Labour's faith in community organising will lead it to victory

Labour was founded as a party of action, taking on local landlords, bosses and racketeers. Today we are reshaping the party to honour that tradition.

While Westminster whips itself up over who said what to whom 5 years ago the real work - to rebuild our party ready for 2015 - goes on. The big truth about the recent revelations by former colleagues is that the public have other concerns.  The cost of living is what the Labour Party conference will focus on this week in Brighton. Our business, away from the froth and the gossip of Westminster, will be to set out a One Nation programme to build a better Britain.

As General Secretary of the Labour Party, my overriding priority is to build the party organisation that enables it to win an overall majority at the next election. I want Labour to build a broad alliance of voters, beyond the narrowing pool of those who swing between the main parties. I want Labour to energise those who vote for fringe parties, young first-time voters, and those who haven't voted before. This wider, deeper pool of potential support is what will give Ed Miliband a sound working majority as Prime Minister. There'll be no talk of deals or coalitions on the floor of Labour Party conference.

In order to achieve that ambition, we are renewing the Labour Party as the most vibrant force in British politics. People talk of the terminal decline of political parties, but the Labour Party is proof that this is not the case. Since Ed Miliband was elected leader, thousands of new members have joined the Labour Party. We are drawing new members from all regions, classes, religions and ethnic groups. We are developing leaders from within communities, activists who are organising campaigns and delivering real change on the ground.

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.

It's no surprise that Lord Ashcroft's marginal seats polling shows Labour outperforming the Tories. We're changing from a party that floods voters with leaflets delivered by a handful of volunteers; to being a movement, having hundreds of thousands of conversations with people. Our organisers are using both high-tech big data targeting techniques, digital campaigning and old fashioned community organising to win voters to Labour. As we saw in May's elections, there's a real link between where Labour has already picked its 2015 parliamentary candidates, recruited organisers and where we won council seats.

We have put our faith in community organising and we will soon have 110 organisers across our 106 battleground parliamentary seats. People coming together to oppose loan sharks and sky-high interest rates, to protect their post offices, fire stations and hospitals. It reminds us that the Labour Party was founded as a party of action, taking on local landlords, bosses and racketeers, long before there were Labour governments.

Community organising is a not a trick or a technique. It brings politics closer to people. It forces us to listen to what matters. This is what the US community organiser Arnie Graff has been showing us across the country. The local organising builds the political position. It is what will win us a majority and its helping the Labour Party to find its true voice once more. This week in Brighton, Labour will be focusing on the future for our country, not dredging through the sludge of the past. That's what millions worrying about their energy bills, cost of living and children's future are willing us to do.

Iain McNicol is general secretary of the Labour Party

US community organiser Arnie Graf, who is leading Labour's campaigning.

Iain McNicol is general secretary of the Labour Party

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Most Leave voters back free movement – you just have to explain it

The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. 

This week, a piece of YouGov polling flipped on its head a widely held belief about the public’s attitude to immigration in the context of Brexit. The headline question was:

“In negotiating Britain’s departure from the European Union, do you think our government should offer EU citizens the right to travel, work, study or retire in Britain, in exchange for EU countries giving British citizens the same rights?”

Of the respondents, 69 per cent, including 60 per cent of Leave voters, responded that they should.

The poll has been overlooked by the bulk of the press, for whom it contradicts a very basic assumption – that the end of free movement, and the implicit acceptance of the narrative that high net migration had strained services and wages, was an electoral necessity for any party wanting to enter government. In fact, the apparent consensus against free movement after Brexit owes much less to deeply-rooted public opinion, and much more to the abject failure of progressives and mainstream Remain campaigners to make the case for it.

“If you’re explaining, you’re losing,” goes the old maxim of political communications. And this is accurate if you inhabit a world of tight, professional politics and your job is to capture votes using already widely understood concepts and a set of soundbites. So much of conventional political strategy consists of avoiding difficult or complex subjects, like free movement. This is especially the case if the exact meaning of the words requires defining. The job of radical politics is to change the terms of the debate entirely. That almost always means explaining things.

The strategy of Britain Stronger in Europe during the EU referendum campaign was a case in point. It honed down on its key message on economic stability, and refused to engage with the migration debate. As a result, the terms of the debate were set by the right. The argument during the referendum was never about free movement, but about immigration in general. If YouGov’s polling this week is correct, a majority of the British public support free movement – you just have to explain to them what it means.

That distinction between immigration and free movement was pivotal in the referendum. Immigration is a big, amorphous concept, and an influx of people, covering far more than Britain’s relationship with Europe. It makes an excellent scapegoat for the government’s failure to provide housing and public services. It has been so expertly blamed for bringing down wages that this has become received wisdom, despite almost nowhere being true. Free movement, on the other hand, can be understood more easily in terms of rights and security – not just for migrants in the UK, but for British citizens and workers.

As YouGov’s poll question explains, free movement would be a reciprocal agreement between post-Brexit Britain and the EU, enhancing UK citizens’ rights. We would get the right to live and work freely over an entire continent. Even if you might not want to exercise the right yourself, studying abroad might be something you want to preserve for your children. Even if you might not retire to France or Spain, you might well know someone who has, or wants to.

Perhaps most importantly, free movement makes British workers more secure. Migrants will come to the UK regardless of whether or not free movement agreements are in place; without the automatic right to work, many will be forced to work illegally and will become hyper-exploited. Removing migrants’ access to public funds and benefits – a policy which was in the Labour manifesto – would have a similar effect, forcing migrants to take any work they could find.

At present, Labour is in danger of falling into a similar trap to that of the main Remain campaigns in the EU referendum. Its manifesto policy was for an “economy first Brexit”, in other words, compromising on free movement but implying that it might be retained in order to get access to the single market. This fudge undeniably worked. In the longer term, though, basing your case for free movement entirely on what is good for the economy is exactly the mistake made by previous governments. Labour could grasp the nettle: argue from the left for free movement and for a raft of reforms that raise wages, build homes and make collective bargaining and trade unions stronger.

Making the case for free movement sounds like a more radical task than making the case for immigration more generally – and it is. But it is also more achievable, because continued free movement is a clear, viable policy that draws the debate away from controlling net migration and towards transforming the economy so that everyone prospers. Just as with the left’s prospects of electoral success in general, bold ideas will fare better than centrist fudges that give succour to the right’s narratives.