The Festa de L’Unità is an annual festival, started by the Italian Communist Party and continued by Labour’s sister party in Italy, the Democratic Party. A week long event, it involves debate, music, dance and speeches. Think the Durham Miners’ Gala, just with much better food and in every city in Italy. The Festa is different from the party’s annual congress, where party policy is discussed and officers elected. It is distinct in the fact that, although it is still a place for discussing politics, the aim of the festival is not to manage the direction of the party, or hold its leaders to account, but rather a way for members to socialise, unwind and for a ‘party culture’ to develop.
So what do I mean by ‘party culture’? Well, obviously not the Labour Party developing its own language or music genre. I am using ‘culture’ in a sociological sense: contrasting it to party ‘structure’. Simply, structure is the way a group or society is organised and culture is the ideas and values that this collection of people share. For example, the National Executive Committee, Party Conference and Constituency Labour Parties would all be classified as structure, while sharing a belief in equality, or the history we have behind us would be ‘culture’. So why is this important beyond me being able to show off my rudimentary understanding of sociology? And how does this relate to an Italian excuse to get really drunk and eat a lot?
Well consider this: the Democratic Party has around 800,000 members compared to Labour’s 200,000. Clearly our Italian comrades are doing something better than us, and from first hand experience, the Democratic Party is not an archetypal paragon of competence. I believe it is because Labour has concentrated far too much on structure, and ignored the culture. Not only has it turned a mass movement into a insulated party, but it has also disconnected the party from our core support. When I canvass, I talk to, without fail, voters who regards me as a door-to-door salesman for the Party. Can we honestly say that we, as individual activists, agree totally with the leadership and the Party’s policies? Are we supposed to agree with, or even know the Party’s stance on every single issue, local and national? I appreciate that for some people asking a doorknocker is the easiest way to find out policy, but when a voter at the door doesn’t even make eye contact, speaks in a tone of bored annoyance, yet continues to ask endless questions as if deciding which vacuum cleaner to buy I realise that there has been a serious break between the Party and the people it is supposed to represent. We have become an organisation focused on structures designed for winning elections, not a movement with a culture of building consensus. Consensus that works both ways: voters agreeing that the (Labour) government is legitimate and represents us, as well as the government knowing that, to retain this legitimacy, it must listen devoutly to popular opinion. Because we are, as activists, a bridge between voter and government, instead of door-to-door salesmen. A truly democratic Labour government is one where activists listen to the voters and the front bench listens to the activists. A vanguard party directed solely from Party HQ can only fade into meaninglessness in a time of voter dissatisfaction.
The structure of a Party, which is what most people see through press conferences, speeches and Party Conference, can seem very disconnected from real life and often comes across as something not entirely real, and therefore, something not worth getting involved in. By putting a human face to a sometimes inhuman organisation, we can show that the Labour Party is not just a few talking heads on TV. Voters that have been canvassed are far more likely to vote and vote for the party they were canvassed by, according to a study by Yale in 2000. Structure is needed, but it cannot be more important than culture. Building a better society is not a professional enterprise, and it can’t be done purely by a clique of full-time staffers (not to say the Labour Party doesn’t need staffers).
I realise I still haven’t answered my earlier question about the Festa de l’Unità. The point of a festival like that is to build culture. If Labour ran similar festivals in every city, people would swiftly realise that we aren’t just a Party of mad politicos. We could build culture, not only through more dialogue with non-members, but also through political education. In the old days of the Italian Communist Party, every Festa would have a library tent, stocked with all the books necessary for an awakening of class consciousness. We could make clear Labour’s beliefs and values, which are far more relatable than any policy announcement. I can get far more excited about building a fairer world than I can, let’s say, a British Investment Bank (good as that is). The people I meet and know in the Labour Party are committed, principled and fundamentally decent people who could convince a lot more people if they were given more time than just a few minutes on a Sunday morning. Isn’t it telling that the people we give the least time to on the doorstep are our most ardent supporters? When they say ‘I’ve voted Labour all my life’, our immediate reaction is to go break the conversation off as soon as possible, having already gotten quickly the vital two Ls to put on the canvassing sheet. Connecting more with these people, listening to their grievances and ideas properly and especially not taking them for granted just because ‘they’ve always voted for us and always will’ will ensure their continued support and most likely, a rise in membership.
But an emphasis on ‘party culture’ will also benefit existing members too. Nobody wants to bring about better society with people they don’t know or like. Personally I am much more likely to attend a meeting or campaign session if I know a good friend is attending too, and I don’t believe that this is a particularly strange attitude. Everyone knows the old quote ‘All campaigning and no socials makes Ed a dull boy’. And let’s vary these socials; not just the same pub nights and gala dinners, but film nights, sports days, barbecues and so on. Through these actual human interactions and relationships can start to develop. This is vital, especially for newer members, who maybe aren’t too sure about where to start and how much time to give to the Party. It also means that we can look beyond the cliques that we sometimes herd ourselves into. Not only does the Labour Party need to be a movement, but it also needs to become a family, where no matter which CLP or Labour Club you go, you will always feel welcome and among friends. We spend too much time in constituencies debating finances and approving minutes, and not enough talking about the kind of country we want, or how to bring it about. We do need to do the nitty-gritty stuff, but we risk losing ourselves in bureaucracy: in structure.