There are two ways of viewing the announcement that Labour is about open its ranks to “an army of 10,000 community activists” managed by the Movement for Change. One is that it may create tensions within the party. The other is that it will be a total, unmitigated catastrophe.
I lean towards the latter. I have huge respect for David Miliband. I voted for him in the leadership election and assisted his campaign behind the scenes. It’s a campaign that, despite the result, was a model of professionalism and probity.
Movement for Change was its Achilles heel.
“It was a disaster,” says a key aide. “We had these guys sitting down with constituency chairs who had just fought off the Tories and Lib Dems by a couple of hundred votes, and they’re saying, ‘Right, we’re going to teach you how to organise a campaign.’ “
“I’d die in a ditch for David,” says another member of his team, “but to be honest, Movement for Change turned out to be a real problem. It took a lot of time, a lot of energy, and it just rubbed up a lot of potential supporters the wrong way.”
Movement for Change grew out of Citizens UK, the community action group established by Neil Jameson, former director of Save the Children and the Children’s Society, and Lord Maurice Glasman, dubbed “Ed Miliband’s de facto chief of staff” by one Labour insider.
Citizens UK describes itself as “an experiment in democracy and the exercise of civic power”. According to its website, “Ordinary people feel powerless to influence the decisions which affect their lives. This is dangerous for democracy. It is dangerous for politics. When politics fail, violence is the resort of the desperate.”
The organisation has a strong base among a diverse range of faith communities, which in turn has a strong influence over its culture and agenda: “The power and influence that we seek is tempered by our religious teachings and moral values and is exercised in the fluid and ever-changing relationship with our fellow leaders, allies and adversaries.”
According to a prominent Labour adviser who has worked closely with the party on its organisational structures: “They’re relatively new on the UK political scene. I didn’t know much about them except the media hype. Then Movement for Change had a big meeting at party conference which started full and ended up with less than half that number. They had one activist shouting at Ed Miliband across the room, there was a lot of singing, and there were a lot of people demanding Ed provide them with pledges on this and that. I’d question whether it’s possible to integrate their culture with that of the party.”
According to another Labour activist who has attended one of the events: “Citizens UK are very strongly based around religion. When I was there you’d have some dragon dancers, then a priest, then some songs. There were always points where people were asked or encouraged to express some form of affirmation for the cause.”
Nevertheless, Citizens UK, and its subsidiary London Citizens, can point to some significant political successes. It was instrumental in promoting the idea of the living wage, led the fight for the abolition of detention of child refugees and secured the presence of all three political leaders at its conference in the middle of last May’s general election campaign.
But there is a political ambiguity to its aims which many in the Labour Party find troubling.
One very senior organiser who is closely associated with Movement for Change and Citizens UK admitted to me that, despite claims to the contrary, “We have had no real success in developing our relationship with the trade unions.”
Maurice Glasman told the Guardian on Monday, “The unions are the great silent, awful fact in all this. They are the self-organised wing of the Labour movement. They are dominated by a narrow crust of progressive activists, they are disengaged from their members. And what Labour’s got to understand is that we’ve lost the art of leadership and organising, so Labour’s got to set up its own organising academy.”
According to the Guardian, it is envisaged that Movement for Change will be “autonomous, controlled by its members, and affiliated to the Labour Party as a socialist society”.
There is the added issue of the relationship between Citizens UK and David Cameron’s “big society” agenda. Citizens UK claims that it intends to “play a key role” in building the “big society”. According to the organisation, “In the Conservatives’ ‘big society’ paper and manifesto, Citizens UK is mentioned as the main resource for the training of community organisers, which the Prime Minister repeated.”
In the wake of Labour’s election defeat, it is only right that people look afresh at all aspects of the party’s infrastructure and organisation. But the new politics appears to be advancing on the party not in single spies, but in battalions. What is needed is a professional, root-and-branch reorganisation. What we appear to be getting is the establishment of a people’s militia.
David Miliband still has much to offer his party. Movement for Change is not the vehicle for delivering it.