If the IWCE analysis is applied to the Labour Party and trade unions, then both training and education are essential requirements. As with Unison every organisation will have its own approach to the content of its ‘political education’.
There are debates about this in the Labour Party.
Last May Lara McNeill argued in Tribune that with its membership ‘now exceeding 550,000, Labour Party members must be encouraged to organise and formulate their own political demands, enhance their political understanding and self-confidence, and be equipped to make use of democratised policy-making structures.’ (1)
In August 2018 Sean Bennett suggested: ‘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’. (2)
Tom Blackburn discussed the issues in New Socialist June 2018. (3)
Croydon Councillors And Political Education
It is clear from Croydon’s current financial crisis that Councillors are ill-equipped to run the Council. Training is being recommended, but it is in danger of being dominated by managerialism. Councillors need to set managerialism within the context of their political vision for what they want the Council to do, so that it is a means to achieve it. That vision will be determined by the values of whichever political party they represent, and this should be subject to ‘political education’ within the party.
Croydon Council is run at the moment by the Labour Group. Its Councillors are chosen by Labour Party members. The motives of Labour Party Councillors across the country often seem to be based on wanting local personal prestige, and a need to be lay social workers. The final decisions are often taken on who can obtain the most votes in each ward branch based on past personality relationships and factionalism, rather than skills, experience, common sense and a questioning/probing approach.
Labour And Political Education
One of the flaws of the national Labour Party is the lack of consistent continuing training and political education, even though each ward branches and constituencies can elect Political Education (PE) and Policy officers.
Back in the early 198Os in a paper I wrote for Battersea Labour Party I suggested that there appeared to be no common agreement among PEOs on what political education is and what their functions are. Views ranged from the provision of internal education to Party members to external education of the public.
‘Political education seemed to be about stimulating people to think about the theoretical and practical problems facing them, assist them to increase their knowledge and understanding about those problems, and to assist them develop their skills as activists in the political process.
Political education should pervade very activity the Party undertakes, whether at simply organisational level in trying to build up the strength of a ward branch, or in the public work of the Party. It would in my opinion be self-defeating to expect the Political Education Officer of a constituency to handle all matters which may have a political education content. Firstly, to do so makes the task implementing political educational unmanageable, Secondly, it concentrates too much power and responsibility in one person. Firstly, it will frighten most people off so that either there will be no one acting as PEO, or if they are elected they do not function.
Since there is a danger of concentrating too wide a range of functions on the PRO, simply because they have some political education aspect, the GMC and EC of a Constituency must think clearly about what it wants in the way of political education and how it wants it organised. They should clearly define a minimum role for the PEO. If they want their PEO to do more, and can find the person willing to do more, then that is their prerogative, but their should be aware of the risks.
What should constitute a minimum PEO role?
The first principle is that the task of the PRO should be a manageable one. It may be, according to the capacities and interests of individuals that the different functions of PEO might be shared. What are the functions that could make up the minimum concept?
Given the reservations about the dangers of too wide a role, the responsibilities of the PEO should be largely political education of Labour Party members. This can consist of:
1. Assistance to Branch Secretaries in arranging their programmes of sneakers.
2. Finding out what Party members want ‘education’ on.
3. Organising programmes which concentrate on:
(a) Concepts of democratic socialism
(b) History and organisation on the Labour Party
(c) Development of skills as party activists and representatives
(d) Party policies
4. Suggest how political educational material coming from Region and Headquarters can be used.
5. Suggest how material from outside the Party which may contribute to the development of political education can be used.
6. Ensuring that current political problems are discussed in depth within the Party, whether by speakers at GMCs, branches, day schools, conferences.
Above all the PEO should take an overview of the political education needs of the Party, identifying tasks and activities that could/need to be undertaken, and organising specific political educational events within the Party for Party members.
It does not mean actually doing everything.
The PEO may feel that a bookstall operation is needed to provide a range of literature to assist Party members in individual and collective self-education. But running the bookstall is a job in itself, and the PEO cannot afford to take on that responsibility, because there will be little time to do anything else.
It may be that the PEO identifies the need for development of skills among Party school managers and governors. The PEO may organise the occasional one-off conference for them. But here are issues involved with them which go beyond the remit of the PEO, such as choice of the people to serve, welding them into a group, making the accountable to the Party. It may therefore be that a Constituency may therefore want to PEO to organise an initial day conference for governors and managers, at which it establishs a Schools Sub-committee accountable to the GMC for the oversight of all Party nominees and governor and managers, and review of education policy.
It may be that a Constituency wants to run an internal news sheet for its members, as a way of improving communication within the constituency. Given the amount of words involved it would be unwise to give the responsibility for his to the PEO, although g the PEO may wish to be a contributor from time to time.
One of the best forms of political education is participation and accepting responsibilities. The wider the degree of involvement, the more healthy and active is the CLP.’
At the time I wrote this within Battersea Labour Party I was working in the national Party’s Research Department. A colleague and I wrote an internal note on political education. We listed the following as aspects of political education:
· Introduction of new members to the Party’s history and ideas
· Explain existing members what our policies are
· Wider theoretical considerations on which policies are based
· Education of the public in the political process
· Lessons from campaigns elsewhere
· Projection of the party to the public
The use not only of written information and meetings- but also theatre groups, outings to the cinema, study groups.’
‘People can learn as much from their experience of local campaigns as they can from more formal’ political education meetings. The danger is that so much time and energy is spent in campaigning that the lessons are not learnt. For example, what are the ownership links between the company against which an immediate campaign is being fought and other companies; do those other companies invest in South Africa contribute to the Conservative Party.
More formal kinds of political education are needed to explain basic ideas of. e.g. economic theory.’
The Labour Party has changed considerably since the early 1980s. The following comments made then would need to be assessed as to whether they are still relevant.
‘In many areas the most important contribution that Head Office can provide is to facilitate the transfer information between constituencies. It would be helpful, for example, to produce video/posters/ leaflets, etc) showing how constituencies already organise. And to demonstrate practical skills: how to run a bazaar, a bookstall, to raise funds, to speak in public.’
We suggested that the Research Department ‘was a wasted resource. ‘We could formalise arrangements to enable us to explain policies throughout the country. This could also help us to test ways of presenting ideas.’
Political Education in Battersea Labour Party
For a while when I was Battersea’s PEO we held a meeting designed to enable new members to meet each other, to meet Officers and representatives, and to discuss how the party operates. Having explained the basics about the constituency and branch structure and the decision making process, and a brief word about the financial cost of running the Party, I concluded:
‘Party activity can be varied and fun: socials, dances, walks. etc. But the success depends on members participating in supporting tend organising, and in contributing their ideas. The basic motto is ‘if you want to see something done, work up our idea, present it within the party, and take responsibility for putting it into effect.’ The Party is us and reflects us.’
A Practical Example: Lambeth 2017
In 2017 I was asked to run a series of political education sessions for a section of the Labour Party in Lambeth. This included a quiz to understand existing knowledge, a PowerPoint presentation and material on the Party’s history, and discussion around a number of questions I posed and those raised by people taking part raised. Mine included:
· What do you think are the on-going positive and negative legacies of Thatcherism?
· What do you think are the major social and economic changes in Britain since 1997?
· What do you think is the balance sheet of the Blair Government?
· What do you think was the balance sheet of the Brown Government?
· What are the challenges facing Labour in the continuing process of BREXIT negotiations?
· If the May Government falls apart should Labour seek to form a Coalition Government with anti-Tory parties or insist on a General Election?
· Can Labour’s manifesto be implemented if Britain remains in Europe?
In relation to Lambeth Council:
· What do you think of the policies being pursued by Lambeth Council under Labour control?
· How do you make the Councillors accountable?
· How can you influence what is does?
· How can you influence the manifesto?
Over three years on how would I start a political education session? The Labour Party has become a centralised undemocratic organisation preventing members from debating issues the Leadership and the bureaucrats want buried. For me this contempt for members goes back to 1996 when I resigned the Party because of growing centralism under Tony Blair. The issue of inner party democracy debate should be a key element of local Parties’ political education programmes, along with two superb articles printed in The Guardian Journal today (20 February):
· Brexit left the elite unharmed: a truly English revolution by Rafael Behr
· Who’s the one millionaire the Tories dislike? by Marina Hyde – about Marcus Rashford being more successful in changing Government policy than the Labour Leader.
A PDF of the three sections is available on request at