Leader: Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right

It's easy to look at the current political situation and see Conservatives on the march, Labour yielding under pressure - but is that really the case?

A wind tends to run through the media’s coverage of politics. A collective view is formed that everything is going right for one party and wrong for its opponents. News is reported selectively to fit that thesis. Currently the wind is at David Cameron’s back. Why? Traces of economic recovery are visible, the Tories have taken a break from infighting and headline-grabbing incompetence, Labour’s lead in the opinion polls has narrowed.
 
Meanwhile, Ed Miliband spent the weeks before parliament’s summer recess tied up in a debate about his relationship with the trade unions which is necessary, but introspective.
 
By contrast, the Conservatives are advertising themselves as being ready for battle. That is certainly the spin successfully put on their recruitment of Jim Messina, Barack Obama’s former election strategist. The signing of a big hitter from the US Democratic Party was depicted as a coup for Mr Cameron. It also served as a reminder that Mr Miliband has yet to appoint a replacement for Tom Watson, his campaign co-ordinator who resigned in June amid the controversy over allegations of candidate selection-fixing.
 
Mr Cameron, meanwhile, has been employing the services of the Australian Lynton Crosby, his campaign consultant, who is credited in part with restoring discipline and fighting spirit to the Conservative benches.
 
So, it is easy to build an account of Conservatives on the march and Labour yielding under pressure. Yet how reliable is that analysis? The crucial piece of evidence on which the story hangs is the shift in opinion polls. Although there is plenty of variety between the different surveys, a trend has emerged that shows Labour drifting away from the doubledigit advantage it once boasted. The question is whether that indicates irresistible Conservative momentum and an inevitable Miliband decline.
 
A longer view suggests not necessarily. The periods in which Labour has pushed ahead have coincided with a patch of egregiously inept government – the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, which led to panic in the Conservative ranks and a Ukip surge in by-elections and council ballots. The underlying picture has barely shifted in three years. Labour’s core vote is bolstered by disgruntled former Liberal Democrats, giving Mr Miliband a slight advantage over the Conservatives, who appear able to call reliably on the support of roughly a third of the electorate, but rarely more.
 
British politics has been stuck in the same rut since the 2010 general election: there are not enough people who trust Labour to run the economy and too many people with a visceral dislike of the Conservatives for either side to win a majority. Ukip and the Liberal Democrats cloud the picture but the blue-red contest is fairly stable and immune to the wild swings of the media weathervane.
 
It is convenient to pretend that the frenzied cycle expressed by rolling television news, and accelerated by Twitter, feeds directly into parties’ popularity. This is the political equivalent of the dubious hypothesis that financial markets, in which millions of trades are made every second, give prices for assets that accurately reflect those assets’ value. In reality, there is much meaningless noise, making it harder to discern a clear signal of what is happening. Most of the country has no interest in the daily obsessions of the Westminster village. London SW1 is surely the most atypical postcode in the country; as such, it is not a safe vantage point from which to read the national mood.
 
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. The bad news is that his party’s support seems more closely pegged to fluctuations in Tory discipline than to any campaign strategy that he has devised. A sustained Conservative civil war before polling day in 2015 is possible but not guaranteed. Before then, Labour needs to become more of a fighting force in its own right.
The good news for Mr Miliband is that reports of a summer of Labour discontent need not portend disaster. Photograph: Getty Images.

This article first appeared in the 12 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, What if JFK had lived?

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Labour's establishment suspects a Momentum conspiracy - they're right

Bernie Sanders-style organisers are determined to rewire the party's machine.  

If you wanted to understand the basic dynamics of this year’s Labour leadership contest, Brighton and Hove District Labour Party is a good microcosm. On Saturday 9 July, a day before Angela Eagle was to announce her leadership bid, hundreds of members flooded into its AGM. Despite the room having a capacity of over 250, the meeting had to be held in three batches, with members forming an orderly queue. The result of the massive turnout was clear in political terms – pro-Corbyn candidates won every position on the local executive committee. 

Many in the room hailed the turnout and the result. But others claimed that some in the crowd had engaged in abuse and harassment.The national party decided that, rather than first investigate individuals, it would suspend Brighton and Hove. Add this to the national ban on local meetings and events during the leadership election, and it is easy to see why Labour seems to have an uneasy relationship with mass politics. To put it a less neutral way, the party machine is in a state of open warfare against Corbyn and his supporters.

Brighton and Hove illustrates how local activists have continued to organise – in an even more innovative and effective way than before. On Thursday 21 July, the week following the CLP’s suspension, the local Momentum group organised a mass meeting. More than 200 people showed up, with the mood defiant and pumped up.  Rather than listen to speeches, the room then became a road test for a new "campaign meetup", a more modestly titled version of the "barnstorms" used by the Bernie Sanders campaign. Activists broke up into small groups to discuss the strategy of the campaign and then even smaller groups to organise action on a very local level. By the end of the night, 20 phonebanking sessions had been planned at a branch level over the following week. 

In the past, organising inside the Labour Party was seen as a slightly cloak and dagger affair. When the Labour Party bureaucracy expelled leftwing activists in past decades, many on went further underground, organising in semi-secrecy. Now, Momentum is doing the exact opposite. 

The emphasis of the Corbyn campaign is on making its strategy, volunteer hubs and events listings as open and accessible as possible. Interactive maps will allow local activists to advertise hundreds of events, and then contact people in their area. When they gather to phonebank in they will be using a custom-built web app which will enable tens of thousands of callers to ring hundreds of thousands of numbers, from wherever they are.

As Momentum has learned to its cost, there is a trade-off between a campaign’s openness and its ability to stage manage events. But in the new politics of the Labour party, in which both the numbers of interested people and the capacity to connect with them directly are increasing exponentially, there is simply no contest. In order to win the next general election, Labour will have to master these tactics on a much bigger scale. The leadership election is the road test. 

Even many moderates seem to accept that the days of simply triangulating towards the centre and getting cozy with the Murdoch press are over. Labour needs to reach people and communities directly with an ambitious digital strategy and an army of self-organising activists. It is this kind of mass politics that delivered a "no" vote in Greece’s referendum on the terms of the Eurozone bailout last summer – defying pretty much the whole of the media, business and political establishment. 

The problem for Corbyn's challenger, Owen Smith, is that many of his backers have an open problem with this type of mass politics. Rather than investigate allegations of abuse, they have supported the suspension of CLPs. Rather than seeing the heightened emotions that come with mass mobilisations as side-effects which needs to be controlled, they have sought to joins unconnected acts of harassment, in order to smear Jeremy Corbyn. The MP Ben Bradshaw has even seemed to accuse Momentum of organising a conspiracy to physically attack Labour MPs.

The real conspiracy is much bigger than that. Hundreds of thousands of people are arriving, enthusiastic and determined, into the Labour party. These people, and their ability to convince the communities of which they are a part, threaten Britain’s political equilibrium, both the Conservatives and the Labour establishment. When the greatest hope for Labour becomes your greatest nightmare, you have good call to feel alarmed.