11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 23


Kate Burnett joins the

Labour Party, but finds little encouragement

MR KINNOCK has for some time now been talking about cheering up the Labour Party. Labour headquarters in Walworth Road recently launched a recruitment cam- paign. Next week, there is a scheme to recruit a friend on St Valentine's Day. The party wants to target the yuppie voter and to encourage more women to join, to balance the male-dominated trade union membership.

Mr Kinnock and his supporters make no secret that they regard too many of their grass roots members as extremists. Now they need to create a mass party that is embraced by people from all echelons of society. A mass membership is also the only way of breaking the stranglehold of the union block vote.

The touchstone of this recruitment suc- cess will be the marginal constituencies particularly in the prosperous home- owning Tory-dominated south-east, where Labour's parliamentary representation is diminished. One such is Fulham, where I live, which has swung from Left to Right like a pendulum. In 1986 a Tory majority of 4,800 was upset when an example of the new Labour Kinnock man, Nick Rayns- ford, photographed with his family, wear- ing suit and tie, swept to victory in a sensational by-election. In the same year, Labour was returned to power on the borough council; this surely was the road towards the mass party. Yet in 1987 the hard-left council pushed up the rates some 50 per cent just before the general election. Out went Mr Raynsford, out went the high hopes of the new telegenic, 'red rose' Labour strategists, and back came the Conservatives with a swing of 23 per cent.

To find out how winning and attractive the Fulham Labour Party could make itself, I decided to join.

I attended a branch meeting, the build- ing block of every constituency party. It was held in a bleak community hall, where members sat wrapped in coats and scarves to resist the November chill. The meeting was slow to start because there was an inadequate number of members to form a quorum to pass resolutions. We sat in a semi-circle shivering and made stiff con- versation until we numbered ten.

I paid my subscription to the branch secretary, a likeable but muddled Indian who had not written up the minutes from the meeting before, and who had failed to 'make contact' with me in advance of this meeting. My application was presented, welcomed and I was voted in unanimously. The heady confidence this gave me was dispelled in moments. 'You are a member of the right union and all that?' asked the chair, waving her cigarette and trying to assume as throw-away a style as she could muster. It struck me I might face instant expulsion if I fell at this first hurdle; I blustered that I was a trainee journalist and that no one had ever mentioned unions.... Troubled looks were exchanged between the chair and her right arm, a woman of similar angular stature who had been Fulham's representative at Conference and whose words were therefore met with some deference.

Together they decided that I should not after all take part in any discussion or debate until my membership had been approved by 'the GMC'. I wondered for many weeks at what point I was able to describe myself as an approved member and allowed to participate. The moment of initiation was so unclear.

Those who were approved went through the party correspondence, announced forthcoming events, and discussed the merits of a video from Walworth Road to be shown as part of the recruitment cam- paign. The younger members who dared to speak were earnest in their commitment to the campaign and the film, the older members nodded silent approval and gave very little away. I asked enthusiastically whether I could take friends who might be interested to see the film. Once again the chair looked doubtful and told me to refer my question to the constituency secretary (who was not at the meeting). From the depths of my coat I chose not to speak again as I suspected I had already taken too great a part at a meeting where I was only an 'observer'.

A week later a women's section meeting was held in a member's home, to 'enjoy a more informal atmosphere'. This I thought sounded more promising and less daunt- ing. A speaker was expected to talk about her work with the section and anyone was welcome. It was unlikely that I would be voted in — and out again — at this meeting. We were five women, all young, and our speaker was too tired to come. An im- promptu discussion was held instead. The meeting was altogether homelier, as we drank coffee and nibbled Indian delicacies which one girl had brought along. The other four women tried to find out a little about me and certainly the whole context felt friendlier compared with the alienating atmosphere of the previous meeting. One woman whom I guessed to be a teacher from her slow but precise manner, under- took to explain some of the endless acronyms that beset the highly complicated workings of the party. The conversation was lively and interesting as the girls considered reasonable ways of attracting women as part of the recruitment cam- Paign.

The evening of the showing of the recruitment video arrived. It was to be shown in Fulham's party headquarters. I Was pleased to have the opportunity to see inside the building, not yet having had reason to go. I arrived promptly to meet the constituency secretary (for the first time) locking up, the video in her hand. A middle-aged lady dressed like an archaeologist in anorak and walking shoes, she told me that so few people were expected that the video was to be shown in a member's home. As I made my way to the new venue I pondered on the implica- tions of such a small turn-out for a film designed to teach members how to recruit.

We were three altogether. Our hostess, a formidable woman in a brown trouser- suit and with an air of immense authority, offered us coffee with long-life milk, while we watched her settle down to whisky.

The film reiterated much of my experi- ence of the daunting and bewildering time a new member faces when he joins. As the three of is watched, the irony of the situation was embarrassingly clear. When it was over, we all found relief in talking about our holidays.

A hand-out I was given, revealing the research behind the campaign, shows the gloomy view that Labour members have of their party: it takes too long to join, the other members are difficult to get on with; they are strange; they are fanatical; they are extremely knowledgable about current affairs; they are only interested in minority issues; they shout; they wear cloth caps; and so on. The campaign aims to create a new image to entice the voters and prom- ote active membership.

When I joined the Labour Party I have to admit that I looked forward to meeting some of the loonies and lesbians of tabloid legend. I was disappointed. My three months as a member were remarkable by their unimpressiveness. I met despondent, dispirited members who are wearied by the uphill struggle to power. I attended as many meetings as I could and met only a handful of people, and only one person twice. My appearance at meetings was almost embarrassingly regular.

In Fulham Mr Kinnock can have no fear that Labour extremists are going to lose him the next election. But surely so unin- spired and disheartened a membership is unlikely to win it for him. The problems of the party in SW6 do not begin at its grass roots but at another, higher level. The bureaucracy and Labour Party machinery are slow (three months until an anonymous GMC approved my, membership). I fear they are coming to a standstill.