” I experienced first hand the dismissive contempt from some [Labour] HQ staff that was meted out to other colleagues in the LOTO (Leader of the Opposition’s Office) campaign team throughout my time there.”Martin Smith
Jeremy Corbyn offered the most recent and best hope for a truly social democratic politics in Britain – and we missed the moment.
There is however no final defeat or victory and we must toughen up, challenge and change the Party on the inside if are going to look and sound like the people we want to form a Government with us.
As the Leader Of The Opposition Office (LOTO) staffer running the campaign bus during the 2017 Election campaign, I was of course beneath the sights of some Party staffers – but I watched, and I listened.
Had they taken thought to ask, they would have discovered that I was a National Secretary in a major affiliated union, on secondment at the behest of both the Party Leader and the General Secretary to drive change and build unity in the Party machine. But they didn’t ask, and I experienced first hand the dismissive contempt from some HQ staff that was meted out to other colleagues in the LOTO campaign team throughout my time there.
As I have reported to the Forde Inquiry, the disruption, subversion and downright attempts to passively sabotage the 2017 election campaign owe as much to the groupthink of an internal HQ monoculture dominated by a single Party faction as they do to the myriad factional and political disagreements aired in the media over the Summer. We need to challenge and change this rigid control freakery that dominates much of the Party’s discourse and be honest about how it prevented us winning power in 2017 in its detail.
Serious allegations have been made about potential misdirecting and misreporting of election expenditure by Party staffers nationally in the leaked report for example. The Forde Inquiry will do its work and report in due course and staff unions will rightly represent any of their members alleged to be involved. But while I was painstakingly designing routes for the campaign bus using the motorway network to avoid triggering local election expenses of £461 per day for any constituency we travelled through, thousands were reportedly being piled into some of the same constituencies, allegedly because the candidates were key allies of the Party staffers.
And as others have reported, and as I myself saw, much of the undermining of the campaign was more subtle and less openly aggressive than the Ergon House operation. A constant digging of holes in the road in the hope that the campaign run by LOTO “Trots and amatuers” would fall into one or more of them. We had to be on our guard every day to spot the latest traps and navigate away – forced to divert massive amounts of energy to counteract sabotage from our own colleagues, into duplicating advance reconnaissance teams and ensuring every member of the LOTO campaign team was checking and double checking arrangement made by some Party staff. To move forward a critical analysis of what happened and why cannot be avoided any longer.
From setting up a bus campaign stop with media presence outside a sex shop in Great Yarmouth, to briefing the media that the bus was late for an event at the Rivermead Leisure Centre in Reading, only for it to be revealed in the right place and time as the sun came up. From asking police to close the final night election rally and then reporting to staff that it was the police who had issued the request. From delivering only 11 stewards for the same rally and then arguing it was not safe to continue due to a shortage of stewards. From leaking the location of the campaign bus in Lancaster to Sun journalists after it was taken off the road and parked in a hidden location following the Manchester terror attack. From organising a campaign rally in Norwich on the same day and in the same park where a traditional drunken student party has been held for centuries.
That these stories and many others never appeared in the media to derail the campaign – and so never happened in the minds of the electorate – was due to the incredible energy, commitment, experience and loyalty of Corbyn’s “amateurs”.
But the problem with the internal culture in the Party machine is not limited to mere factional and political conflict between Labour First and the Momentum “Trots” that has formed the template for much of the media coverage so far of the leaked report. That analysis misses the biggest threat to Keir’s aspiration to deliver a Labour Government worthy of the name in the future – the overwhelming scale and depth of centrist groupthink and confirmation bias among Party staffers on all matters, big and small, which stems from the dominance of single faction monoculture. What divides the Party is not mere ideology between centrists and the Left but organisational and bureaucratic control and power
The result of this dominance of Centrist thought on Labour campaigning is also open hostility to any fresh thinking or analysis, or even the changing politics of the outside world. It is not for nothing that the standing joke in the office in my time was that the actual aspiration of some high profile senior Party staffers’ appeared to be to recreate the 1997 electorate – as this was the only electorate they ever understood or had any data on. The instinct of senior staffers around me seemed to be that if you couldn’t grasp the impact on potential voters of the 2008 crash, a decade of austerity, the explosion of insecure work, the loss of Scotland through decades of neglect, and Brexit – then these could be simply wished away while we doubled down on the old tried and tested campaign tactics and formula. And that if we left it long enough, the electorate would somehow magically come round to our way of thinking in the end.
Within this context, opposition to a relaunch of Labour Community Organising on the part of the senior staffers begins to make sense. The leaked report reveals that they saw it as all fine and well but “we can’t be arsed” to do it. The mantra of “elections are only won from the centre” appears immune from facts and analysis in Labour HQ who still talk about “natural/traditional Labour voters” and “Labour towns/constituencies” and “we can do nothing in opposition” without apparent irony, political curiosity or awareness of polling trends since 2005. And the more we repeat these outdated mantras the more of an obscure sect we appear to the new electorate who are walking away from us.
Even as late as 2018 every social event had to end with a group rendition of D-Ream’s “Things can only get better” and chants of “Tony!, Tony!, Tony!” In 2016 and 2017 every time a “Trot” was identified through mass trawling of social media of Party members and candidates conducted by Labour staff, a bell was rung in the office to loud cheers and celebration. Longstanding members social media accounts were trawled by Party staffers on their own initiative, sometimes for social media comments made a decade or more previously, while formal complaints by members of extremely serious breaches of Party rules took months to be processed, piling up despite legitimate complaints by those who had lodged them, and in some cases from those being complained about.
So for all these reasons, in 2017 the “Corbyn surge” was simply not seen or felt in HQ as it didn’t appear in the canvass return data wasn’t recognised by their algorithm and did not fit with the election modelling of 1997 vintage. Senior and experienced Party HQ staffers simply could not and would not acknowledge the possibility that three million people we had not spoken to and had no record of were planning to vote Labour. Some staffers with access to all the polling data were placing bets on Labour to lose over 100 seats just 48 hours before the 2017 election day.
Systemic flaws in local Party data gathering and canvassing returns that had been apparent to many on the ground for a decade or more were again wished away. Any operational disagreement was presented as merely meddling from “Trots and amateurs” . The now famous trench warfare in the 2017 election campaign over the offensive versus defensive campaign plans – which ultimately led to the Ergon House operation – were partly about politics and faction as others have pointed out. In my view they were equally influenced by out of date, complacent and tired groupthink which was never subject to challenge and was hostile to it.
It is essential Keir understands the scale of the control over the Party machine paid officials loyal to a party within the Party have secured. The dominant faction has almost unchallenged control over who gets regional organiser jobs and then from there who gets promoted or directly employed in Party HQ, who gets shortlisted and selected as candidates in elections, and who sits on the NEC. And all too often with the coordinated assistance of people the monoculture has placed in the political departments of major affiliated trade unions. The colleagues working around me who owed no allegiance to this organisation were very thin on the ground but incredibly brave and resilient in doing their jobs despite conflicting instructions from Party and party faction.
The Party needs the elected members of the NEC to take back control of the Party machine and bring in more diverse voices and experience. We need to ensure Trade Union delegates to the NEC are properly elected from and more regularly accountable to their unions’ membership and to reform the process of selecting candidates to tackle the domineering ability of the Party staff culture to “pick winners” from among their friends. The Party HQ urgently needs fresh voices and a much more accountable staff to move forward as an immediate priority
And once achieved we need to develop a convincing narrative and analysis with our communities and workplaces of the challenges we all face and develop a credible policy and plan for transforming all of our lives. A vision a plan and a narrative that sounds and looks like we get the new realities our people face and no longer aim to do things to our communities from Government but with them
If we continue down the path of top down policy impositions rather than mobilising our members and helping our communities to organise, and triangulation with the Johnson Tories about values, then we truly will hamper our ability to be transformative in opposition and Government alike.
- Martin Smith is a Community and Workplace Organiser.