Last weekend, Labour Students passed a motion at their conference stating that they would not campaign for any MP who voted against equal marriage. Anyone who has ever campaigned alongside Labour Students will know that’s a formidable loss. They are an organisational and electoral force to be reckoned with; one that some MPs will no longer be able to blithely rely on. Decisions have consequences.
Some greeted this with consternation and sneering derision.” Would you rather have a Tory?” was an all too frequent response. But Labour Students understand that to ask their members to actively campaign for someone who had voted against equality is too much to ask. Individual members are – of course – free to do as they choose, but what they won’t have is the power of Labour Students and the numbers of door-knockers that they bring when they organise in your seat. Labour Students were given a chance to demonstrate where the real power in a political party lies and they have done: They are with the members, and the members are flexing their muscles.
What the Lib Dems have known for years (and demonstrated once again in Eastleigh) is that it is members who win elections. Jim Murphy is right that it is essential that we do get out there – in every constituency in the country. We can’t assume victory is in our grasp –we must strain at it with every sinew. It is far from assured. But there are other things we can’t take for granted. Things that those responding to the Labour Students decision with such mindless banality have forgotten: We can’t take our activists for granted either.
Nobody owes you their free time. Nobody owes you their labour. The membership of our Party got our MPs elected and keep them that way. Our MPs are standing on the shoulders of the unknown giants who get out there every weekend (and I can’t claim to be one of them – though I try to do my bit). Good MPs – from every part of the Party – know and recognise this. My MP Tessa Jowell is just such an MP. She and I are from different Labour traditions, but I bow to no one in my admiration for her appreciation of the work of her members. She knows that activists deserve respect and need inspiring. It is not enough to just expect us to turn out. We need something to turn out for.
A young LGBT member in Ealing North or Inverclyde might not feel very inspired to campaign locally. It is their right not to. MPs and candidates don’t have a God given right to support. They are there to represent the Labour activists and their constituents. If one of their Labour activists constituents doesn’t feel represented, that’s their right.
Knowing the force of nature that is Labour Students, I don’t imagine for a moment, that they will be doing 22 Constituencies worth less work. They will just be working harder in those constituencies where there is an MP or candidate they feel share their fundamental commitment to equality.
As it is usually through constituencies that activism is organised and nurtured, a young person who might previously have dropped out of campaigning with no one noticing may now have second avenue to campaigning for someone elsewhere that they do feel better represents their values.
As political parties run lower and lower on funds, they rely more and more on volunteers. As that happens, Parties are waking up to how much they need members and members are waking up to what that means to their ability to influence and affect the behaviour of parties and MPs. The rebelliousness of the 2010 Tory intake shows that this is a lesson they have long since learned. We may not like what it is they rebel on, but as Labour members we are hardly supposed to. But they do have a real sense that it is they are far more beholden to their constituency Parties than they are to their leader. The Lib Dems have practiced “constituency first” politics for years – only to seemingly lose their heads in Government. They will be punished for this at their Spring conference. And if the still fail to listen, eventually their doorstep hoards will dissipate.
Labour has shown signs of really understanding the needs of this newly empowered membership. The work of Arnie Graf and the Your Britain website are real proof of this. The aim is the same: A Labour Government – in power and doing good. But the dynamics have shifted. Never again will that government be so far removed from its members. Never again will anyone think that could ever be a good thing. The ground game keeps us grounded. Not everyone has got it yet, but the more high profile organisations like Labour Students start to flex theirs, the more everyone will come to realise and respect quite how much muscle the members have.
This post first appeared on LabourList.