Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Changing to win

We must become the party that makes change happen in local communities

By Iain McNicol

—As a young organiser soon after Tony Blair became leader I was sent from London to help in Dorset South. Operation Toehold turned paper candidates into an election campaign team – training up the best of the constituency party in the skills of direct mail, doorstep canvassing and targeting key wards.

On election night in 1995, John Prescott cited our wins as examples of how Labour was no longer a party of London and the north. We were the party of the south and the shires too. But as an advocate of Operation Toehold I can see its weaknesses. We made Labour an electoral machine, but not a community organisation.

For many, our experience of electoral success in the 1990s has become the lens through which all of our current fortunes are seen. And when you consider the extraordinary change that was wrought in the party and the rewards that we reaped as a result of that change you can see why. But there is a risk that we adhere to the letter and forget the spirit of that modernisation.

The key lesson of the 1990s modernisation was that the party needed to change to adapt to the country we sought to serve. Any change now must be on a similar scale, because, let’s face it, the country has changed a lot since 1994. There are people now eligible to vote that were not born when Blair became leader.

The truth is that our electoral successes last month revealed both how much we need to change and the risks of staying the same. We did well, but we did well in circumstances we would not want repeated at a general election. There is nothing more dispiriting, especially for people with progressive politics, to be told on the doorstep ‘you are all the same’. When more than 70 per cent of people in Harlow did not vote at all, that does not indicate a solid base for greater change in the future. And before we forget, only weeks before the Bradford West by-election was the ugly outcome of an electoral machine that had forgotten its purpose.

This is not the way we deliver change in communities, earn permission to be heard, and gain support for the ideas we got involved in politics for in the first place.

Our super-professionalised media-oriented machine that helped drive us to victory in 1997 needs some serious re-engineering. Centrally broadcast messages and mass data-harvesting will not do. It is based on an electoral model that focuses solely on ‘switcher’ or ‘swing’ voters at the expense of understanding people’s relationship with politics and their communities. This has to change. We had nearly two million conversations between January and May this year. Imagine how much more effective we could be if all those conversations on the Labour Doorstep were about more than voting intentions. Our way of winning elections and our purpose outside of elections need to be modernised. Bradford West is my biggest regret since becoming general secretary. I took this job promising to change the way the party conducts itself, and instead delivered an off-the-shelf by-election model. I am more determined than ever to drive through more reform following that result. From now on winning elections will be a means to an end, not an end in itself.

The Labour party is not simply an organisation which achieves change by winning elections; we are also a community organisation which works with local people to achieve change for themselves. We seek power to change society based on our values, but we must realise that the party should be committed to doing this regardless of whether there is an election around the corner. Only a Labour party based in communities, taking action that resonates with and delivers for local people will win us the next election.

Think about some of the places where we are doing things differently: Edinburgh, where the party developed its manifesto in conjunction with small business, charities and community organisations; Battersea, where members are becoming more involved and active in the community by being encouraged to identify the problems in their own neighbourhood; or Walthamstow, where we have led a voter registration drive. We start to see what the future might look like.

That is why we have started to restructure the party at the centre. We must ensure our greatest talent is in our communities so that we have more supporters, encouraged by our ability to make change happen in their neighbourhoods, ready to help us when elections come round. This way we can out-organise the opposition.

Ed Miliband has changed Labour’s approach on the fundamental assumptions about our economy, our attitude to vested interests and the way we pursue social justice in an era of less money. That message is starting to resonate. Without a new politics, we can’t expect to build a new economy. We’ve changed our politics before  so we know we can do it again. We know the rewards of modernisation are immense – not just for our party but for the country.


Iain McNicol is general secretary of the Labour party


Photo: Louisa Thomson

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Iain McNicol


  • We built our Party in the 1920’s on a platform of community politics. We must return to those basic values. Easy really 🙂

    Mike Olley

  • Iain, I agree whole heatedly and this is why the canvassing script should start with ‘have you got any issues you would like to raise with us?’, after the usual introductions. I believe that voting intention is secondary (although clearly vital) to the insight gained from this simple question.

    I reckon most successful local actively campaigning parties already ask this question. Wouldn’t it be great to capture and understand the feedback? There are ways and means of turning qualitative data into tangible targeted action.

  • Walthamstow? Where the labour Party recently betrayed the united voice of the electorate to ram through a slum building scheme on the Walthamstow dogtrack? Where millions of pounds went missing from the council’s poor fund and have still not accounted for and recovered? You have got to be kidding. If Walthamstow is an example of what the Labour Party wants to achieve in office nationally, the country is doomed.

  • The logic of Iain McNicol’s argument should be glaringly obvious; that is that we develop Co-operatives in varying forms locally, regionally and nationally. We need to ‘circle the wagons’ to look after residents as not only has the debate moved onto our territory, things have moved so fast, the reality has overtaken the debate at times. In such austere times the issue is as ever, but more pointed, one of a redistribution of wealth. This is addressed by organising and operating collectively but it is a ‘doing activity’ no amount of talk alone will suffice.

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