Starmer would be deselected and so on if the changes had been agreed.

In local politics terms, it’s a spectacular level of organisation and even from the cold side of the church door you can understand how landslide election wins can be achieved in Camden when both parts of this debate channel their energies for Labour against a common adversary.

Momentum campaigners
+ the sort of organisation that can get 301 people to turn up on a soaking wet evening to vote against structural changes like this
= A massive problem for the other parties. 

The equation for Labour is how to stitch it all together in the election off-season.

All-member meetings may have been ’emphatically’ rejected but the idea of further engagement of the thousands who subscribe to the party is hardly controversial. There are connections to make and, if they could just keep things polite, knowledge and expertise to share.

This meeting after all had a time warp feel: former council leader Dame Jane Roberts saying hi to John Mills, who once served as her finance chief at the Town Hall, and then Jake Sumner striding in, just a little behind Barbara Hughes, it could have been a Camden cabinet council meeting from the early to mid 2000s. There were former councillors from further back still. What’s striking is that some of the new agitators have no idea who they are, or what they’ve done.  Labour has that puzzle to solve, of how to find a consensus that uses both experience from people who ran the council and Momentum’s animation; perhaps a more relevant conundrum, however, and you know what’s coming next, is working out whether it really wants to?

That’s why it’s easier said than done for new chair Sagal Abdi Wali, because some heads inside the room last Tuesday evening often speak, privately at least, like there is a civil war to win or lose, with triumphs and defeats along the way. This was one-up against the parts of Momentum keen on the change; 2-0 when the left’s slate for organising positions was defeated.

But what next?


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