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

Getty
Show Hide image

Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.