George Bernard Shaw famously described the mission of the Fabian Society as to “educate, agitate, organise”. But how does the Labour party do when it comes to fulfilling this motto? We spend most of our time on the last (with wildly varying degrees of success) and some time on the second, but education, the first of Shaw’s credo is perhaps the most neglected.
I will at this point declare a personal interest. I am, for my sins, the political education officer of Thurrock CLP. I, and I suspect almost all occupants of this role, came into it as the only person not quick enough to run from what appears to be an idiosyncratic throwback, with extra Orwellian undertones thrown in for good measure.
But political education is important. Perhaps one of the most important things that we do.
Recent Labour party membership data gave “To learn more about politics” as one of the top five reasons people gave for joining the Labour party. Yet none of the practices the party have seem designed to meet this need. From the perspective of the party, both locally and nationally, new members spring forth into the membership list as fully-formed political animals, with a Guardian subscription and Newsnight series linked on Sky Plus. They are also, rather helpfully, leafleting automatons, ready to distribute 2,000 dog-eared tabloids to their neighbours.
People join the Labour party for a variety of reasons. Many are, in my experience, political anoraks but the vast majority are not. They may feel a tribal sense of loyalty to the party through family, history or circumstances or have been recruited by friends. Many may aspire to be elected representatives for their communities and feel that the Labour party is their natural home to pursue this goal.
Proper party support for political education is vital to make members feel part of the political process. Local, regional and national governmental structures not to mention the byzantine policy-making processes of the Labour party are incredibly complex. We do ourselves immense harm if we assume that people who have taken a proactive step in joining the party will just pick all this up as they go along.
There are other benefits as well. Many, including Hazel Blears on this blog have spoken convincingly of the need to encourage more working class candidates. If we ever truly hope to break the grip of the pasty-faced former special adviser on our party selections a membership who, top to bottom, are conversant with the political debates of the day and the political processes where they can effect the changes they want to see is essential.
And it benefits us on a campaigning basis as well. Take Ed Miliband’s recent ‘predistribution’ speech to Policy Network. Widely regarded as veering too close to wonkery, it did put the vital ideas contained within predistribution on to the political agenda. But if the idea was important enough to make a televised speech about, why not take whatever measures possible to ensure the membership are engaged with it.
I’m certain that following the predistribution speech, Labour HQ was lining up surrogates to queue up on College Green and extol Ed’s brave new world but perhaps we could also have lined up well-informed, engaging speakers to go into CLPs across the country and explain why predistribution was so important to the tens of thousands of people who are fully committed to the aims of the party.
There are just shy of 200,000 people in the Labour party and each of them has the ability to be more than Leafletron 5000. If we can communicate and educate about the big, motivating political ideas of the day we can make our members interpreters and advocates in every community for what the Labour party is trying to do.
This isn’t about harking back to the past. I think the era of charismatic, socialist didacts haranguing painters and decorators in Hastings about the evils of capitalism is probably over. But that doesn’t mean the Labour party should abandon its historic mission of education. A politically educated and motivated membership is not only a huge campaigning asset, it is vital if we’re to live up to our ambition to be the people’s party.