Yesterday’s post discussed David Cameron’s infatuation with Obama’s administration at the expense of Conservative Party membership.
Today’s entry looks briefly at the same issues at the heart of the Labour Party.
A cross-section of Labour Party members — including potential ones — say are disillusioned for many of the same reasons Conservatives are unhappy with their own party (see comments here, here and here):
- Party leaders do not listen to members’ suggestions.
- Potential members sense cliquishness which puts them off joining.
- All the party wants is members’ money and their spare time.
- There seems to be no exchange of ideas between leadership and members.
As this year’s Labour Party conference was about to open in Brighton, General Secretary Iain McNicol recognised at least a few of these issues:
We are reshaping the culture of the party so that it is true to our traditions and our ethical purpose. We have to remember that relationships matter. If we use people, they feel used and we forgot that.
This transformation occurred through the Party’s hiring of Chicago community organiser Arnie Graf, thought to be a disciple of Saul Alinsky (see here, here and here) and mentor of Obama when he was starting out in the same type of activity.
Although Graf is based in the US and his work is very much in the background, he is part of Team Miliband.
Labour — including Ed Miliband — hired Graf to solve two issues: membership disillusionment and Miliband’s public image.
The party paid Graf (travel expenses and lost wages) to prepare a report on what he saw during his visits to see Labour at work in England. His report has remained only within the purview of top party members, however, as McNicol notes above, it is already bearing fruit.
Labour is fighting to represent a country of some 60 million people, but it has just 200,000 members. The party looks too much like a narrow group of people only interested in office, and it risks losing its connection with the vast majority of working and non-working people. Without members, the analysis goes, the party is hollow, and it cannot win.
Behind the dwindling numbers is a much deeper problem. Labour party members often describe feeling uninspired by meetings. Members have to pay to join, but they are only called on to do the legwork. Constituency and branch party meetings have often become bureaucratic and closed off. They are dominated by older members with established power bases and minutes from the previous meetings. Newcomers can be greeted with suspicion …
Graf remembers one particular time when he spent the whole day with Miliband, visiting his constituency in Doncaster: “I thought he was lovely with people. It didn’t look like a burden for him to be with them.” Graf noted that this would often fail to translate to the public, where he was still perceived as being rather out of touch. Graf had never seen Miliband more inspired and genuine than when he was coming home after a day out of the office, meeting and talking with people about their struggles and experiences – Ed on the train: “If I didn’t know anything about him, and just met him then and there, I’d vote for him. If we could translate Ed on the train to Ed in the country … There’s a real empathy when he was talking to working people.”
Graf arrived at four principle conclusions along with a few others which reflect his Alinskyite way of thinking, also well employed by Obama in 2008 and 2012. First the main conclusions:
First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party’s “bureaucratic rather than a relational culture”. A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.
Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.
Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.
Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: “We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that.”
As for other recommendations, Graf suggested that Labour run an open primary, which would have allowed towns and cities to select their own Labour candidate, regardless of whether these voters were party members. The French Parti Socialiste did this for their 2012 campaign, although the UMP did not. The Guardian article states that Labour is not keen on this idea.
Graf also proposed that Labour seek out community organisations and collectives which might be interested in working with them. This would provide not only a new source of membership but, where such commitment was less welcome, Labour would be able to pledge to listen to their ideas and perhaps collect some contributions along the way. It seems as if David Cameron might be looking at this possibility in some sense; he, too, seeks out Obama advisers. Grassroots Tories have also complained about the number of lobbyists and non-members at Conservative Party conferences in recent years.
One thing is certain. The British political landscape is changing, adopting more of the odious American tactics of constant emails and robo-calls asking for ‘support’ (money, money, money).
Haven’t we any original ideas on how to conduct our own political campaigns? Sadly, it seems not.