Organising the Labour left in Durham

This piece was written by me in Labour Briefing in November 2018. I’m republishing it here because I think Durham Labour Left offered a model, not just for the North East, but for the rest of the country. Things got in the way, mainly to do with defeats – not just the General Election, but a series of local defeats from that point onwards. And that clearly affected our unity as a group and our confidence. Six months after losing the General Election and eighteen months after this fantastic event, it’s time to recover both.

SOMETHING IS HAPPENING in Durham. For over two years, a group calling itself Durham Labour Left (DLL) has been beavering away behind the scenes, working to bring socialists within the party together in the county.

The aim has never been to replace any organisations that already exist, but to become an umbrella organising hub for people in Momentum, Red Labour, the LRC groups and other Labour Party socialists. The focus has been to support and co-ordinate each other’s activity and that effort is now starting to bear fruit. Durham, of course, has a rich labour movement tradition, as anyone who has attended the annual Miner’s Gala (the Big Meeting), which takes place in early July every year, will know.

It was therefore appropriate that the recent ‘Organising the Labour Left’ conference, organised by DLL, took place at Redhills, the home of the Durham miners. Held on 21st October, it followed a similar meeting held in Newcastle in February, when socialists in the party gathered to discuss the possibilities of working across different groups on the Labour left to achieve common objectives, such as positions on the regional board, internal party elections and selections.

The half day in Durham was notable for its comradely atmosphere. The event was attended by over 100 regional and national Labour Party members, activists and MPs. Every constituency in County Durham was represented in some form or another, many more came from all over the north east and some even travelled from Sheffield to exchange ideas and learn from the comrades gathered at the Miners’ Hall. Although MPs Grahame Morris and Laura Pidcock attended, they did so as ordinary members, and the whole ethos of the day was grassroots learning from each other.

After a plenary session, introduced by DLL founding members Angela Hankin, Chris Turner, Adrian Hedley and Brenda Stephenson, the day was broken down into breakout sessions, which included using social media to organise; report back from annual conference; standing as a candidate for CLP, council & region; how a CLP works and organising democratically in CLPs; and building street and workplace movements against racism, war and poverty.

Lynn Gibson, Leeann Clarkson and Paul Daly ran a session which encouraged us all to share our ideas on making new, and in fact all, members welcome in our party. They advocated creating a welcoming environment in branch and CLP meetings and, above all, respecting all members – from those who have been lifelong members to the very latest recruits. Lynn explained that she organises bi-monthly branch socials for new (and inactive) members to come along and meet with active members in a more social environment and offers a buddy system for new members to attend meetings.

Grahame Morris spoke about standing as a Labour candidate. He said there was a marvellous and unprecedented array of talent now available to the Labour Party at every level with the dramatic increase in membership and the radical manifesto for the many under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. The challenge is to engage with our members, build on their existing skills and enthusiasm and help to develop people’s confidence, as many working class candidates still struggled with the idea that they had a place in the party’s representative structures.

Harry Cross and Ed Whitby talked about organising democratically within a CLP, opening local parties up to political education and engaging our vast membership in its processes. Ben Sellers held a workshop on how to use the tools of social media to organise locally and emphasised the need to link online campaigning with on-the-ground organising. Daniel Kebede ran a very interactive session on how to challenge racism and building anti-racist campaigning as a thread throughout the Labour Party and Sheila Williams reported on the rule changes and debates that had come from conference.

The conference ended back in the beautiful old chamber at Redhills, also known as the Pitman’s Parliament. A discussion was held where people made considered contributions. No one was grandstanding – it was a genuine exchange of ideas.

Of course, there’s some way to go. DLL hasn’t ‘cracked it’ in Durham and will only achieve what’s needed in the party locally if this sort of engagement carries on. But the whole conference was genuinely refreshing and, like the Durham Labour Left, offers one model of how we might go forward – avoiding the splits and sectarianism that have beset the Labour left in times gone by, and which hang over us to this day. We can, and must, do better than that.

Ben Sellers


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