Jeremy Corbyn has today announced the launch of the Labour Organising Academy, a new body designed to look at methods of turning the party’s newly engorged membership into an effective campaigning body. In the pamphlet he produced, Corbyn observes that ‘Labour is now Europe’s biggest political party’ and that the ‘party’s membership will transform how Labour campaigns’.
The launch of this might feel somewhat hasty. After all, the leadership campaign won’t be concluded until the announcement at party conference in Liverpool on 24 September – but it represents a big change for Corbyn. It is a tacit acceptance of the notion that his supporters are too inward looking, too concerned with the mechanics of the Far Left movement, to actually win an election. This has been one of the biggest points of attack from his critics and recent polls have corroborated this. The Tories currently hold a 13-point lead over Labour, and a recent YouGov poll put Theresa May’s net rating 71-points higher than Corbyn’s.
This data has felt incontrovertible for a while, but the defence from Corbyn’s team has always been that polling has been notoriously poor of late, Labour has defended every by-election under Corbyn, as well as winning the London mayoral race, and he remains untested on a national scale. True as these points may be, they have done little to convince the Labour rebels or the public at large, and it seems that Corbyn has finally accepted a change of tack.
In their own words, these new Labour Organising Academies are intended to ‘deliver organising skills and training underpinned by Labour values to tens of thousands of members as we prepare for the next General Election.’ Corbyn supporters have long been vociferously enthusiastic, but they have tended to prefer rallies to door-knocking, social media to phone-banks. The specifics of these academies have yet to be established, but they commit to training Labour members in the organisational structure of a General Election campaign, something that cannot be done under the ragtag current structure of the movement.
Labour is, of course, historically a hugely efficient grassroots campaigning machine. During the 2015 General Election, the most common retort amongst Labour activists to the obvious failings of the Miliband/Balls axis was ‘Labour has a great ground game, we’ll make up the difference on the streets.’ Labour didn’t manage that, not least because the Conservatives appropriated many of the historic organisational tactics of their opponents, and combined it with much higher quality targeting. But, then again, there were far fewer members last year.
If Labour’s new members are to truly make a difference at a national election, they must not see these campaigning methods as inherently political. The street-pounding Labour machine that won a landslide for Tony Blair in 1997 is still there today; it has a different coat of paint, but the same engine. Perhaps Corbyn has begun to realise that: the name ‘Organising Academy’ is lifted from a campaign the TUC launched in 1998 as part of its New Unionism project, which saw it developing close links with the concurrent New Labour agenda. The methods that Labour has employed in canvassing and campaigning cannot and should not be forgotten, but they should be updated for the digital age and expanded to enthuse this new membership base. If Europe’s biggest party is to become a party of government, it needs to force its members back to the roots of its success.
Corbyn’s announcement today is the closest we will get to an admission that the party’s performance in the first year of his leadership hasn’t been a success on the national stage. His new strategy pledges to ‘bring together existing best practice’ but also review ‘how we can improve, and support our campaigners.’ Up until now, Corbyn has shown too much interest in iconoclasm and not enough in heritage, but this could represent a change of direction. A massive mobilised membership would represent a very real difficulty for the Conservatives, and is exactly the sort of thing that proves polls foolish. But to do this, Labour must go back to the tactics that have worked in the past and not fear the baggage of those campaigns.