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Why I’m Running for Labour’s NEC

Lauren Townsend discusses her background organising low-paid workers, her campaign for Labour's NEC – and how she plans to empower party members if she wins the seat.

The process of standing to be on the National Executive Committee (NEC) so far has not only been confusing and nearly impossible to navigate – but at times nasty. A lack of transparency, combined with perceived behind-the-scenes machinations, can lead to a level of distrust amongst some members.

Having now experienced this for myself first-hand, I can understand why very few people ever put themselves forward for these roles. The CLP representative seats are supposed to be open for all members to stand, to ensure we have a range of voices, representational of the membership on the ruling body of the Labour Party. I believe the way things are run currently prevents this from happening and that we do not always end up with those who would be best or who the membership themselves want and can trust. This is something I will work to change should I be given the opportunity to represent members on the NEC.

I came into the movement from the grassroots as a waitress who had enough of her exploitative bosses and decided to do something about it. With very little knowledge of trade unionism, I threw myself into every aspect of it; recruiting members, desperately swotting up on both employment law and the history of the movement, training as a rep in an unrecognised workplace, and leading a series of strikes across the U.K.

Since then I have travelled the country, visiting CLPs and labour movement events to lead workshops on organising in ‘difficult’ workplaces and to speak about my experiences. Several weeks of suspension (with little pay thanks to a zero-hour contract) resulted in a racking up of debt for the first time in my life, and I still believe that the company’s intention was to ‘starve’ me away from organising picket lines, to force me to take another job and to stop me speaking out against their exploitative practices. This would have been the reality for many of my colleagues, especially those with children and other dependents. I was in a fortunate position at the time – with no extra caring responsibilities, and a supportive family – so I fought my eventual dismissal from TGI Fridays on the grounds of trade union discrimination and won. 

When we went on strike, it was Labour councillors and MPs who stood shoulder to shoulder with us on our picket lines. With this first real taste of solidarity, I was hooked, and became heavily involved in the Labour Party locally. I now sit on both the Executive Committee and the Local Campaign Forum, as Vice-Chair and Campaign Coordinator for Milton Keynes Labour Party. In May 2019, I unseated an incumbent Tory to be elected as a councillor onto MK Council, and am now Chief Whip of the Labour Group. I was hired as a part-time hospitality organiser by Unite the Union, and now work for the Communication Workers Union (CWU) as a project lead on the critically important New Deal for Workers campaign. I am also a spokesperson for Labour for a Green New Deal.

The strategic direction for Labour right now, as we head into five more year of opposition, is more crucial than ever. It’s important that we have new people coming up through the party structures, as well as retaining existing talent, to ensure we do not stagnate in our thought processes or decision-making and that we continue to build on the vibrancy and excitement that we have seen grow over the last couple of years. It is absolutely key that we have diversity, and a wide range of voices on the NEC – ones that will not be shy in speaking out on behalf of the membership, who comprehend the importance of decisions we make in regards to our electability and who will maintain members’ trust and consistently stay true to our principles.

We need to ensure that our party continues to commit to, and builds upon, the goal of being a truly member-led democratic and socialist organisation. Our radical manifesto was popular with both members and the public, and we must remember that – policies of investment in our public services, renationalisation, tackling climate change and ending austerity are not the reason we lost the election, and we will only be securing our own demise if we backtrack on these now. Despite some trying to claim otherwise, it is possible to be both radical and electable, the two are not exclusive. It is our job, as the Labour Party, to put forward a vision of hope and prosperity for all, to rebuild trust within our communities and to nurture a diverse group of hard-working people who share our values to stand for positions at all levels of government. 

With all this in mind, it is important to note that I fully support open selection, and will advocate for its adoption at any given opportunity. Being a member of parliament should not be a job for life. As an MP you are accountable to both your electorate and to local members. Standing for reselection every five years, and letting the membership of your CLP decide who they would most like to represent them moving forwards is more than reasonable. Not only is the current trigger system process divisive and nasty, but the practice of allowing incumbents to remain unchallenged in seats term-upon-term provides little space for new activists to fulfil their potential, or even try. With open selection everyone will face the same process at the same time, and emerging talent will be given the opportunity to potentially represent their communities without feeling like they’ve entered parliament as a ‘usurper’.

I believe that we should be selecting parliamentary candidates in good time in every seat, not just in targets or marginals, so that they have the opportunity to earn the trust of their community, forge strong relationships with the membership, build the best possible campaign teams around them, and to enable them to establish good name and face recognition prior to elections. We should always be striving to identify community leaders and empowering them to stand for positions within our party structures and beyond. These people often exist in the most ‘unlikely’ of places, but will bring with them a wealth of skills and experience – resilience, empathy, keen intuition and loyalty – things that cannot be taught at university but that will be invaluable to our movement in the months and years to come. 

I do not agree with the ‘parachuting in’ of candidates where suitable candidates can be found locally. Those wanting to stand should have a link to the area and an affinity with the people they wish to represent, be that by living there, working there, growing up there or having attended school or university there. I am wary of those who put themselves forward for multiple seats, in areas they have little to no connection. The Labour Party was founded to give ordinary, hardworking people a voice. To provide a platform, on which to stand against those born into wealth and influence, and from which to seek power in order to improve the lives of those around them, and of their class. We are not the party of career politicians, nor should we ever be, and there are some who would do well to remember that.

Our members have more raw talent and energy than any other political party, they are enthusiastic, engaged, and intelligent, and we must allow them room to voice opinions and be heard through our party structures. Our CLPs should be exciting and welcoming places, with regular campaigning, community outreach, full social calendars, accessible training and meetings that encourage discussion and debate whilst providing a safe space to do so. Meeting fellow party members, trade unionists and politically-likeminded people from every region and background has been the highlight of my time in the movement so far, and is something I am keen to continue. Opening up lines of communication and sharing best practice in everything we do – from how we run events and local campaigns to how we can actively show solidarity with those in struggle and bring in those who are currently non-politicised to grow our movement – is not only imperative, but completely achievable.

Coming into the movement as a fresh face with fresh eyes; having proved my credentials as a grassroots activist, organiser and elected representative who is able to build relationships and get things done; and being so enthusiastic about our potential as a party; I believe now is the best time for me to stand to serve on the NEC.