On Tuesday evening I took a tentative first step to shake off my feeling of weary resignation towards party politics by attending a meeting of my local Labour party to select a candidate to stand for Bournville in the Birmingham City Council elections this coming May. The meeting immediately reminded me about everything I both admire about democratic politics as well as those aspects my inner idealist somehow needs to come to terms with.
So what was so great about Tuesday’s meeting? This is what stood out for me:
- People coming together in the first place. I was impressed by the fact that 30 or so people had made the effort to meet up on a cold Tuesday evening in January, full stop. During January it’s hard enough just getting yourself to work and back so good on people just for getting past their front door.
- Commitment and bravery. Regular attendees talked about the effort they’ve been making to campaign for Labour, including making phone calls and door knocking. The most I’ve ever felt brave enough to do is the odd leaflet drop and writing for the Fabian Review. These people were getting out of their comfort zone to try to to make a difference
- A belief that a brighter future is possible. Back when I was a Politics student, and even after I graduated and joined the local government National Graduate Development Programme, I strongly believed that the inherent fairness and justice of many of Labour’s policies meant they would slowly and surely become accepted as part of the social fabric. In the years following the credit crunch and the coalition government’s policies of cuts, privatisation and individualism, I have lost much of my hopefulness. Listening to Mary Locke, the person selected to to stand for Bournville, I was reminded that it is possible to make the case for doing things differently and through hard work see those changes implemented.
So that was the positive. What was less good about Tuesday’s meeting?
- A focus on Labour party concerns rather than local issues. As I said at the start of my piece, I am a lapsed political idealist and care about many of the big picture issues raised at Tuesday’s meeting such as inequality, low wages and social exclusion. At the meeting, however, I made the point that as a part we need to be talking about local people’s everyday concerns, such as potholes and the introduction of wheelie bins. We need to appeal to a range of people, including residents who would identify as ‘aspirational’ and banging on about social ills which the majority of the population do not directly experience will not help us to connect with voters.
- Stuffiness and focus on process. Although I received a warm welcome from the regular attendees, the meeting itself was a little stuffy for my liking. The reason for this, I believe, was the language used. For me, using terms such as first proposer and seconder and other formal governance language felt a world away from everyday life. And this is me, someone who has worked in local government for more years than was probably good for me. In order to have broader appeal, I would like to see the Labour party make better use of plain English at its meetings.
- Lack of digital democracy. Closely related to the traditional committee meeting style of the meeting was the lack of consideration for how technology could strengthen the selection process. While it was great to see so many people making the effort to turn up to the meeting on a Tuesday evening, what thought had been given to people with commitments who were unable to attend the meeting in person? As someone whose day job revolves around digital communication, I would have liked to have seen seen opportunities for members to interact with candidates online. I understand it might not be feasible for financial reasons to allow members to vote digitally but I would have appreciated the use of free to low cost services such as Google Hangouts so that members could at least watch the selection process online.
Keeping the faith
Despite the reservations I have set out above, I remain committed to making peace with my inner idealist and will be doing my best to make a difference in my local area in the run up to May.
With this in mind, I am just about to head out for my first door knocking campaign. Wish me (and my inner idealist) luck.