Claire Spencer wants us to admit defeat

Tuesday 18th May

At Saturday’s Fabian Society ‘Next Left’ conference, General Secretary Sunder Katwala remarked that Labour’s defeat felt akin to bereavement for many of us. We all had a chuckle, but he was far from wrong – our candidates and activists have been in campaign mode for months, giving up most of their spare time in the name of a Labour government and a brighter future. Things had looked bad for a couple of years – but as the polls narrowed and the campaign machines roared into life, many of us hoped as we had never dared to hope before that this was salvageable, that we could win, that we could still deliver. And maybe we could have – but we didn’t – and losing that hope, that future really hit Labour people hard.

I haven’t changed my view that a Labour win would have been the best thing for the country – the timing and precision of public spending cuts, the environment and our position in Europe, to name but three areas of concern – even though it would not have been the best taihing for Labour. But it doesn’t really matter what I think – as so many of the speakers at Saturday’s conference reminded us, we lost, and we lost badly, and we can’t hold the electorate in contempt for that. We failed. It felt bad, it still does – but now I feel as though I have sped through the stages of bereavement, right through to hope. At this point, we have the opportunity to take one eye off governance, and to really turn ourselves into the movement for positive change that we believe we can be, and to turn that into something eminently electable by the time we reach the next general election – hopefully in time for the people who need us as much as we need them.

Earlier this week, I took this message to my local branch meeting – and, certainly, our ideas to become a movement that more people could embrace gave me real cheer. We actually held the seat in Birmingham Hall Green, but we lost the trust of the same core voters that Labour has lost everywhere. I don’t feel like we really won when those who were previously Labour voters preferred to stay at home, or voted for Respect. So I’m glad that my fellow members didn’t see this as an opportunity to rest on their laurels, because it really, really isn’t.

By the time Saturday and Next Left rolled around, I was really looking forward to this process kicking off in a national way. Knowing, as I did, that Ed Miliband was going to launch his leadership campaign, I had particularly high hopes. To me, Ed is someone who is respected and respectful enough to understand that a healthy exchange of different views that spring from the same values is a good thing, not a frustration or a barrier, and to really make something of that with passion and fire. He is also someone whom I trusted to look on the past with a balanced eye – to know why it was good when it was good, and why it was bad when it was bad.

Sure enough, he told us that: “as time wore on we came to seem more caretakers than idealists—more technocratic than transformative. And when political parties lose that sense of idealism and mission they become much more vulnerable to the currents of events. For us, increasingly, because we lost that sense of progressive mission, we found ourselves beached, unable to speak to too many of the concerns of the people of our country.”

The day was full of painful truths like this.  Learning from mistakes is painful when it’s done properly.  It has to be. People keep saying that Labour is finished, that we have been wiped out.  But that is nonsense. It is bravado. We have been damaged, largely by our own actions, and we must now listen, rethink and repair. This is a journey, and so we can’t see this leadership campaign as simply that – it’s also an opportunity to throw the discussion open to those who we want to represent. It starts here.  

Sam Bacon embraces the armchair activist

Tuesday 18th May

It’s often said that things happen in threes; and so it proved for me during this election.  At three separate events, and with three distinct people, I had the same discussion about the party and its supporters.  And despite being at events intended to inspire passion and support for the campaign ahead, I left each one with a heavy heart and sense of defeat.  It wasn’t because the speakers were poor or I feared massive electoral defeat, but because the conversation kept revolving around the ‘problem’ of ‘armchair supporters’.

The general point being made was that these big set piece rallies were weren’t ‘real’ campaigning, and tended to attract an undue number of ‘armchair supporters’.  What we needed, or so the logic went, was committed, passionate, proper Labour supporters, not people who would come out to see a Minister speak, but wouldn’t knock on doors in the driving rain.  What right did they have to attend these events? And why did the party flirt with them like this?

Many will have encountered similar attitudes at Labour meetings, events and discussions.  You may even have thought – even said –  something similar.  But the election defeat should teach all of us who have time for such arguments one thing: if we’re ever going to experience victory like ‘97 again, we’re going to have to be the party of and for the people once again.  And that means taking all comers with whatever they bring to the table.

It’s sometimes hard to look beyond our own experiences.  And when we are surrounded by hardworking, tireless activists, and yet are still facing near impossible challenges and mountains of work, the easy response is to be dismissive of anyone who claims support for the party but doesn’t seem to do the work to show it.  But if we are going to re-energise the party, and connect back with the people we want to represent, we have to stop demanding more than people want to give.   We need to approach our supporters with humility and thanks, and recognise that giving any time, and any support, is of value.

Now of course, we need roles filled and work done; but to do this, we need to create a warm welcoming environment that supports people in whatever they do. Small steps can lead to long journeys, and the supporter who only comes to the free lunches or evening rallies may be donating money to the party in secret, or working tirelessly in their home or workplace to spread the word about the party and its priorities.  There’s a whole host of reasons why they may or may not be campaigning for us, and yes, for some people it is just a little too boring to really inspire them. That’s a truth that we have to face.  But ultimately, they are hopefully doing the biggest task we could ever ask of anyone: giving us their vote.  And for that, we should be thankful.

As activists we need to stop assuming that the way we feel about politics is the right and normal way to feel.  We may love the party enough to get up and deliver leaflets on a cold early morning, but if we don’t embrace even those supporters who will happy take the rewards for little of the work, we’re going to be counting on an ever reducing number of people.

If we want to deliver change for our country and our communities we’ve got to accept all the help that people want to give us.  Big or small, lots or little.  And let’s be honest, after the results of May 7th, are we really in a position to refuse?

Rob Carr recommends a rest

Tuesday 18th May

Now is a time for recovery for election activists.  Whether from dog-bites, worn feet or just our general levels of sanity.  There are no more major elections for a year.  Party conference isn’t until September.  Now is the time for us to get together in committee rooms, pubs, and around kitchen tables. To enjoy each other’s company.  To be refreshed.  A time to share our tales from the campaign.  Whether it’s stories of ever-larger dogs we have faced down in our mission to deliver leaflets.  Ever smaller letter boxes snapping on our fingertips.  Ever soggier leaflets falling apart in our rain-soaked hands.  

 Or memories like the man who told me and a roomful of campaigners that he was going to break into his old house to retrieve his postal vote so he could cast it for Labour.  (We talked  him out of it, in case you’re wondering. He went to his polling station.)   There was the voter who answered his door naked while I was canvassing one evening.  An unpleasant experience, but a confirmed Labour vote all the same.  Or the moment when Labour Party nobility, Sir Jeremy Beecham, popped his head round the corner as I was canvassing and started miming at me.  Surreal then, but hilarious in the pub later. And – my personal favourite of the 2010 election – the Labour promise whom,  on election day,  I had to convince hadn’t cast her vote the previous week via Facebook.  I’ve no doubt we all have a good collection of similar stories and experiences to tell,  and now is the time to relax,  reflect,  and enjoy them.

But not for too long.  Just long enough to ready ourselves for the battles to be joined. Because once we’re done resting and reminiscing about the various characters, the incidents tragic and comic, and the madness of polling day, we have to start thinking about what comes next.  Gordon Brown has returned to the back benches for the first time in 20 years. With the loss of the election, we’ve come to a natural time to pause and review. Now is when we think about new direction, new policy, and new leaders.

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