It is entirely right that those battered by faceless administrators are represented and fought for. But there are practical issues that even the best of intentions cannot overcomeby Chaminda Jayanetti / January 20, 2020 / Leave a comment
Like an answer trying to get its question back, Labour wants to reconnect with those who have abandoned it.
The crushing swings at last month’s general election, which saw long-standing working-class Labour voters flood to the Tories in once-safe seats, has left members scrambling for ideas on how to win them back.
One idea that has gained currency is that Labour should take to “community organising.” This rather vague term refers to Labour members working in local communities hit by austerity to fill the gaps left by the shrinking state to help the people “who need a Labour government the most”—Labour as a party, however, having utterly failed to meet that purported need.
The logic is a tempting one. Cuts to legal aid and Citizens Advice—and the de facto police states operating in the benefits and immigration systems—mean it is harder than ever for people to secure their rights and representation, after a decade when increasing numbers of people have needed to. By making themselves useful to people when they need help the most, the thinking goes, Labour members can help restore their party’s tarnished reputation. On the surface, it’s a win-win.
On closer inspection, the case begins to disintegrate. It is entirely right that those battered by faceless administrators are represented and fought for. But if we are looking at this purely electorally—and this has been proposed as a solution to Labour’s electoral woes—then the real challenge for Labour is winning over people on low-to-moderate incomes who believe they are getting by alright, aren’t feeling too insecure or precarious, maybe own their own homes. These are the voters Labour is really struggling with—and they’re less likely to be the ones queuing round the block at constituency surgeries, desperate for help.
Then there are practical issues. Labour members tend to be based in London and the south of England, close to many centres of deprivation in the capital, but far from the ‘red wall’ seats the party lost so disastrously at the election. It’s hard enough to ferry canvassers from one end of the country to the other on a one-off basis to campaign; to actually step in as advice and service providers on a regular basis is out of the question.
In addition, the kind of work that needs doing often requires special expertise and skill, and in some cases specific qualifications. Mere goodwill is not enough. In spite of undoubtedly good intentions, it is easy to become out of one’s depth when roles are assigned on the basis of enthusiasm rather than knowledge of how to actually get things done—campaigners may be willing to give their time, but unless they have the necessary experience, they can do more harm than good, especially in complex cases where safeguarding and privacy are key.
Those who purport to give advice on immigration, housing, benefits and any area of the law need to know what they’re talking about. People’s livelihoods—and in some cases, actual lives—depend on getting the right advice and the right representation. It is not an opportunity for people to salve their consciences or build a political comeback.
Labour does have knowledgeable people in its ranks, of course—lawyers, caseworkers, experienced campaigners. But are there enough of them, located in or near the necessary areas? Do they have the time to spare, paid or unpaid?
Then there is the question of conflicts of interests. Labour MPs sometimes lock horns with Labour-run councils. But any ‘community’ initiative from local Labour parties would have to be ready to challenge decisions by councils run by that same local Labour party. Some branches may be more willing to do this than others.
Meanwhile, most Tory MPs will advocate for the constituents who turn up to their surgeries—especially those who’ve only just been elected in marginal seats. Parliamentary headed notepaper remains the sharpest way to cut through British bureaucracy. There are serious issues facing immigrants, given the proclivity of some MPs to rat on them to the Home Office. But outside that, the local MP, of whatever party, will generally be able to do more than whatever community initiative Labour might come up with.
And whatever Labour does come up with, why is it assumed to be better than the alternative—working for and with the organisations that already exist to provide help and advice? Of course, Labour has no chance of securing an electoral dividend that way—but it is a grubby thing to only help others if you can secure political capital yourself.