The majority of the media would have you believe that The Labour Party is deeply and irreconcilably divided. Indeed, the infighting at the top of the Party seems to lend credence to their claims. Whilst this must be recognised as one of the biggest challenges facing Labour, we can also take some comfort from the fact that the party has not ground to a halt.
Given the scale of the rift in the parliamentary party, and its ability to impede the workings of the opposition, one would assume that divisions are present throughout the party. At a local level these divisions can be seen in a far more positive light. Difference of opinion is critical to the survival of any political movement, allowing healthy discussion and debate, ensuring that the ideas do not stagnate. In fact Corbyn’s leadership has been very positive in this respect, opening up a debate that has not taken place in The Labour Party for years. Yet this debate is appears to be proceeding in a far more comradely way in local branches than at the top of the party and in the parliamentary party.
Whilst there may be heated and passionate debates at meetings, there is a strong sense of ‘the Labour family’ with members. Despite strong disagreements Labour members can often be found campaigning enthusiastically together. Hackney councillor Jonathan McShane commented: “there are lessons that the national party can learn” from the conduct within local branches. Indeed, it will be local Labour that will hold the Party together.
The strength of local Labour branches could be a decisive advantage for the Party going forward. In the wake of the EU referendum national government will have to spend the majority of its time dealing with the Brexit negotiations, leaving local governments as the key forces behind domestic policy. Even if The Labour Party is not able to mount an effective opposition in parliament, this remains a cause for great optimism.
There are a number of challenges Labour faces if it is to fully seize this opportunity. Firstly, new members must be engaged more fully. The influx of new members has made The Labour Party the largest political force in the UK; the next step is to mobilise them. Education is key, not only to ensure that there is a strong and united vision that comes from everyone involved in the Party, but also to encourage members to get involved in a place where their skills will make a meaningful contribution to the efforts of the Party party’s efforts to inflict change.
By far the biggest challenge at the moment, but one that is also key to the success of local Labour is to build a consensus within the party. If we can look past the fragmentation of the membership and parliamentary party, I think it will become clear that we have more in common than that which divides us; after all, being a broad church has always been one of Labour’s greatest strengths. Within local parties, it is important that this is recognised and that we fight against the narrative of division that has been imposed on the national party.
Local branches can also lead their members in hope of encouraging unity at national level. A split is in the interest of no-one in The Labour Party. At local level we can build, on already strong foundations, unifying a vision that takes the Party forward.
A Corbyn win in the leadership election will not inevitably mean a split, it may in fact open a debate with the leadership more willing to look for areas of compromise, knowing that a significant proportion of the Party does not support them. Most Labour MPs are not hardline ‘Blairites’, they just want their voice to be heard and have a say in the policy direction of the party which they represent.
It is now vital that The Labour Party remains strong at a local level. As the parliamentary party tears itself apart, local branches must provide strong foundations to ensure a schism does not rip through the party. Practically, in local government where Labour has significant power, the Party must stand up for those most in need, protecting them from the onslaught of Tory austerity. Whatever the outcome of the leadership election, Labour must unite at all levels because whilst we fight ourselves, those that need the party most will get left behind.
Mostyn Taylor Crockett
Mostyn has just finished his A-Levels. He writes as a Labour Party supporter.