The Labour party in government will urgently need to cultivate the seeds of movement politics it sowed in opposition, writes Mark Ferguson
The Labour party is not a staid, safe and secure party ensconced in Westminster. It is not enshrined in a single man or woman. It is not hidden away behind bricks and mortar. It is not a piece of writing on a card, a book of rules or a group of MPs in parliament.
The Labour party is a movement – perhaps the greatest and most successful movement for justice and social change that Britain has ever known. It is rooted in the communities of Britain, woven into the tapestry of our towns and cities, the lifeblood that holds together our villages and the energy that inspires change in our communities.
And if that is not what the Labour party is today, then it is what the Labour party has been before, and it is what it can – and must – be again if Labour is to be successful electorally and radical once back in government.
Labour needs to create and embody a movement again, to hold itself to account, win consensus for the big changes necessary, and renew itself in office.
By doing so Labour can meet the big political challenge of our time – taking a distant and aloof politics and making it relevant and personal again.
Phil Wilson – now member of parliament for Sedgefield, but before that an aide to Tony Blair – has argued that ‘party reform stopped on 2 May 1997’. Once Labour got into office, the party largely ossified – organisationally and politically – until the return to opposition in 2010. I would go even further – for much of Labour’s time in office, the Labour party was overlooked, only receiving more than cursory attention when it could serve the higher purpose of governing.
That is more than understandable. After all, this was a party that had been out of power for 18 years. And even after there had been ‘a lot done’ there was always ‘a lot to do’. Changing Britain after years of Tory rule was imperative, but that meant changing the party was never on the to-do list of anyone who controlled their own to-do list.
And yet if a party only renews when it loses – when it is out of power and at its least able to effect change – then it fails itself and it fails the British people.
In search of a movement
Once back in opposition, attention swiftly turned to the dysfunctional nature of the party’s structures, the lack of engagement from its dwindling membership and the focus placed upon a certain type of campaigning in a certain small number of seats. In huge swaths of the country the party was effectively moribund, and even in areas with Labour MPs, Labour councils and a history of Labour activism, the level of member activism was often still minimal.
Refounding Labour – billed as being ‘nothing less than the refoundation of the Labour party’ was sold to the party and the country as a serious effort to tackle the need for party reform. And yet it was at best a prolonged consultation exercise with very little substantial changing as a result. Campaigns were still run by a handful of hardy volunteers. Membership of the party remained stubbornly low. People, even Labour voters, did not rush in their millions to become party supporters.
The later phase of party reforms were far more substantial – although driven by political expedience rather than an animating desire to reconnect the Labour party with supporters, members and communities. By encouraging trade unionists to make the proactive step to become part of the party and have a voice in its key decisions – in particular, future leadership contests – there were the first tentative moves towards establishing Labour as the party of the shop floor and the high street.
And yet the party organisation remains – at its core – technocratic rather than democratic, and at times more interested in running through the minutes of the last meeting than changing our communities, workplaces and the country itself. That desire to build and change Britain is why people join the Labour party, and why more might join in future.
To build a movement, you have to have an answer to the question, ‘Why am I Labour?’ that evokes a stronger emotion than simply, ‘Because I believe they’d be a better government than the other lot.’
The lost movement
In between these two phases of party reform, there came – without a conference vote, a special conference or a membership consultation – a genuine opportunity for Labour to embrace both its roots and its future as a movement party.
When Ed Miliband was introduced to Arnie Graf in 2011, the intention was merely to have a conversation about how community organising works, especially around issues like the living wage. Instead, Miliband was so moved by Graf’s story, experience and vision that he offered him a job.
The New Yorker would be tasked with building a different kind of Labour party campaign in some of the party’s key seats. The focus would no longer be on flogging an ever-dwindling number of members to achieve ever-more stretching voter ID targets, but to build a movement – or a series of interlocking community movements – across the country that would drive the Labour party on to achieve change and galvanise support for the party in those communities.
The byproduct of this – the magic ingredient that made this work for a party that seeks to win elections and change the country – was that these movements would support the party and help to win elections. In many ways it was a classic capacity-building model, which could – if encouraged to grow – have worked in tandem with Ed Miliband’s 2014 party reforms to build Labour into a mass movement party. In 2013 I saw hundreds of people brought together by Graf in Preston for an event before the local elections that year. I had never seen a queue for a Labour party event, nor an event where hundreds were turned away as the room was bursting at the seams.
Graf was onto something. But within a year he was gone. And, despite repeated assurances from the party leadership, he has not returned. His work lives on in the constituencies where he worked with party organisers, but, despite protestations that the 2015 election will be a member-led affair, his work is no longer part of the party’s national campaign strategy. But it is part of what the party will become – because the seed of a good idea has been planted in the minds of many of the party’s best young campaigners and MPs.
Organizing for America
Respect. Empower. Include – these are the key tenets of the organising model favoured by Graf and his adherents, but the phrase itself comes from a different America entirely. Not from the streets of Baltimore but from the cornfields of Iowa and the early days of Barack Obama’s first campaign for the presidency. They are also the mantra which ran through the first Obama campaign and into the successor organisation Organizing for America – later Organizing for Action – was created with lofty intentions. It was supposed to be the radical driving force behind the Obama presidency that would sustain the president in office, rally around his governing agenda and campaign to get his legislation through an often-intractable Congress. It is this model that Labour should look to as a means of support for a Miliband government. But what OFA became is also a salutary warning.
As originally devised, OFA would play a crucial role in maintaining the salience of issues on which the president was elected. Those issues that Obama’s opponents sought to either ignore or ridicule would be kept in the public imagination, reminding the electorate why they voted for Obama in the first place, and why such issues needed to be tackled. Obamacare is the best example of such an issue – and perhaps the best example of where OFA failed to give Obama the backing he needed.
Instead of being an organising force for progressive change both inside and outside of Washington, OFA became a parallel infrastructure for the Democratic party, working alongside and sometimes in competition with the Democratic National Committee rather than in partnership with it. It became about organisational control rather than being something organic and more powerful.
How Labour can learn from OFA
After the May general election, a Labour government led by Miliband has a good chance of emerging. But a comfortable majority for the party that would make legislating for substantial change – Labour change – seems unlikely. So, whatever the outcome, whether a small majority, a minority, a coalition or confidence and supply, the Labour parliamentary party in government is going to need all of the support it can get from Labour activists, members and supporters.
A party with fewer than 200,000 members and insufficiently strong ties to the communities hit by a government’s difficult decisions – especially so if the party has been elected to power without a parliamentary majority – will require a structure of supporters and campaigns to keep Labour values at the heart of the new government, buttressing the party against opposition parties and a hostile media.
But such a government – any future Labour government – will also need to develop deeper and more profound roots into our communities if we are to avoid falling once again into the trap that Wilson identified, where the party remains pickled in aspic once red boxes are in hand.
On issues like low pay and social care – two key examples of where grassroots community action can make a tangible difference – the next Labour government must maintain momentum in office and demonstrate real progress. On the former, we will not see a change like we saw under the last Labour government. The minimum wage and the Low Pay Commission are now established and even the Tories will not touch them, but we could still see real and substantial (but incremental) growth in wages. The changes to the LPC’s mandate and use of soft power to increase take-up of the living wage are not insignificant, and must be organised around by a movement party, pushing, developing and building on these changes to ensure they have the maximum impact.
The same is true of care. In many ways we all hope we will not need the end-of-life care that is so important, let alone the ongoing support that comes with chronic disease or terminal diagnosis. Many – perhaps most – do not want to talk about their experiences until it is too late for us or someone we love. So the next Labour government will need to campaign, reassure and show that at a time of great need the experience of those being treated is transformatively different, thanks to the culmination of a series of interlocking reforms and improvements.
Only if supported by a movement – informing, reshaping, supporting and actively campaigning for such changes – can the Labour party hope to achieve the big changes in government that are necessary, and get the necessary credit in those areas which big changes will be made.
A new Labour party
Party renewal has – at long last and often in underwhelming or piecemeal form – taken place in recent years. But the process is unfinished – is never finished – and must continue in government.
So what would that look like?
First, the party really will need to learn to ‘let go’. Devolution of power to cities and regions is all the rage in party policy, but it must also be the party’s organisational mantra. The centre cannot be afraid of local candidates and local campaigns pressing for change that may not match in entirety the party’s policies in government. The traditional command-and-control model has relied upon iron discipline. The new model for a successful party will feature more tension but also greater involvement and collaboration. The Labour leadership will no longer recoil from those urging the party to go further, but instead see this as a positive tension that drives the party forward on issues that resonate in communities – jobs and housing, for example – and gives the movement energy.
A return to – and full embrace of – the model pioneered by Graf would be the logical place to start when crafting such a movement party, using organisers within the early years of the new parliament to engage with, build and encourage campaigns in their own communities. Capacity and engagement would be the metrics that local parties would be measured by, at least at first, rather than purely on voter ID. Taking the reforms instigated by Miliband and passed by the party’s special conference to their logical conclusion, organisers would grow their local parties and the national party by bringing trade unionists and local activists into the party. And these local groups would then organise both at a local level for the issues that they want to see tackled (genuinely representative democracy), and the issues the Labour party will need to fight on at a national level, like devolution of power down to those same communities, social care, job creation and the big decisions about spending and taxation.
Winning, winning and winning again
Movement politics gives us the opportunity to show our best face to the world. Too often Labour (and other mainstream parties) can lapse into the rhetoric of ‘Only X can beat Y’. While this may be the case under our electoral system, it inspires no one. Labour could and should be arguing that we are the best option available, the one that represents you and those around you, rather than arguing ‘We’re the best you’re going to get’.
By making that step-change, Labour can both renew in government, and use government as a springboard into a more successful future, rather than looking over our collective shoulder, fearful that the electorate and their wrath will catch up with us eventually.
Winning the election on 7 May is a huge challenge. But it cannot be the end of the journey. The next challenge is to build support to ensure we deliver in government, and then build as a party and a movement to ensure that the next challenges are those we can face and meet. Only by doing so will the Labour party regain the trust and faith of a frustrated nation – but, more than that, the party and the people can go on to achieve bigger things, together.
Mark Ferguson is editor of LabourList
Be the first to read Preparing for power for free in the original:
Apple users can download via the App store here
Android users can download via Google play here
If you are already a Progress member or subscriber you will have been sent your unique log-in details so you can access the latest magazine and an archive of past issues free of charge.
If you are not a Progress member you can join now and receive the print edition of the magazine as well as discounted entry to our events and conferences.
Main photo: Louisa Thomson
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.