Labour needs to serve people whether or not it’s in power

For me and I believe, many on the left, the defining concern is that we need to show that we want to serve people whether or not we are in power.

Our guest writer is Andy Flanagan, director of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM), whose membership includes more than 70 MPs and peers and 1,700 other members across the UK; Andy’s driving passion is to see a just re-wiring of the global economic system

On Thursday, the CSM held a roundtable consultation with MPs and other pioneers in community organising and new forms of political engagement on its ‘Labour Neighbours’ project in the House of Commons. The project seeks to encourage local Labour parties to pioneer local social action projects and organising, connecting an emerging generation of ‘justice seekers’ with local politics.

Through Labour Neighbours, CSM is seeking to remind us all of some of the key aspects of our Labour Party roots – things such as the charabancs, homework clubs and community organising of workers or even the pioneering local, ethical socialism of Alfred and Ada Salter in Bermondsey in the early 20th century.

Today, local members who become councillors feel very useful in their roles, but the tougher question is, “What does an ordinary member do?” Are they merely there to make up the numbers and be willing door-knockers? In some areas ward meetings are dying on their feet, with few young people especially wanting to “meet for the sake of meeting”.

CSM has been part of contemporary examples of the power of people coming together to engage in a common task of service or campaigning such as Hope 08. These insights lead us to ask the question – could we re-focus what it means to be local and Labour towards action and service, rather than only meeting and talking?

There are so many 20 and 30-somethings in the UK who are passionate about justice, but have, say, one night of the week free. Are they going to spend it: 1) with a local Amnesty group, letter-writing; 2) doing hands-on youth work with a local church; or 3) nominating a branch treasurer and discussing Trotskyism with a few folks in a dusty hall somewhere? No debate!

This is about acknowledging the experience of many local agencies in how people eventually engage in the political process. As James Purnell said recently:

“The Labour movement did not start as a vehicle for election. It started off as an association for change.”

We need to provide more easily accessible ‘access points’. There is a spectrum of engagement which we describe as moving from APATHY to CHARITY to JUSTICE-SEEKING. There are many folks for whom the first step is simply to be involved in simple local service as a willing helper. Often once people are involved with others and seeing their needs up close, they start to ask the questions as to why these situations persist, leading to more political campaigning activity or community organising.

Labour is now at an important juncture; CSM feels we should be focusing on the very reason many of us went into politics in the first place: to serve our communities and to put ‘something back’. We see Labour Neighbours as a practical contribution (with five initial constituency pilot projects) to the debate that Labour should have about its ‘existential purpose’. For me and I believe, many on the left, the defining concern is that we need to show that we want to serve people whether or not we are in power.

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