Comment: Labour needs to reform the way it is funded

It felt like we were fighting the election campaign with longbows while the Tories had sten guns

 

Sometimes in the Labour Party it can feel like it’s all about the money. It’s the request of most emails you get from Labour and the source of many headaches for constituency Labour parties (CLPs).

Candidates in many of the seats we lost – and several of those we managed to win – talk of the difference between our RISO-produced newsletters that volunteers struggled to deliver, and the relentless paid-for calls and direct mails on glossy paper of our opponents.

Whilst we had the highest contact rates for a generation, as one MP told me, it was as though we had longbows and the government had sten guns.

How we pay our way is never an easy subject to talk about, but we have to if we are serious about equipping activists, candidates and those already elected with the tools they need to win in 2020.

For too long, fundraising activities at a local level have had little connection to the gala dinners and high value work done by the national party, leaving little incentive for local parties to act.

In some key seats, members devoted long hours to setting up events and donation schemes for limited returns. Others had access to donations and donors through networks of which some could only dream.

National fundraising efforts often cross over with those of local and regional parties, with new and old members repeatedly complaining about being asked for varying sums by competing audiences.

What’s more, those who give money to Labour can often feel as though we only value their bank balance – not the relationship they wanted to have with campaigning for social justice which made them donate in the first place.

And whilst, thanks to the work of our talented staff and generous members, we have been successful at small value donation strategies as never before, raising £3.7 million in one year, it is worth remembering that the Tories raised £40 million from intimate policy dinners alone.

Reconnecting fundraising with our campaigns could unlock both grassroots giving and activism. The party has already experimented with match funding arrangements; rewarding key seats that met certain activity criteria with additional resources.

But offering contacts or standard printing in response to activity isn’t the only way to motivate members. Matching funds raised by CLPs if they pledge to hit a certain target with more freedom as to what the funds can be spent on would help make that effort more worthwhile for all concerned.

CLPs and speakers that help others – especially target seats – could benefit from national assistance to run tailored events including small dinners, online actions and large rallies on issues of concern with a wider circulation and help with guest speakers.

Such a national match funding scheme would also encourage CLPs to collaborate in organising these events – and compete to secure this support in a way that could be captured in a leaderboard, with the most active CLPs who do the most for others being rewarded accordingly.

We also need to unlock the potential for CLPs and individual activists to fundraise online, with simple tools that can be properly tailored to local events, products and actions. Members will know how easy a Justgiving or Kickstarter site is to use – it’s time we had the facility to do this for our Labour campaigns too.

Furthermore, given many members and CLPs have great fundraising ideas or products, it’s time for a formal Labour Party marketplace ‘etsy’ style site to help encourage such creativity in the name of socialism, as well as Facebook fundraising assistance for CLPs.

None of these ways of working will replace our relationship with other wings of Labour, including the trade unions who have proudly supported us – and nor should they. But this is about fresh thinking that helps revitalise such links from the grassroots up.

This year the Electoral Reform Society released a new report saying 61 per cent of the public believe the current political funding system is corrupt and in urgent need of reform. Given this, some may say we should focus on renewing our party first and leave the knotted questions of fundraising for later. Others will say we should focus on winning the case for state funding, however unlikely this may seem at present.

But getting it right and being willing to be innovative now is not just about avoiding the reputational risk of getting it wrong. Without cash we cannot pay for staff, print leaflets or even fund the websites that will help us win elections as well as rebuild our party.

It’s time we put our money where our mouth is, stopped seeing members as cash machines, and became a fundraising political movement.

Stella Creasy is the Labour and Co-op MP for Walthamstow and is standing for the deputy leadership of the party. Follow her on Twitter 

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