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26 July 2010

Was Andy Burnham right to call councillors the “foot soldiers” of the Labour Party?

Leadership contender’s remark highlights the lack of grass-roots activists.

By Alex Holland

At a recent Labour leadership hustings, Andy Burnham praised the hard work of councillors by saying they are the “foot soldiers” of the party. I found this an intriguing way to publicly describe Labour’s elected local representatives.

Foot soldiers are the lowest rank of an army, the “grunts” who execute orders. To the political outsider, it might seem strange to refer to councillors — elected officials who are selected by party members — as being at the bottom of the chain of command. It might seem more appropriate to view councillors as ranking officers, leading platoons of soldiers on campaigns, rather than being the troops themselves.

Burnham’s use of language points to how in some areas, Labour candidates win the house-to-house fight for votes almost alone. In a ward of 9,000 people, Labour can win with as small an effective fighting force as the three candidates themselves and a couple of volunteers. By placing the workload for campaigning on councillors, the party’s electioneering machine has been able to compensate in part for the precipitous fall in active members.

While this may be effective in winning a tolerable number of seats, it is not a viable way to genuinely renew the Labour movement so that it can become a force for radical change once more.

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To do this, Labour needs to follow Peter Mandelson’s call to arms that the party fight back “as insurgents”. A successful insurgency relies on a groundswell of volunteers. It must therefore be popular in its methods as well as its appeal.

The Labour Party’s decision in Birmingham Edgbaston “to stop doing and start building” delivered an unexpected victory for Gisela Stuart, on the back of a newly recruited army of activists.

An increase in party volunteers would leave councillors freer to engage with their communities and provide a leadership role. They could be captains rather than privates. Interested and committed activists could act as lieutenants in the movement, encouraging and directing other volunteers where appropriate.

Building a successful insurgency is by no means easy. It cannot follow conventional, rigid hierarchies, but must still have enough structure and organisation to ensure the variety and breadth of its manpower remains an asset and not a drawback.

Supporters of a mass-participation Labour movement should back the proposal by Caroline Badley, architect of the Edgbaston victory, that the party help fund local organisers to work seriously towards building a movement.

To return to the military metaphor, career soldiers in professional armies who fight on behalf of the people can be a good defence in peacetime. But sometimes the nature of conflict dictates that they must take off their uniforms, return to the people and inspire them to fight — or they can stay the course in a conventional battle they cannot win.

Alex Holland is a Labour councillor in Lambeth and part of the Labour Values project.