Beyond Westminster, Labour is rebuilding itself as a movement

In constituencies across the country, Labour is turning itself from a declining party of the twentieth century into a vital movement of the 21st.

If you believe the press, Labour has been hobbling toward its conference. So let me put the record straight: we have had a good year building a politics of One Nation, and we are in a strong position to win in 2015. Three years out of a serious defeat, five years after the collapse of Lehman Brothers signalled the end of an economic era, Labour under Ed Miliband’s leadership is renewing itself in deep and profound ways. We have an intellectual project - One Nation. We have an organisational project – the party as a movement. We are building the political project – One Nation Labour.

Ed Miliband describes One Nation as a country in which everyone has a stake, where prosperity is fairly shared and we make a common life together. That is the goal of our policy review.

Our immediate task is to deal with the crisis in living standards. Not since the nineteenth century have we experienced a decade in which we are poorer at the end than we were at the beginning. Wages are falling, jobs are chopped and diced and poorly paid, prices go up. Whole regions of the country lack a vibrant private sector. Too much of our economy has been about extracting wealth rather than creating it. Too many corporations have put their shareholders before their customers; worrying about the short-term rather than planning for the long-term. And there are too many sectors underperforming and relying on low skill, low waged jobs. Our tax base has been over-dependent on finance and property. As the economy begins to recover, David Cameron’s government is replacing police and nurses with an army of estate agents.

Labour has a real alternative. Not big increases in day-to-day spending; nor simply copying the Tories salami slicing. Our alternative is reform.

We will begin by dealing with the cost of living crisis and tackling the deficit. We will stop household bills rising so fast. We will cap the cost of payday loans, and work to provide people on low incomes with alternative sources of affordable credit. We will introduce workers on renumeration boards to ensure a fairer distribution of reward. There are no magic answers to rebuilding the British economy. Reforming our economy so that it works for working people will require everyone to play a part. Government alone cannot galvanise the creative energy and ambitions of millions of people.

Our state is over-centralised and unable to build the trust we need to develop the economy. It needs fundamental change. We will push down power and resources to combined authorities so that they can begin the task of renewing their regional economies.

In a time of fiscal constraint we will be guided by three principles of government. First, we will support local people taking on the power and responsibility to shape their services and communities. We will help people to help themselves and each other. Second, we will invest for prevention, in order to avoid the costs of failure. For example, we need to be building homes, not wasting money paying for our failure to do so through a rising housing benefit bill. And third, our policy will prioritise collaboration between the public, private and voluntary sectors to avoid silo thinking, silo services, duplication and waste.

Over the last year, the policy review has been making the One Nation political project a reality. We have organised conferences and scores of debates and round table discussion. We’ve published an ebook and at conference on Sunday we will be launching the new book One Nation: Power, Hope, Community edited by Owen Smith and Rachel Reeves.

Effective policy making has to be part of a larger story and movement that gives it meaning and purpose. In the party there is a growing energy to build a new political movement that creates real change in people’s everyday lives. Politics is alive and thriving, it's just not happening around political parties. In the past we drove people away with our inward looking, controlling political culture. We championed innovation and entrepreneurs in society and business but we neglected to encourage them in our own organisation. But Labour is changing.

We are connecting once again with people. In constituencies across the country, Labour is turning itself from a declining party of the twentieth century into a vital movement of the 21st. We are rediscovering our traditions; those periods in our national history when working people joined together to build a better life for themselves, to win political representation and to secure for themselves a just share of national prosperity. The democracy and greater equality they created have been deeply civilising influences on our country. That is Labour’s heritage and we are now modernising our traditions for the digital age. Iain McNicol is embedding these reforms in our organisation.

During the last year, Arnie Graf has been up and down the country meeting hundreds of people. Hundreds have been trained to organise in local communities. Movement for Change are organising campaigns like the community network Home Sweet Home in Cardiff, working with tenants and landlords to improve housing standards. Parties can no longer simply be vote harvesting machines. To attract people’s active support they need also to be social and cultural movements. When people are reduced to votes and votes become transactions people drift away. The thousands of conversations in people’s living rooms, the meetings, the social media based campaigns, the friendships and solidarities that develop around neighbourhood campaigning are not about jolting the old machine politics back into life. They are about creating a different kind of politics; people winning power and building the self-confidence to create real change.

People organising together to agree a common good gives society the power to stand up to the centralising market and bureaucratic state. We need to achieve a balance of interest in the governing of our institutions, in which no one interest dominates over the others. Our politics is about the renewal and conserving of our common life and it is about a deepening of democracy which gives people more control over their lives. Policy grows out of this position and establishes permanent change.

Those who worry about Ed Miliband's determination to change the relationship between the party and the trade unions need to understand that he is right. The millions of working people who are part of the labour movement are our life blood. Without them we are nothing. But we cannot treat them as if they are the Dead Souls out of Gogol's novel. We need a fundamental change in our relationship with them.

Both the Labour Party and the unions have to face a hard truth about our historic relationship. We stopped talking to one another. We need to rebuild our relationship and that means changing it. Working people have everything to gain from a confident union movement contributing to rebuilding the economy. The country has everything to gain from a Labour Party with deep roots in our cities, town and villages.

In the year ahead, the policy review will be focusing on what really matters to people: work, family and place. Work that is fairly paid to support our families. Family because nothing is more important in life, and the place where we live that gives us a sense of belonging. This is the political centre ground: families, where they live and the work they do. Our answers to the cost of living crisis are part of our longer term goal to build an economy that works for all working people and not just the few at the top. That is the task ahead, a new political economy for One Nation.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London on 9 July 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Jon Cruddas is Labour's policy review coordinator and MP for Dagenham

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Letter from Donetsk: ice cream, bustling bars and missiles in eastern Ukraine

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it.

Eighty-eight year-old Nadya Moroz stares through the taped-up window of her flat in Donetsk, blown in by persistent bombing. She wonders why she abandoned her peaceful village for a “better life” in Donetsk with her daughter, just months before war erupted in spring 2014.

Nadya is no stranger to upheaval. She was captured by the Nazis when she was 15 and sent to shovel coal in a mine in Alsace, in eastern France. When the region was liberated by the Americans, she narrowly missed a plane taking refugees to the US, and so returned empty-handed to Ukraine. She never thought that she would see fighting again.

Now she and her daughter Irina shuffle around their dilapidated flat in the front-line district of Tekstilshchik. Both physically impaired, they seldom venture out.

The highlight of the women’s day is the television series Posledniy Yanychar (“The Last Janissary”), about an Ottoman slave soldier and his dangerous love for a free Cossack girl.

They leave the dog-walking to Irina’s daughter, Galya, who comes back just in time. We turn on the TV a few minutes before two o’clock to watch a news report on Channel One, the Russian state broadcaster. It shows a montage of unnerving images: Nato tanks racing in formation across a plain, goose-stepping troops of Pravy Sektor (a right-wing Ukrainian militia) and several implicit warnings that a Western invasion is nigh. I wonder how my hosts can remain so impassive in the face of such blatant propaganda.

In Donetsk, which has been under the control of Russian-backed rebels since April 2014, the propaganda has a hermetic, relentless feel to it. If the TV doesn’t get you, the print media, radio and street hoardings will. Take a walk in the empty central district of the city and you have the creeping sense of being transported back to what it must have been like in the 1940s. Posters of Stalin, with his martial gaze and pomaded moustache, were taboo for decades even under the Soviets but now they grace the near-empty boulevards. Images of veterans of the 1941-45 war are ubiquitous, breast pockets ablaze with medals. Even the checkpoints bear the graffiti: “To Berlin!” It’s all inching closer to a theme-park re-enactment of the Soviet glory years, a weird meeting of propaganda and nostalgia.

So completely is the Donetsk People’s Republic (DPR) in thrall to Russia that even its parliament has passed over its new flag for the tricolour of the Russian Federation, which flutters atop the building. “At least now that the municipal departments have become ministries, everyone has been promoted,” says Galya, wryly. “We’ve got to have something to be pleased about.”

The war in the Donbas – the eastern region of Ukraine that includes Donetsk and Luhansk – can be traced to the street demonstrations of 2013-14. The former president Viktor Yanukovych, a close ally of Vladimir Putin, had refused to sign an agreement that would have heralded closer integration with the EU. In late 2013, protests against his corrupt rule began in Maidan Nezalezhnosti (“Independence Square”) in Kyiv, as well as other cities. In early 2014 Yanukovych’s security forces fired on the crowds in the capital, causing dozens of fatalities, before he fled.

Putin acted swiftly, annexing Crimea and engineering a series of “anti-Maidans” across the east and south of Ukraine, bussing in “volunteers” and thugs to help shore up resistance to the new authority in Kyiv. The Russian-backed rebels consolidated their power base in Donetsk and Luhansk, where they established two “independent” republics, the DPR and its co-statelet, the Luhansk People’s Republic (LPR). Kyiv moved to recover the lost territories, sparking a full-scale war that raged in late 2014 and early 2015.

Despite the so-called “peace” that arrived in autumn 2015 and the beguiling feeling that a certain normality has returned – the prams, the ice creams in the park, the bustling bars – missiles still fly and small-arms fire frequently breaks out. You can’t forget the conflict for long.

One reminder is the large number of dogs roaming the streets, set free when their owners left. Even those with homes have suffered. A Yorkshire terrier in the flat next door to mine started collecting food from its bowl when the war began and storing it in hiding places around the flat. Now, whenever the shelling starts, he goes to his caches and binge-eats in a sort of atavistic canine survival ritual.

Pet shops are another indicator of the state of a society. Master Zoo in the city centre has an overabundance of tropical fish tanks (too clunky to evacuate) and no dogs. In their absence, the kennels have been filled with life-size plastic hounds under a sign strictly forbidding photography, for reasons unknown. I had to share my rented room with a pet chinchilla called Shunya. These furry Andean rodents, fragile to transport but conveniently low-maintenance, had become increasingly fashionable before the war. The city must still be full of them.

The bombing generally began “after the weekends, before holidays, Ukraine’s national days and before major agreements”, Galya had said. A new round of peace talks was about to start, and I should have my emergency bag at the ready. I shuddered back up to the ninth floor of my pitch-dark Tekstilshchik tower block. Shunya was sitting quiet and unruffled in his cage, never betraying any signs of stress. Free from Russian television, we girded ourselves for the night ahead.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war