The constituency of Lewes in Sussex has continuously returned Conservative MPs since 1874, except for a period between 1997-2015 when the Lib Dems held the seat. Even in an area where Labour trails a distant third, Corbynism can still shake things up.
I blame Seaford, Newhaven, Alfriston and Polegate Labour Party branch myself, or, as they are better known in these parts ‘SNAP’. I’d been invited to Seaford last year to do a talk for them about my book The Corbyn Effect and chatting afterwards the idea came up of a dayschool on how Labour is changing since Jeremy Corbyn’s election as leader.
So the community centre was booked and by Christmas most of the speakers lined up for a mid-April date. Then, in the New Year, as canvassing picked up for the local elections it became obvious this was really bad timing. So a quick rejig and the date 9th June was chosen, rather neatly the anniversary of the 2017 General Election and four weeks after the local elections to recover and reflect on those results too. But the community centre wasn’t available for the 9th and the only viable alternative seemed to be Lewes Town Hall. Very reasonable, not a lot more than the community centre, but when we visited a chill went up my organiser’s spine. The space was huge, we could be rattling around with it half-full feeling miserable. This was turning from a challenge, into a major headache.
But we needn’t have worried, our original ticket-selling target was reached with a month to go, increased capacity by a third as a result of re-arranging the venue layout and sold those too with two weeks to go. The key point of interest for supporters or critics alike, right now is quite specific: Jeremy Corbyn. So we opted for ‘Corbynism’ and called the event ‘A day making new kinds of Labour politics’.
Next, we got the trade unions on board to sponsor the event, CWU, GMB, TSSA and Unison Labour Link, their financial support vital to our ability to put the event on and help fund a full page ad in our popular local magazine Viva Lewes.
It sounds harsh, but for too long the Left has been content with a cult of amateurism, a lack of resources used as an excuse for poor organisation and a sense of being there out of duty rather than to enjoy ourselves.
The speakers at the event were, without exception, every bit as good as we’d hoped for. Younger than most who spoke at meetings we’d previously organised, most were in their thirties, some in their twenties, only one in their 50s (ahem!). More women speakers and chairs than men as well, a most welcome change.
And after all that we made some dosh. It had been the agreement with the CLP from the start that we should use the event to fund raising our profile, an ad in Viva Lewes doesn’t come cheap, and to ensure the day itself provided the most positive impression of Lewes CLP for all those in attendance. Yet still we produced invaluable funds for the CLP campaign coffers.
The audience was mainly though not exclusively Labour. From a show of hands at the start, around two-thirds had joined, or rejoined, since Jeremy became leader. A much better gender balance than is still customary at such events, and while still not exactly youthful far more younger people than we usually see at Lewes CLP events. Big attendances from both Worthing CLPs, all three Brighton ones, mid-Sussex CLP and Reigate CLP in Surrey too. Others from further afield, Southampton Itchen, Somerton and Frome, Witney, various London constituencies including Islington North CLP (no, not him!), and we won’t forget the two who came all the way from Newcastle East CLP in a hurry!
And the lessons for Lewes CLP? We can put on an event of this ambition exceptionally well. The two branches in our CLP can work together successfully on a joint project. We can involve a wide variety of members, and non-members, in the organisation. We can attract our own CLP members to an event who don’t come to branch meetings. We can build links with other CLPs, especially in Sussex. We can use an event to build the profile of our lead 2019 council candidate, Emily Clarke and attract support for her campaign from Lewes and beyond. We can build local alliances out of it, including an enormous collection of food donated for Lewes foodbanks on the day. Perhaps most important of all, virtually no rancour. Despite the title this wasn’t a day of adulation or hagiography. Differences were expressed but in a manner to listen and learn from each other.
We used social media effectively too, throughout the day, thanks to live tweeting. The previous Saturday our twitter feed @LewesLabour amounted to 318 ‘organic impressions’, ie. views. On the day of the event, a staggering 21,000!
We ran a survey of all the participants which more than half completed. 97% thought the event stimulating, 98% described the day as brilliant and mixing with members of other CLPs was voted one of the top five attractions.
The event, and more like them, has the potential to turn Lewes into a hub of ideas for CLPs from across Sussex and Surrey. So what’s next? We asked if participants would come again, 89% said yes. That might mean establishing a CLP major events group, including those outside the party with specialist skills, and work towards a programme of up to 4 events a year, of differing formats, themes and size with our June day event becoming an annual centrepiece.