Right now, the Movement for Change is wrong for Labour

David Miliband has much to offer. But not this.

There are two ways of viewing the announcement that Labour is about open its ranks to "an army of 10,000 community activists" managed by the Movement for Change. One is that it may create tensions within the party. The other is that it will be a total, unmitigated catastrophe.

I lean towards the latter. I have huge respect for David Miliband. I voted for him in the leadership election and assisted his campaign behind the scenes. It's a campaign that, despite the result, was a model of professionalism and probity.

Movement for Change was its Achilles heel.

"It was a disaster," says a key aide. "We had these guys sitting down with constituency chairs who had just fought off the Tories and Lib Dems by a couple of hundred votes, and they're saying, 'Right, we're going to teach you how to organise a campaign.' "

"I'd die in a ditch for David," says another member of his team, "but to be honest, Movement for Change turned out to be a real problem. It took a lot of time, a lot of energy, and it just rubbed up a lot of potential supporters the wrong way."

Movement for Change grew out of Citizens UK, the community action group established by Neil Jameson, former director of Save the Children and the Children's Society, and Lord Maurice Glasman, dubbed "Ed Miliband's de facto chief of staff" by one Labour insider.

Citizens UK describes itself as "an experiment in democracy and the exercise of civic power". According to its website, "Ordinary people feel powerless to influence the decisions which affect their lives. This is dangerous for democracy. It is dangerous for politics. When politics fail, violence is the resort of the desperate."

The organisation has a strong base among a diverse range of faith communities, which in turn has a strong influence over its culture and agenda: "The power and influence that we seek is tempered by our religious teachings and moral values and is exercised in the fluid and ever-changing relationship with our fellow leaders, allies and adversaries."

According to a prominent Labour adviser who has worked closely with the party on its organisational structures: "They're relatively new on the UK political scene. I didn't know much about them except the media hype. Then Movement for Change had a big meeting at party conference which started full and ended up with less than half that number. They had one activist shouting at Ed Miliband across the room, there was a lot of singing, and there were a lot of people demanding Ed provide them with pledges on this and that. I'd question whether it's possible to integrate their culture with that of the party."

According to another Labour activist who has attended one of the events: "Citizens UK are very strongly based around religion. When I was there you'd have some dragon dancers, then a priest, then some songs. There were always points where people were asked or encouraged to express some form of affirmation for the cause."

Nevertheless, Citizens UK, and its subsidiary London Citizens, can point to some significant political successes. It was instrumental in promoting the idea of the living wage, led the fight for the abolition of detention of child refugees and secured the presence of all three political leaders at its conference in the middle of last May's general election campaign.

But there is a political ambiguity to its aims which many in the Labour Party find troubling.

One very senior organiser who is closely associated with Movement for Change and Citizens UK admitted to me that, despite claims to the contrary, "We have had no real success in developing our relationship with the trade unions."

Maurice Glasman told the Guardian on Monday, "The unions are the great silent, awful fact in all this. They are the self-organised wing of the Labour movement. They are dominated by a narrow crust of progressive activists, they are disengaged from their members. And what Labour's got to understand is that we've lost the art of leadership and organising, so Labour's got to set up its own organising academy."

According to the Guardian, it is envisaged that Movement for Change will be "autonomous, controlled by its members, and affiliated to the Labour Party as a socialist society".

There is the added issue of the relationship between Citizens UK and David Cameron's "big society" agenda. Citizens UK claims that it intends to "play a key role" in building the "big society". According to the organisation, "In the Conservatives' 'big society' paper and manifesto, Citizens UK is mentioned as the main resource for the training of community organisers, which the Prime Minister repeated."

In the wake of Labour's election defeat, it is only right that people look afresh at all aspects of the party's infrastructure and organisation. But the new politics appears to be advancing on the party not in single spies, but in battalions. What is needed is a professional, root-and-branch reorganisation. What we appear to be getting is the establishment of a people's militia.

David Miliband still has much to offer his party. Movement for Change is not the vehicle for delivering it.

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Shadow Scottish secretary Lesley Laird: “Another week would have won us more seats”

The Labour MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath on the shadow cabinet – and campaigning with Gordon Brown in his old constituency.

On the night of 8 June 2017, Lesley Laird, a councillor from Fife and the Labour candidate for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, received a series of texts from another activist about the count. Then he told her: “You’d better get here quick.”

It was wise advice. Not only did Laird oust the Scottish National Party incumbent, but six days later she was in the shadow cabinet, as shadow Scottish secretary. 

“It is not just about what I’d like to do,” Laird says of her newfound clout when I meet her in Portcullis House, Westminster. “We have got a team of great people down here and it is really important we make use of all the talent.

“Clearly my role will be facing David Mundell across the dispatch box but it is also to be an alternative voice for Scotland.”

At the start of the general election campaign, the chatter was whether Ian Murray, Labour’s sole surviving MP from 2015, would keep his seat. In the end, though, Labour shocked its own activists by winning seven seats in Scotland (Murray kept his seat but did not return to the shadow cabinet, which he quit in June 2016.)

A self-described optimist, Laird is calm, and speaks with a slight smile.

She was born in Greenock, a town on the west coast, in November 1958. Her father was a full-time trade union official, and her childhood was infused with political activity.

“I used to go to May Day parades,” she remembers. “I graduated to leafleting and door knocking, and helping out in the local Labour party office.”

At around the age of seven, she went on a trip to London, and was photographed outside No 10 Downing Street “in the days when you could get your picture outside the front door”.

Then life took over. Laird married and moved away. Her husband was made redundant. She found work in the personnel departments of start-ups that were springing up in Scotland during the 1980s, collectively termed “Silicon Glen”. The work was unstable, with frequent redundancies and new jobs opening, as one business went bust and another one began. 

Laird herself was made redundant three times. With her union background, she realised workers were getting a bad deal, and on one occasion led a campaign for a cash settlement. “We basically played hardball,” she says.

Today, she believes a jobs market which includes zero-hours contracts is “fundamentally flawed”. She bemoans the disappearance of the manufacturing sector: “My son is 21 and I can see how limited it is for young people.”

After semiconductors, Laird’s next industry was financial services, where she rose to become the senior manager for talent for RBS. It was then that Labour came knocking again. “I got fed up moaning about politics and I decided to do something about it,” she says.

She applied for Labour’s national talent programme, and in 2012 stood and won a seat on Fife Council. By 2014, she was deputy leader. In 2016, she made a bid to be an MSP – in a leaked email at the time she urged Labour to prioritise “rebuilding our credibility”. 

This time round, because of the local elections, Laird had already been campaigning since January – and her selection as a candidate meant an extended slog. Help was at hand, however, in the shape of Gordon Brown, who stood down as the MP for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath in 2015.

“If you ever go out with Gordon, the doors open and people take him into their living room,” says Laird. Despite the former prime minister’s dour stereotype, he is a figure of affection in his old constituency. “People are just in awe. They take his picture in the house.”

She believes the mood changed during the campaign: “I do genuinely believe if the election had run another week we would have had more seats."

So what worked for Labour this time? Laird believes former Labour supporters who voted SNP in 2015 have come back “because they felt the policies articulated in the manifesto resonated with Labour’s core values”. What about the Corbyn youth surge? “It comes back to the positivity of the message.”

And what about her own values? Laird’s father died just before Christmas, aged 91, but she believes he would have been proud to see her as a Labour MP. “He and I are probably very similar politically,” she says.

“My dad was also a great pragmatist, although he was definitely on the left. He was a pragmatist first and foremost.” The same could be said of his daughter, the former RBS manager now sitting in Jeremy Corbyn's shadow cabinet.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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