Many young Labour activists are still not seeing their workplaces as sites of potential political change. This week’s conference is a chance to explore why that is – and what we can do about it, says NATHAN AKEHURST
ON the eve of Labour Party conference, Jeremy Corbyn’s party has surged to a four-point poll lead. Having returned from a summer tour that drew crowds of people crying out for change from Cornwall to the Western Isles, Corbyn now leads a party more confident in itself than it has been in many years.
“There is a very broad group that he is now appealing to, quite a turnaround if you believed reporting from a year ago,” says Sean Smith, the Guardian photographer who accompanied Corbyn on his trip.
Back at Labour’s Victoria Street headquarters, the party’s ruling national executive committee (NEC) has agreed a package of democratising rule changes, including more all-women shortlists, lowering the number of MPs required to nominate a future leadership candidate, and more places for grassroots members on the NEC.
The left’s candidate, Richard Leonard, stands a real chance of winning the Scottish Labour leadership.
In Brighton, The World Transformed — Momentum’s festival of culture and ideas accompanying party conference — has gone from being vilified as a separatist event last year to hosting 70 MPs this year.
Life on the left of the Labour Party is looking up at last — but in the midst of a respite from the continuous fire- fighting that two years of leadership elections, national elections and referendums has enforced, a bigger question comes up. Now what?
Momentum, which rewrote the book on ground campaigns during the general election, is providing part of the answer.
It has taken enthusiasm for the manifesto and programme and augmented it with professional campaign training, a digital infrastructure that reached more voters on social media with just £2,000 of advertising spend than the Conservatives managed with a million, and an “Unseat” campaign now aiming to topple vulnerable Conservative MPs with shameful records.
But electioneering weekends should be interspersed with a community-oriented pavement politics, focused not on the ballot box alone but on how to empower people and fix problems.
Labour should make the political argument for increasing community involvement in local spending priorities and local administration, at the same time as using its new base of activists to scale up its presence in community organisation across Britain.
There are already plenty of examples of the labour movement mobilising to save libraries and green spaces, tackle rogue landlordism or simply provide social spaces where few exist.
Away from political canvassing, there has been a surge of inspiring trade union action.
McDonald’s workers have organised their first ever strike in Britain for secure contracts, a real living wage and an end to workplace bullying.
From Picturehouse cinema workers to Southern train guards, there are sustained disputes where workers are refusing to give in.
Yet many people — especially young people — who are inspired by Corbyn’s leadership, even those who have knocked on doors and handed out leaflets for Labour, are still not seeing their workplaces as sites for potential political change.
Momentum has done a good job in drawing attention to situations like the plight of the McDonald’s workers.
It could now put resources and talent into working with the labour movement on a mass general union recruitment campaign.
The Corbyn leadership is founded on the principles of collective endeavour — “for the many not the few” — and such a campaign would be a way of realising that in workplaces, in a way that could make a difference to the lives of marginal workers everywhere and build enduring spaces for left-wing organisation.
There is also a question of how we communicate with each other. Over the last two years the Labour left has had to rebut an almost constant stream of smears from a variety of sources.
An ecology of left media outlets has taken on these tasks. This paper has retained a loyal readership and continued to produce a range of political perspectives alongside some of the most careful industrial reporting in British journalism.
New online-focused outlets like Novara — or even Momentum’s social media output — have made huge strides in exciting digital communication and become a valuable as well as entertaining resource for activists.
Pro-Corbyn blogs like the Canary and Skwawkbox have pursued a ruthless clickbait model that has racked up eye-watering view counts.
And Momentum and Labour’s press operation has projected more and more positive stories into the mainstream press.
None of these approaches are entirely sufficient on their own. Somewhere, difficult though it may be, our movement needs to invest time, effort and combined resources into developing its own organs that can produce serious critical journalism as well as more light-hearted output, that can reach people on whatever channels they are engaging with.
It’s one thing to get a soundbite hurtling around social media, and it is another thing entirely to have communications that can form the backbone of the political culture we are slowly building.
Because fundamentally, our project is about more than changing who sits in Downing Street. It’s about changing how politics works — increasing trust and accountability, getting more people engaged and building community solidarity and collective power in the face of a system that has told us to accept falling wages, falling living standards and hideous inequality as natural.
This Labour Party conference is a key step on that road. It will bring together thousands of energetic people who are serious about changing the world.
It will bring together veteran politicians, first-time voters and people from every background and walk of life. It is a place to make decisions about the movement and to learn from each other so we can shape the future.
Socialism is back, and it’s leading in the polls. Let’s make the most of it.