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22 March 2018updated 06 Aug 2021 2:59pm

Machine politics is underrated – and essential to winning power and changing policy

Political machines aren’t glamorous but they are vital to political success, says Labour MP Bridget Philipson.

By Bridget Phillipson

Jennie Formby deserves congratulations on being chosen as General Secretary of the Labour Party by the national executive committee this week, but the resignation of so many senior staff will clearly give her a difficult inheritance. There are those who welcome any change of personnel at HQ: my colleague Chris Williamson MP recently blamed Labour Party staff for losing the general election; and if I had a pound for every time someone complained about “machine politics”, I’d stop worrying about fundraising.

I think it’s a tragedy to lose so many senior staff from the organisation, and I hope that Jennie thinks that too. Institutional memory is precious, and so is experience. I don’t agree with Chris, for I think blaming internal saboteurs rather than facing up to our own shortcomings is both wrong and misguided. Equally, I don’t agree with those, on all wings of the party, who decry the electorally-focused mindset of party staff and argue for something usually called “movement politics”. I think an effective, focused, and professional approach to political party organisation is not just necessary but crucial. I don’t think it’s the politics of the past: I think it’s the politics of success.

There’s a reason I think that. My seat was new in 2010, created from two seats represented by Chris Mullin and Fraser Kemp, two Labour colleagues who both stood down. Chris is justly famous for his diaries and journalism. Fraser is less famous outside political circles, but gave his working life to the Labour Party and our values in a very different and perhaps more effective way. Having joined the party at fifteen in a north east mining village, Fraser served as a party staffer at head office and across the country. Once an MP, he worked as a government whip and as the political lead on by-elections. He was, at every level, a machine politician. I mean that as the highest praise. Without Fraser and many more people like him, we would not have secured successive Labour victories and transformed Britain.

There is little glamour in those roles, or in any aspect of the politics of organisation. The excellent James Graham apart, few people write plays or novels about the importance of having difficult conversations with activists over their interpretation of the rules, about taking responsibility for sorting out regional party finances, or making sure that the right points are made in a Bill Committee. But ultimately a machine – that is, a tightly-run but rule-governed democratic organisation that seeks to win elections for Labour and win votes in Parliament whilst keeping people on board with each tough decision – is a precondition for success.

The purpose of our Party is to win elections and through the power thus gained, to change our country for the better. There are all sorts of other things that are good to do, and need doing, and for which social movements rightly campaign. Community organising is a good thing. Cleaner parks are a good thing. But it is not the purpose of the Labour Party to achieve them itself. Efforts to make our party about any such things, whether they are conceived as such by their proponents or not, make it less likely that Labour will ever form a government again. Simply put, they are distractions.

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It is not our job to wave placards and beat drums: it is our job to win power and change policy. We cannot seek to create “a community in which power, wealth, and opportunity are in the hands of the many, and not the few”, unless we secure political power. Placards do not fund hospitals. Banners do not tackle child poverty. Rallies do not provide decent, humane social care. The purpose of our party is and must remain to win again as once we won, to govern again as once we governed, and not to retreat into irrelevance, to transform into something else, or to cede democratic political dominance to the Tories.

So the coming months will be a real test for the new General Secretary. I hope Jennie will focus on building the capacity we need to win in all the seats which are already selecting candidates. I hope she builds on all the elements of Labour’s campaigns which were successful at the last election. I hope she will publicly and unequivocally make clear that attacks on the staff of the Labour Party are always unacceptable and that such attacks will have consequences. I hope she focuses relentlessly on the challenge of winning the next general election, and doesn’t allow herself to be distracted by organisational novelties which take the Party away from that core purpose.

At its best a machine isn’t the antithesis of a broader movement, it is its engine. We need a Labour government. We need the Labour Party to be effective, professional, and focused ruthlessly on defeating the Tories and delivering that change. I hope that is what Jennie achieves.

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