Voters in Dudley North are going back to the polls this week. Labour party volunteers are out delivering letters to residents. Supporters of different candidates are busy hitting the phones and knocking doors canvassing for votes.
It’s not a by-election. It’s a ground-breaking American-style primary to give Labour supporters in Dudley North their say in the Labour leadership election. I’ve promised to cast the vote I’m given as a Labour MP for the candidate local people choose.
It’s all part of our attempt to open up politics and maintain a constant conversation with the public.
Two months ago, local Tories turned up at Dudley Town Hall for the general election count convinced they’d won. And if the swing here had mirrored the national result they would have done. But we held on in the face of a hard-fought Ashcroft-funded assault thanks to a well organised campaign in which we spoke to thousands of voters on their doorsteps and delivered huge numbers of direct mails and leaflets.
But because elections are won in four or five years, not just four or five weeks, we were building on a five-year conversation with voters. We’d constantly asked for their views on local issues and launched campaigns as a result. We’d invited them to meet government ministers to discuss their concerns on major national policies such as crime, jobs and immigration. And then we kept them informed of the actions we were taken.
So when it came to polling day, people hadn’t just heard from us for few short weeks before the election, but had been working with me, their local councillors and candidates for years. They were actually involved in much of the work we had done.
As a result, over 200 local people who are not Labour party members helped in my campaign delivering letters in their streets, calling voters, knocking on doors and holding street stalls. This is what enabled us to run a bigger and better campaign than we could otherwise have done, and thus to beat the national swing, and hold the seat.
Over the last few weeks these same volunteers have been out again, alongside party members, delivering letters to 30,000 homes inviting Labour supporters to have their say on Labour’s next leader.
I’ve sent out ballot papers, envelopes to put them in, statements from the candidates and freepost envelopes to send them back. Anyone who has voted for me or another Labour candidate in the past or who completes a declaration to register as a Labour supporter can take part.
Our primary is the latest step in our attempt to turn the Labour party in this constituency into a broad community campaign.
The membership of political parties has declined since the 1950s and we face a pretty clear choice. We can carry on just speaking to ourselves, end up holding meetings in a phone box and find it impossible to mount effective election campaigns.
Or we can open up the Labour party and involve local people. We can link up with local campaigns and become community organisers and champions of the people and places we represent.
Contact us on 07901 524956 if you’re interested in running a primary and want examples of the material we’ve sent out.
Ian Austin is Labour MP for Dudley North