Time for a stand alone University of Labour

This article was first published on Progress Online, 3 August 2012.

Labour’s general secretary Iain McNicol has made clear that Labour can’t win using ‘the old playbook’. But what will replace it? An essential part of the new playbook should be the training programme Labour has for its members. A new training programme should build on the strengths of the current ‘Train to Win‘ programme and become an accredited, effective and meaningful ‘University for Labour’ that is accessible to every party member.

We know that a well-trained volunteer is far better prepared for the rough and tumble of party activism than one with minimal to no ongoing training. Therefore, the new University for Labour should make its mission the creation of well-trained volunteers at the variety of levels required to win elections. By engaging its diverse membership, Labour can drive innovative and forward thinking approaches to community organising, grassroots recruitment, fundraising, campaigning, policy analysis and speech writing.

Beyond its renewed purpose, however, lie the stumbling blocks. The three keys to the success of the University will be forging a coherent structure, clear communication channels and strong commitment from the Labour leadership.

The university should offer complete, accredited programmes at an appropriate number of levels – for instance, beginner and more experienced activists, CLP officers, and interested candidates. The party should signal the appropriate level and encourage activists to gain accreditation and skills that can stretch their abilities and boost their confidence. These credits can be used as considering factors when someone goes for a position in their CLP or candidate selection.

The University of Labour must think like our most prestigious educational institutions, which maintain consistent popularity with student applicants, feature prominently and progressively reach out to new students in sixth-forms and further education colleges. The university must rethink what it means to be a member of the Labour party, and put its strong values into practice across an audience of 200,000 members from all variety of backgrounds, aspirations and ambitions.

Though we won’t be building a physical campus, the university requires a distinct hub staffed by dynamic, forward-thinking staff members, who are keen to advance an innovative education and outreach programme. If Movement for Change can organise successful nationwide training schemes from a small but dedicated and talented group of staff from their Brixton Office, then a University for Labour can achieve even greater feats.

The university must also communicate clearly. This starts with creating a distinctive brand. At the moment, the Train to Win programme is just a subset of the wider Labour party website. A University for Labour should have its own distinct identity within the party as a socialist society.

The website for the University for Labour should do its best to resemble a working university web portal. This would be a radical step for Labour, silencing critics like Andrew Rawnsley who recently wrote in The Observer, ‘Labour, in so many ways an instinctively conservative party, will have to think a lot more radically than this if it is to capture the anti-establishment mood’. By demonstrating our commitment to adapt to current political and organisational challenges, we will make our critics think twice about any perceived resistance to change.

To that end, the university should create a distinct online presence via Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flickr and LinkedIn. A good university utilises such platforms to keep their students and alumni in touch with regard to progress and developments with their departments and external and internal events. The social nature of such forums would also strengthen member engagement with the university.

We should do more to share the possibilities and results of university participation with members. Currently Train to Win shares its newsletters and published material, but this material is sadly unknown to many would be candidates for the training, networking and courses. Many members of my local CLP, Bermondsey and Old Southwark, had not heard of the Train to Win scheme. Since then I’ve been advocating the training available to members and some have started to take advantage of the option. A transparent university would share accreditations, successes and activities across social platforms; this social element is key to building skills and then putting them to use together for democratic socialism.

The final hurdle will be ensuring that the leadership is in place. Elected office holders, candidates and leaders at the CLP and council level must be ready to support the initiative. Whilst leaders at the central level are necessary to devise and deliver the structural elements of the programme, its success is contingent on participation at the grassroots. Chairs and local leaders should be empowered to recruit volunteers for trainings – and show their value by leading trainings and taking courses themselves.

Despite attempts at modernisation, there are still too many Labour party members who feel distant from the operations and dynamic workings of the movement. Our quality and provision of education for our members should mirror our commitment to quality education for all within the UK. A better trained, more engaged grassroots would be powerful force come election time. Labour party members deserve a university fitting the party name. Now Labour must be bold and courageous in pulling off the endeavour.

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Prem Goyal is vice chair of Bermondsey and Old Southwark constituency Labour  party

Written by Reporter