Trevor Fisher takes a look at Open Labour
Open Labour – Meeting One – 5th March 2016
The first Open Labour meeting, in Manchester on 5th March, was a small scale but successful attempt to start a discussion on Key Themes. Four were chosen, but the importance of the event was not the outcomes but the ability to get a random collection of people into dialogue, and in this the afternoon was positive. The atmosphere was tolerant and thoughtful, and in a room which could take three dozen comfortably the fact that 30 people turned up from a diverse range of backgrounds and with a wide age range – from Young Labour to the over 60s and all decades in between – was very welcome.
Of the four themes, three attracted participation for the cafe style table discussions, but changing Environment for the Left floundered in the first three quarter hour session and was quietly dropped in the second session. Perhaps the lack of focus on the Labour Party was the issue? What the ‘Left’ is is a minefield, best left to others – there is now a yawning gap where galloping totalitarianism north and south of the border is concerned, but its not for a small organisation to tackle the big picture. Labour is enough, and it is telling that there was more interest in the other three sessions, Labour and the Economy, Improving Labour’s culture and democracy, and How can Labour Win again? All gained 10 participants each in the second session, and a lively buzz arose from each table.
The small groups represented a diversity of views in the party centre. Though some of those attended were sympathetic to Momentum, there were none sympathetic to Blairism. The spectrum confirmed that Open Labour has the potential to bridge some of the divisions within the party. Sadly a couple of Young Labour Members confirmed that the reports of an unpleasant and damaging Youth Conference were true.
The elephant in the room was Labour’s poor electoral performance, underpinning some contributions was a sense that there are silver linings in the gathering gloom but with not much hard evidence to back this up. There will be more to chew on after the May elections, but while there was agreement that there are no simple ways back for the Party, there was no real discussion on the roots of the problem though the Tory success in setting the agenda was noted. There was also a comment that the list of target councils for May was the existing heartlands, and Labour was not focusing on winning new support. The sober discussion of the issues was however realistic and constructive in the limits of time and given the lack of previous discussion. It was also helpful that Kate Green MP attended as a participant, but only summed up at the end. This allowed discussion to flourish without being influenced by the parliamentary view, and should be a precedent for later meetings.
Discussing the electoral challenge – in the first session, which I attended, the direction of travel showed members realised the Party has a credibility problem, though time was too short to explore the weaknesses in the Labour brand and a good deal of reliance on Corbyn’s appeal was expressed, particularly among new joiners.
The session on culture and democracy largely spent its 45 minutes discussing social media, with some horror stories about trolling and misrepresentation, but also a sense that social media channels were inevitable so had to be made use of. The Watson digital party initiative could use the ideas thrashed through in this session. The small numbers involved meant there were few pointers to the future of the group, but the willingness to listen and discuss rationally and without bombast was very welcome. The two sessions I attended were diverse but pleasantly open minded and constructive, and this was the major plus of the afternoon.
No meeting of this kind can produce answers, this was only an exploratory exercise.
Within the limits of a first effort to bring people together, this was promising. Big Oaks from Little Acorns grow, and this acorn was small but perfectly formed. Open Labour has taken the first step on a very long road, and the organisers can feel quietly pleased that they have shown that space does exist for a sensible debate in a Party which is unpleasantly and dangerously polarised.