DISCLAIMER: The following article is the opinion of its author and does not represent the views of the People’s Assembly or of any political party
Last weekend I attended a Labour Future Candidates Meeting at their Newcastle headquarters. I wanted to observe how the local party conducts itself in the north east and how it attracts new prospective candidates.
Around 20 people turned up to the meeting, hailing from around the city and some from the wider area, including myself. The meeting was chaired by the leader of the city council, his deputy and a few current councilors.
I want to concentrate on a few of the topics brought up during the event:
1. From the start a lot was made of the fact Labour in Newcastle had, in 2011, retaken the council from the Lib Dems. To me they seemed to be trying to sell how active the party had been since they lost their majority through being ‘too far removed from the people’ as the council leader said.
It easy to notice how Labour in the city have changed over the past decade by the place we were sitting in. Using their headquarters in Manors the local party can coordinate resources to help win and hold marginal wards and this seems to have worked. This is in stark contrast to South Tyneside, which brings me onto my second point.
2. In a few of their short speeches on the day, they had referred to complacency in Newcastle in the recent past, and now they saw the same from areas outside of the city including Northumberland, North Tyneside, Durham and in my area South Tyneside.
Being one of the safest Labour areas in the country, unlike Newcastle where their is strong opposition in every ward in the shape of the Lib Dems; up until 2 weeks ago the official opposition in South Tyneside was just a few independents and a solitary Tory. http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/the-northerner/2013/jun/07/south-tyneside-councilllors-defect-ukip Labours tight grip on the council here makes it pretty easy for complacency to set in.
I have been living in Hebburn South ward since just before the 1997 general election and I have never witnessed any representative of any party enter my street never mind knock on my door; I raised this at the meeting and one of the councilors said ‘you probably weren’t in when they called’, I replied ‘I’m unemployed, I’m always in’. There doesn’t seem to be much activity in my area as I have found it hard to find any regular meetings along the lines of what I have seen in other areas of the North East.
3. Another question I asked was if I was to put my name forward to be selected as a councilor, would I be able to represent the ward in which I live? The answer surprised me a bit; it turns out that I could be selected by any ward in South Tyneside (if I lived in the borough) even if I only wanted to represent Hebburn.
This seems OK in a city like Newcastle where it is basically one big place; but an area like South Tyneside contains separate towns where I in theory could be selected in wards like Cleadon, Marsden or even Whitburn on the other side of the borough; I would imagine that this situation would be even worse in larger council areas. I would prefer to represent where I live and I’m sure the people of in other areas of South Tyneside would prefer someone who lived in their ward, a point the panel and even most of the audience didn’t seem to appreciate.
I asked another couple of questions but they just seemed to ignore me or fob me off after that. I spoke with a few of the audience afterwards but their eyes seemed to glaze over when I mentioned what I wanted to accomplish with the Peoples Assembly and Labour. There were some like minded people as well as a councilor I had met at the last Peoples Assembly North East meeting.
One of these new contacts hit the nail on the head when it came to the state of mind of most of the people in attendance; ‘they know how to get elected but they don’t know what they stand for or what they will do when in power’. The councilor had told me previously that he was very much in the minority in the local party when it came to campaigning against cuts and supporting the Peoples Assembly; he then told me that a Newcastle MP, who had appeared in the middle of the event, did not recognize the threat of bedroom tax upon many council tenants in our region.
What I have found so far is a party which is hopelessly divided on important issues, is still out of step and complacent with the opinions of the electorate and in some areas actively avoiding contact with the public. The CLP’s method of selecting councilors potentially could lead to localized versions of parachute candidates who have no knowledge of the wards they represent; on top of this their seems to be great differences in the way that separate Labour contolled councils work.
Despite all this, I still believe that our best chance of really changing things in this country stands with the Labour Party. Leaving the party over certain issues (as I have seen many members do because of recent announcements from the leadership) is counterproductive and will only further damage an already divided left which the Tories capitalize on. What I have seen when attending Peoples Assembly meetings so far is that there are many capable, knowledgeable and above all passionate people who campaign on single issues such as bedroom tax, saving libraries, swimming pools and many other public services which are currently under threat.
Instead of pledging support to minority left parties who are merely a protest vote and will never compete on a national level, we need these people to lend their talents to bring a change of thinking within the Labour party from the grassroots up; to keep their views and bring Labour back to its founding principles of representing people that have no representation.
We also need a new generation with fresh ideas to emerge, and this is what I and the people I have met so far are slowly trying to start. The announcement of the proposed Labour Assembly Against Austerity in October may be one of the first indications that Labour is now recognizing the need for change: http://www.nextgenerationlabour.org/2013/06/support-for-a-labour-assembly-against-austerity/
I will continue my observations of the local Labour party hopefully next week when I start to become active in my ward, Hebburn South.