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

ANDREY BORODULIN/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
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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