This weekend, Young Labour will run our political school in Birmingham aiming to not just encourage young members’ interest in socialist ideas and history but to promote the development of similar events across the country.
The Labour Party has seen a massive expansion of its membership under Jeremy Corbyn, who has inspired thousands with his message of peace and equality. This mass membership has rewarded us with a debt-free party and a new community organising unit, but it cannot be taken for granted.
As a party we need to develop and expand this membership, building the capacity to challenge neoliberal ideas in society, strengthening support for socialist alternatives, and ultimately, putting together the kind of majority that can win power.
We shouldn’t take our ability to organise in the Labour Party for granted. When we look across the Atlantic to the United States, we see a starkly different party system. There, candidates simply stand on a Democratic or Republican ballot line, and supporters register to vote in primaries. The idea of membership, which is so fundamental to our traditions, is almost entirely absent.
In the Labour Party we have the opportunity to unite thousands behind collectively-agreed policies, with active participation across the country and a unique link to our trade union movement. Being a member of the Labour Party means more than having a card, and it is our role, as a party, to ensure that it means a constant opportunity to not just understand the society we live in, but to change it.
People join the Labour Party for many reasons — from personal experiences, to seeing their communities impacted by austerity, to glaring social injustices, and their commitment to fighting inequality. Our job is to meet people where they are, but not to leave them there. Labour’s job is to progress people’s understanding of politics beyond single issues to an analysis of the society they live in, creating the basis for a collective conflict with those who hold power and wealth at our expense.
The ambition is not to create socialists only within our party, but to equip our mass membership with the knowledge to strengthen and inform conversations which are happening in the homes, social spaces, and workplaces up and down the country by people who would never label themselves as ‘political’.
Liberal democracy implies that going to the ballot box every four years constitutes meaningful accountability over the decisions made by those in positions of power. There is often little to allow people to grasp how day-to-day issues like their wages, access to education, and quality of healthcare relate to the decisions of politicians. Educating our members, and in turn the broader public that they interact with, is essential to combatting the notion that collective action can’t change these things, which is a major obstacle to achieving a socialist government.
It is also fundamental to giving our members confidence. Labour’s policies of redistributing wealth and power at home, and pursuing peace abroad, are deeply unpopular with Britain’s establishment. Every week the party is subject to a new line of attack from the media and the Tories’ allies in business. If we are to avoid capitulating on our necessary programme of reform, we will need to build a counter-hegemonic apparatus that pushes back against the ruling elite and their ideas.
How can we combat the relentless narrative that there isn’t enough money to fund decent public services when it’s all our members read in their newspapers or hear on television? Not challenging the dominance of right-wing arguments led to Labour taking the blame for the fallout of the global financial crisis in 2008. These lessons must be learnt.
We now have a membership committed to more radical transformation. But if we are serious about breaking with the legacy of New Labour, with its close relationship to finance capital, US imperialism, and the racist, right-wing press, we must provide people with a vision where none of these are necessary.
This is particularly important with our younger base of members. Young people in Britain face many of the consequences of Tory policy — from education and youth services cuts, to sky-high tuition fees, low-waged, insecure work, and high rents. But most don’t join Labour as well-versed socialists. Young Labour holds a key role in kick-starting this journey.
Political education isn’t just about books or lectures, it’s about creating a common understanding of the world and empowering people to change it. Ultimately, that is the only way that we can challenge the power of capital and build the case for a socialist future.