I’ve just come back from my local branch meeting. We had one of the highest turn outs we’ve had in a long time, our (predominantly new and female) members engaged and willing to learn and debate about the values and aspirations of the Labour party. Across the country, thousands of people are signing up to the Labour movement because they are terrified by what the next five years of Tory government holds, and want to change Britain for the better.
As I looked around the room, I wondered how many members would stay, how many would find the party as it currently is engaging enough to regularly give up their evenings and weekends to fight in the name of social democracy.
All too often political parties take their members for granted, offering very little in return for the often huge investments requested of them. Almost all local parties will have the stalwarts, the tireless campaigners who relentlessly fight the good fight for often little or no reward, but we cannot rely on these hardworking heroes alone if we are to build a credible movement and to win in 2020.
Before this campaign, I actually had very little idea of what the deputy leader was supposed to do, other than act as a figurehead when the leader was unavailable. The more I read, the more convinced I am that the deputy leader needs to be there coordinating the party, revitalising the membership and turning us into a campaigning machine.
It seems obvious to me that deputy leader needs to have a defined role, clearly distinct from the leader. Whilst the leader is there to lead and guide the direction of the party, the deputy leader needs to be a champion for members at the highest level, spreading best practice, ensuring that members buy into the vision and values of the party and are willing and able to campaign for it.
In too many places across the country, whole CLPs are neglected by the central party, with unengaged, shrinking, and often unrepresentative memberships. In May I stood as Labour’s candidate in Chelsea and Fulham, which must have been about 649th on Labour’s list of 650 target seats. We had little to no input from the central party, but by working with recently elected Labour councillors on important local issues, we were able to engage not just the fantastic usual suspects, but new, young and previously dormant members. People who had never campaigned before kept coming back because they were made to feel as though they were part of a wider movement, and were working together for a common goal.
In Chelsea and Fulham, we saw how these marginal improvements and basic volunteer management can make a major difference. One morning, four of us were able to canvass an entire 400 door estate in a few hours, and still head off to our nearest marginal seat in the afternoon with a smile. On the night of May 7th, although the national result was deeply depressing, we saw the rewards of our work locally, gaining close to an extra 2,000 votes and bucking the national trend with a swing to Labour.
Across the country we saw how examples of how a solid ground campaign won out against the odds – Ilford North was won not just due to its excellent candidate, but it’s now almost legendary ground campaign. Elsewhere, in Exeter and in my own constituency of Hammersmith, the sitting MPs bucked the national trend and were returned with increased majorities due to their engaged, motivated members campaigning ruthlessly, not just in the short campaign, but in many cases the months and even years beforehand.
Whoever is elected deputy leader needs to be able to replicate this in all the other CLPs. Their priority must be building up local parties and equipping them with the skills to win over their communities. They must motivate members so that they want to get out onto the doorsteps and spread our message across all parts of the country.
It was great to see so many new members at my local branch meeting, and hear their enthusiasm and hopes for the future. But how many of them will still be turning up to meetings and knocking on doors in 5 years’ time? We are lucky to have so many people wanting to join our movement, but to win in 2020 our activists will need to be as focused on winning as our shadow cabinet, and the next Deputy Leader must provide this vital link.
Alexandra Sanderson was Labour’s candidate for Chelsea and Fulham in the 2015 election.