Neighbourhood watch

First published on Progressonline in the Young progressives column

It is time for the Labour party to appoint a vice-chair to champion community involvement.

A year ago, Gordon Brown had his so-called ‘Clause IV moment’ with the unions, making radical changes to the Labour party’s constitution and decisively leading the party into a new era. Building on the creation of party vice-chairs, he sought to modernise our structures and get local parties consulting their communities.

All of these I wholeheartedly agreed with – but were the policies proposed structural solutions to much larger cultural problems? Either way, why have they received little follow-up and suffered from the absence of a champion to see them through? It is my view that the creation of the vice-chairs should have been coupled with the later reforms. Look how the faith, animal rights and youth work of the Labour party has increased massively since the appointment of Stephen Timms, Ian Cawsey and Dawn Butler.

Had a vice-chair for community involvement been appointed, there would exist in the party the capacity to push local members and parties to re-engage in their local communities and be a fresh drive for people to become school governors, JPs and local volunteers. There would also be a person championing models of engagement in the party, consultation methods and – more importantly – tracking progress, good practice and outcomes for local people.

When Hazel Blears stood for the deputy leadership, she shared her experiences as a PPC in 1992 and 1997. The main difference she found in ‘92 was that civic society and voluntary organisations were full of Tories, meaning it was hard to make inroads and get Labour into the community’s agenda. By 1997, she tells us, it had all changed. From this we can only conclude that our new duty to consult is right and that we must never again concede our communities and their organisations to Tory activists rather than Labour people.

More right because I fear that the problem is even greater. In 1997 the Labour party wanted to talk to the public and listen to their concerns; now it seeks to talk to itself and theorise about missed opportunities.

Our resolve must be to be active in our neighbourhoods, not just deploying the activists we now have but seeking to recruit those who engage themselves. Importantly, our presence should have purpose: we are not the vacuous Liberals that believe in everything and stand for nothing. We want better for our communities, to find solutions to their problems and to lead people to a new place. A future where change, progress and leadership see Labour values put into practice and power.

Progress has recently attempted to fill this gap with the School Governors’ Network, but PLP/NEC leadership in this and other areas would not go a miss. The party itself is improving well and has done an excellent job with new media and the web so Labour can have an online dialogue with people. Long may this continue and it become ever more local.

The major change our party is still lacking is a new model for running our local branches. The second Thursday of every month I walk into John O’Farrell’s famous book and relive the boring branch meeting in a dusty hall that makes you cringe as you turn every page. I do not mean to criticise, for I am the branch chair, but for all I try the fact remains that local members do not want to turn up to party meetings of no meaning and policy discussions that lead nowhere.

The reason Brown so wisely embarked on these reforms was for our movement to update with the times and deliver better outcomes for the people we represent. We must be ready to re-engage, stay with the electorate and remember what made Labour electable – being in touch with the concerns of voters. The only reason David Cameron tells the world that our party is abandoning New Labour is because New Labour means something – it is what our voters wanted, voted for and rightly expect.

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Richard Angell is national chair of Young Labour

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