As a teenager I wanted to change the world. So I joined the Labour Party. In the age of Thatcher and Major it was an article of faith Governments could do good things. Living in Essex I thought me, my mum and dad and Billy Bragg were the only socialists around.
Would I do the same in 2015 rather than 1994? Or would I put my energies for activism elsewhere? I would be with the majority if I did. Only one in three of us now strongly identify with a political party anymore.
We’ve seen a recent rise in membership, but there’s little guarantee it will last- in comparison 4.5 million are now supporters or members of an environmental campaigning group.
The case for getting involved in a political party used to be watertight. Indeed, Nye Bevan once warned nothing could be achieved outside one:
“Never underestimate the passion for unity and don’t forget it’s the decent instinct of people who want to do something.”
Previous generations have always had to compete against alternative outlets for social change – millions joined peace movement, the suffragettes, anti apartheid campaigns. But unlike then there was never any question that it was an either or.
It was not just leadership or policy that wrongfooted Labour at the election. We heard it on the doorstep ‘we’re all the same’ and ‘what’s the point- nothing changes anyway’.
People do not just feel they cant trust us- they doubt the ability of politics to tackle big issues like terrorism, inequality and housing at all. Not only are our motivations deemed unpalatable, our agency is lacking too.
Traditional political parties seem terrifyingly small in ambition and ability. When everything feels so complex, the choice people make today is less between left and right, but more insider or outsider. Those who take on the establishment or those who maintain the status quo.
Those good people who want to ‘do something’ increasingly don’t want to do it through us anymore.
There is no rule Labour has to exist or has a monopoly on the hopes and dreams of Britain’s progressives. Just in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, we are again at a crossroads. But the direction ahead is less left or right, and more about our relevance to the modern world.
Because those decent people aren’t standing still. Energy is increasingly directed elsewhere. To the very kind of movements and causes our candidates in this election were told not to run so as not to dilute the ‘brand’ or distract from gathering ‘contacts’ and ‘conversations’.
Many dismiss ‘clicktivists’ – the 38 degrees mass email campaigns that saw me get 27 different campaigns in one week, five of which were on the same topic. Rightly many argue caution that lots of facebook likes does not a mass movement make.
But to think this is about technology is to miss the point.
Mass movements, on and offline, are on the move – Whether the SNP and UKIP, the Women’s Institute or Citizens UK. Where Change.org or Greenpeace are flexible about how your involvement will make a difference, Labour fixates on resolutions and minutes – or even worse attendance at committees. Still running campaigns from the centre out to tell people we have the solutions to questions they haven’t asked.
To my teen self I can see how attractive newer social movements would be. Unencumbered by messy structures, they offer the chance to create havoc- its fun, dynamic and more likely than Labour conference ever to change something.
The view people have of Labour isn’t a fair reflection of the hard work many in our party do for their communities. And we aren’t the same for a reason. We aren’t a pressure group. We seek office to offer answers and action, not just anger and analysis of injustice and inequality.
All parties need organisation and discipline to get our vote out to win elections and get things done. As a former chief whip on a hung council I know how important it is even when there are disagreements to collectively stick to a policy to get it to become law.
But there’s another side to machine politics which I also think is turning people off. A way of thinking that has come to do us more harm than good. The sense that the only way to win is through strict uniformity and unquestioning control. A perception then used to justify stitch ups, petty cliques, back room deals, and selection fixes. And that feeds the hostility to those in our movement with whom we maybe don’t agree all the time or who are not members at all. It means for too long factional battles have come before party interest.
And that is something we need to leave behind. Because its not just outdated, its bizarre to think 250,000 people would agree with each other all the time – that’s not a political party, it’s a cult.
I’ve been travelling around Britain talking to our activists. They understand they can disagree with people and still find common cause – and they are increasingly horrified, and I believe united, by the fear not that Labour will shift left or right but out of focus all together. And in doing so it will become irrelevant. They might have different ideas and priorities, but they all joined to make a difference. And if we don’t act on that – they will walk away.
So calling for us to become a movement again is not a critique of any one group within our broad church or about dismissing the importance of winning elections as a way of securing change. Its about something more fundamental – how we all get the best out of each other in pursuit of the reason we are all taking part in the first place.
And as much as this is about new techniques for campaigning and how we work with those who share our values if not our membership cards, it also about letting go of the habits of machine politics- of the trying to fix, to contain, to direct. Controlling the message and the medium. And suppressing the talent of those that do not conform.
To instead encouraging ourselves all be authentic, active and collegiate- as well as jointly responsible for the outcome. Movements seek to engage, debate and then decide – recognising we don’t have to agree on everything to be able to move forward together, but we do have to move together to make progress. That we must not be – as Bevan also cautioned- pure but impotent. And that requires members and activists who are not treated as cannon fodder, but campaigners. A movement asks who can help us make our case, not who do we have in our pocket.
Labour’s future should be defined not by an individual policy or person, but by the responses to the two questions I ask of everyone I met- why did you join and what would make you stay. That sense of when we talk of solidarity and social justice, we are then all find ways of acting together to achieve it.
Frequently, Labour holds policy events as a form of party management. Becoming a movement again instead means encouraging our grassroots to make real the power of our ideas. How could this work? Rather than a manifesto dictated from the centre, let’s set out our priorities for Britain as a starting point- whether reducing health inequalities, improving productivity or social mobility.
Then if you as a CLP, a labour friends team, local councillor group or affiliated organisation have a good idea that will achieve these ambitions we will match fund you with people, money or media to campaign for it. And if you are unsuccessful in getting people behind your idea to get this support, we will offer you training and skills development in how to strengthen your case as well as links with other campaigns and organisations to help too. We don’t need to wait to the election to support campaigning for change, and think how powerful and positive it could be for Labour’s policy platform at the election to come from this way of working.
At their best campaigning organisations create space and energy for political movements to secure outcomes- as they did in the Jubilee 2000 campaign. If we want to be able to change the world each of us must uphold the possibility that each of us has value and should be respected.
Attlee once argued Labour is what its members make it – so our future is in our hands. There are plenty of politicians who want to give people a grievance, let’s be the ones to give them hope. Let’s make Labour a place where the next generation of political activists want to join. A place to give voice and purpose to their social consciences that campaigning organisations nurture. Let’s become a movement again, not just a machine.