It wasn’t that long ago that the Labour Party was at the heart of many communities. Membership was high, there was a strong trade union membership density, and people’s identities were defined by being working class and voting Labour.
A few decades on and, despite the surge in membership under Corbyn, Labour is struggling to maintain support in areas that would once have been considered its heartlands, as the fears over the loss of upcoming by-elections in Stoke and Copeland demonstrate. An anti-establishment feeling has reared its head, and it’s Ukip and the right who are capitalising on it.
I grew up in Penistone, a small market town just a few miles from Barnsley. When my dad spoke to me about his childhood, he’d talk of working men’s clubs as major social institutions. Not politically affiliated but, in his words, “undeniably left-wing”, these clubs were the centre of their communities and, in turn, helped to create those communities.
Twice a year, he fondly remembers, the club would organise trips to Blackpool, Rhyl or Skegness. They’d book out two carriages on the local train, and the children would get pop and crisps on the way there and a stick of rock on the way back.
When I was growing up, such a defined centre to the community – one where people knew each other, with a distinct class identity attached to it – was glaringly absent. After work or on the weekends, entertainment was out of town or in front of the TV. I could never relate to, nor really imagine, the collective, community-based sociability my dad spoke of.
The decline of such cultural institutions – and the decline of that sense of being working class as a political and social identity – has left a void. There’s now a distinct lack of collective identity which people can be proud of. In this vacuum, hatred and fear exploited by the right can proliferate.
We shouldn’t, of course, romanticise or attempt to falsely resurrect cultures and institutions which were of their time and which undoubtedly had many flaws. But we also can’t solve this problem by ploughing ahead with the ill-conceived and often privatised regeneration projects of the Blair years. We don’t need more than top-down investment and “Northern Powerhouses”, an approach that always favoured headlines over lasting change. Instead, we need a focus on bottom-up cultural and political renewal in the towns and rural areas that have been neglected for decades.
For this there is no blueprint. Any successful renewal will strengthen and support existing cultural institutions. It will be resident-led, and give locals real agency in decision-making and how funds are spent. It won’t be explicitly political, but will create spaces, institutions and situations in which a new collective – rather than individualised – politics is given the opportunity to form.
The series of events I’m involved in organising, Take Back Control, is a modest part of this process. They specifically aim to bridge the exaggerated political divide between Leave and Remain voters and attract people who would never normally go to such an event. With music and bands in the evening, as well as food and sport in the day, they will be community and cultural spaces first and foremost.
Of course, such temporary spaces need to be turned into permanent institutions. In such a project, Corbyn’s Labour – now the largest political party in Europe and on course to hit 600,000 members – could play a key role. But with branch meetings which often cover dry subjects and admin, being involved in the local party sometimes feels like a chore and a sacrifice.
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While such meetings are necessary, the encouragement and funding of a wider breadth of activity could activate a partially dormant membership and thrust Labour back into the heart of the community.
Through running breakfast clubs for local children, funding sports clubs and cultural projects or even running co-operative healthcare centres, left parties in other parts of the world have swelled their support base and enriched local communities. And if Labour is to win back the support of those who are turning away from it, it needs to demonstrate its seriousness in renewing places that feel left behind.
Instead of just corralling votes two weeks before an election, it must pour time and resources into encouraging and supporting culture and community over the long term. A vote may be cast in a single moment, but building real, lasting support will always take more than a 10-minute conversation.