An interesting report on developments in a CLP.
Last November, at our CLP ‘s AGM, Corbyn supporters won all the officer posts. It was undoubtedly a victory for the organised Left within the CLP, for internal party democracy and for those new and returning members of the Labour Party who wanted to chart a different direction for the Party from the New Labour past.
So what was the secret of our success – and what lessons does it hold for other CLPs? First of all, it must be said, we were pushing at an open door. We were not facing the entrenched opposition that exists in many other CLPs. Ours is a largely rural constituency, that has returned Tory MPs since 1951. Never having been won by Labour (although only 223 votes away from it in 1997), our constituency is clearly not the route to parliament for would-be Labour Party careerists. It doesn’t have the vested interests that coalesce around a sitting MP. The CLP seemed dispirited after a drastic decline in Labour’s vote share in the constituency from the high point in ’97 – halving from 38% to 19% by 2010. Like many other CLPs across the country, membership was in the doldrums and branches had become moribund. But also like many other CLPs – ours experienced a huge influx of new members after the totally unexpected election of Jeremy Corbyn as Leader.
The influx of new members created the conditions for the establishment of a power base for the Left in one of the defunct Branches. A group of Labour Party returners – including experienced Trade Unionists and community activists (some of whom met at a Corbyn Leadership campaign phonebank) – started organising to re-establish the branch which once covered the villages where they lived. Initially obstacles were put in our way by the neighbouring branch, dominated by long-serving Labour councillors, and by the Labour Party bureaucracy. The determination of the strong core of experienced new members won through and after 3 or 4 months of lobbying the Regional Office we held our inaugural Branch meeting – just over a year ago now. Most of the newly-elected Branch officers and delegates to the CLP were Corbyn supporters, as were the overwhelming majority of members who turned up for the Branch meetings, which have lively political discussions and outside speakers.
Coincidentally, a local Momentum Group was being established in the market town at the heart of the constituency. The new Momentum group quickly drew the core organisers of the re-established Branch together with other new Labour Party members who were getting active in the town’s much bigger Branch Party. We started attending CLP meetings – and saw the CLP wasn’t functioning effectively. We realised that if we new members organised ourselves, we could have a majority of delegates to the CLP from its two most active branches. In the meantime we continued to establish a profile for our Momentum group. We organised well-attended public meetings on political issues and ran practical campaigns, such as raising awareness of food poverty in this generally well-heeled market town. The Momentum group was a focus for the energy of new Labour Party members, who felt they were not being welcomed in by the CLP. The Momentum steering group became, in effect, a Left caucus group within the local Labour Party.
We succeeded in electing one of our steering group – a highly experienced trade union organiser and educator – into the vacant CLP chair. Of course just winning the chair was a long way from winning the CLP for the left. We argued that the CLP should take up its full entitlement of delegates to National Conference in 2016 and got two Corbyn supporters elected as part of the CLP’s delegation. We identified our candidates to stand for other CLP posts at the forthcoming AGM, and organised our support, mostly among among the new Party members. And then came the attempted PLP coup, and the guillotine came down on Party meetings for the duration of the second leadership election, just a couple of days before the CLP AGM was due.
During the imposed hiatus of summer 2016 we organised a Leadership nomination meeting, as allowed under the rules. It was a highly-charged meeting with impassioned speakers for both Corbyn and Smith, but the meeting voted to nominate Corbyn by a substantial margin. After Corbyn’s second victory we were finally able to organise our delayed AGM and our full slate of Corbyn-supporting candidates for Executive Officers and the functional officer posts was elected unopposed. On the Executive, we achieved an 8 to 5 majority of Corbyn supporters. We had already voted at an earlier General Committee (open to all CLP members, but with voting by Branch Delegates) to make the GC meeting the primary decision-making body of the CLP, with the Executive only meeting in emergencies. We have monthly GC meetings, with Political Education sessions at alternate meetings. So far the Exec has not met – so all decisions in the CLP are open and transparent, with all branch delegates able to participate.
Since the AGM, we have worked hard to foster unity within the CLP and new, Corbyn-supporting members have been working very well together with long established members to campaign for the upcoming all-out County Council elections. Some of the hostility and suspicion we met at first is beginning to diminish and there are signs now of respectful acknowledgement of our achievements in invigorating previously moribund structures. However, when it comes to political decisions – especially at National Conference – we aim to advance the cause of grass-roots democracy within the party.
As I said at the beginning, our task has so far been easy compared to the uphill battle the Left faces in many other CLPs – but what lessons are there from our experience for others? Our success has been down to organising at Branch level, mobilising new members and identifying those with organising skills and experience. We have identified where our support is and co-ordinated that support across branches, so we have been well prepared for CLP meetings. Our local Momentum group (whose area coincides with that at the CLP) played a crucial role in all this in the early stages – with effectively no support from the Momentum national organisation. To a large extent, Lansman’s coup and the imposition of a new Momentum constitution – which we oppose – seem largely irrelevant to us. Our priority is to maintain communication with other local Momentum groups through our regional network. For us, our local group has largely done its job and now we are organising through the CLP rather than through the Momentum group.
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