Was Andy Burnham right to call councillors the “foot soldiers” of the Labour Party?

Leadership contender’s remark highlights the lack of grass-roots activists.

At a recent Labour leadership hustings, Andy Burnham praised the hard work of councillors by saying they are the "foot soldiers" of the party. I found this an intriguing way to publicly describe Labour's elected local representatives.

Foot soldiers are the lowest rank of an army, the "grunts" who execute orders. To the political outsider, it might seem strange to refer to councillors -- elected officials who are selected by party members -- as being at the bottom of the chain of command. It might seem more appropriate to view councillors as ranking officers, leading platoons of soldiers on campaigns, rather than being the troops themselves.

Burnham's use of language points to how in some areas, Labour candidates win the house-to-house fight for votes almost alone. In a ward of 9,000 people, Labour can win with as small an effective fighting force as the three candidates themselves and a couple of volunteers. By placing the workload for campaigning on councillors, the party's electioneering machine has been able to compensate in part for the precipitous fall in active members.

While this may be effective in winning a tolerable number of seats, it is not a viable way to genuinely renew the Labour movement so that it can become a force for radical change once more.

To do this, Labour needs to follow Peter Mandelson's call to arms that the party fight back "as insurgents". A successful insurgency relies on a groundswell of volunteers. It must therefore be popular in its methods as well as its appeal.

The Labour Party's decision in Birmingham Edgbaston "to stop doing and start building" delivered an unexpected victory for Gisela Stuart, on the back of a newly recruited army of activists.

An increase in party volunteers would leave councillors freer to engage with their communities and provide a leadership role. They could be captains rather than privates. Interested and committed activists could act as lieutenants in the movement, encouraging and directing other volunteers where appropriate.

Building a successful insurgency is by no means easy. It cannot follow conventional, rigid hierarchies, but must still have enough structure and organisation to ensure the variety and breadth of its manpower remains an asset and not a drawback.

Supporters of a mass-participation Labour movement should back the proposal by Caroline Badley, architect of the Edgbaston victory, that the party help fund local organisers to work seriously towards building a movement.

To return to the military metaphor, career soldiers in professional armies who fight on behalf of the people can be a good defence in peacetime. But sometimes the nature of conflict dictates that they must take off their uniforms, return to the people and inspire them to fight -- or they can stay the course in a conventional battle they cannot win.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor in Lambeth and part of the Labour Values project.

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New Digital Editor: Serena Kutchinsky

The New Statesman appoints Serena Kutchinsky as Digital Editor.

Serena Kutchinsky is to join the New Statesman as digital editor in September. She will lead the expansion of the New Statesman across a variety of digital platforms.

Serena has over a decade of experience working in digital media and is currently the digital editor of Newsweek Europe. Since she joined the title, traffic to the website has increased by almost 250 per cent. Previously, Serena was the digital editor of Prospect magazine and also the assistant digital editor of the Sunday Times - part of the team which launched the Sunday Times website and tablet editions.

Jason Cowley, New Statesman editor, said: “Serena joins us at a great time for the New Statesman, and, building on the excellent work of recent years, she has just the skills and experience we need to help lead the next stage of our expansion as a print-digital hybrid.”

Serena Kutchinsky said: “I am delighted to be joining the New Statesman team and to have the opportunity to drive forward its digital strategy. The website is already established as the home of free-thinking journalism online in the UK and I look forward to leading our expansion and growing the global readership of this historic title.

In June, the New Statesman website recorded record traffic figures when more than four million unique users read more than 27 million pages. The circulation of the weekly magazine is growing steadily and now stands at 33,400, the highest it has been since the early 1980s.