06 August, 2008

Lets get back to basics: Bringing politics back to the people

Since May, we have heard a lot about how the Party must renew. It’s clear that lessons need to be learnt and nobody should think the problems will spontaneously disappear over the summer. Yet too often the debate seems dominated by the febrile atmosphere of the Westminster Village, Fleet Street and the blogosphere.

Following our losses in Crewe and Glasgow East, barely a day goes by without one figure or another being accused of plotting; and get any group of activists or policy wonks together and you’ll hear various ideas floated around to get us out of this mire. As we look back at the successes and failures of the last year, it’s easy to pick out the ‘toffs’ campaign and problems at the top. But what about the deeper, more unsettling questions at the heart of the Labour Party’s current problems?

Campaigning in Crewe, I was struck by the problems caused by the lack of long term organisation. The late great Gwyneth Dunwoody may have been a formidable parliamentarian and much-respected MP, but the local party in Crewe seemed moribund at best. Sadly, it was clear that canvassing and campaigning had not taken place for a generation. No historic data, no personal relationships, no record of local campaigning.

In estate after estate, there was no sense that the Labour Party had a history of talking to local people. We hadn’t fostered a sense that the Labour Party was on their side - campaigning for better schools, safer streets and new homes. Instead, we were faced with knocking on doors where people, even Labour people, hadn’t seen a Labour politician until the by-election campaign. 10p tax and Gordon Brown did not create these problems they merely exacerbated them.

Oppositions do well in by-elections not only because Governments are unpopular mid-term, but because they often take place in the soft underbelly of the thought-to-be-safe seat. Faced with an unfavourable national, political and economic climate, and an ill-judged campaign, there was little we could have done to stave off defeat.

Crewe and Glasgow are better after eleven years of Labour Government. Yet, for years it seems nobody has talked to local people about what we are doing and why – no-one has said ‘come, join us in this crusade’. David Miliband rightly highlighted the power of the membership card and how our shared philosophy sets us apart from our opponents. Margaret Curran’s phrase that – “the Labour Party is a cause not a career” – also strikes a strong cord. It is this belief, this unshakable commitment to the Labour cause that should provide activists with the confidence to knock on doors and fight for our values.

Our supporters don’t need Facebook or interactive campaigning - they want us to talk to them face to face: in their local pub, at the church fete, at a residents’ meeting or on the doorstep. It’s old-fashioned to say so, and working all year round in the community isn’t sexy, but it works.
This idea should have become embedded in our movement, but the allure of Government has dimmed it. Looking at Glasgow and talk of safe seats the lessons are shockingly similar to those from Crewe: you can’t just turn up every four years (even worse when you come back mid-term) and expect people to vote for you.

Let’s be clear: being in power is vital. We should never lose sight of that aim or hold the deluded view that we need to be in opposition to renew. Yet being in Government can hold the Party back psychologically and organisationally from top to bottom. For our leaders it captures their time, energy, and attention as they listen to Civil Servants over Party members, stakeholders and citizens. We get caught up in the idea that a good policy and a slick soundbite is all it takes to succeed.

During our honeymoon that might have been true. But now people aren’t listening, and the press are almost universally hostile. So, we have to be even more sure-footed on the ground, quietly working away amongst local people and stakeholders - selling our ideas. Voters aren’t as tribal as they used to be, making personal engagement even more important: People trust the people they know and speak to regularly.

There are lots of things out of the control of party members: the economy, the leadership and what Harold MacMillan termed ‘events’, but we do have control of what we do day-in day-out. The underreported lesson of the May elections was how local parties up and down the country bucked the losing trend; from Oxford to Hastings, from Haringey to Slough, we either held on or took seats off both the Lib Dems and the Tories. The common theme: strong local messages and a strong local campaign.

These local Labour Parties all have different stories to tell, but what they have in common is that they didn’t wait for a national policy change, a new leader or a favourable media. They didn’t rely on new movements, ‘new politics’ or clever viral campaigning; they did it the old fashioned way, on the street, house by house, voter by voter. This micro-level campaigning is essential to sustaining and growing the Party.

Party structures are often highlighted as a reason people are turned off by party politics: having sat through many GCs and branch meetings, I agree that it’s not for everyone and shouldn’t be the only form of involvement. Yet it is an important building block from which to sustain a campaigning party. Throwing it overboard to somehow broaden our reach could be as damaging as seeing structures as the be all and end all.

Where I would advocate serious change, however, is from the top down, with MPs, Peers, MEPs, AMs, MSPs and Councillors. Looking at recent by-elections, there was very little campaigning leadership in our ‘heartlands’. If we can’t deliver that in safe seats, what hope is there in marginals?

There are many Labour MPs up and down the country who work all year round, leading from the front, quietly building the party’s presence in their community. Yet, there are many others who haven’t knocked on a door in years – who are happier on TV or in the newspapers criticising the Government. They are often supported by an unfavourable media, eager to hold them up as anti-establishment heroes, ignoring their failures as ‘Labour’ Members of Parliament. We will of course always have, and need, critical voices. We don’t want an army of nodding dogs in Parliament as fodder for the whips, but all Labour MPs have obligations to the party and one of these must be to campaign for its ongoing success.

Contrast this with the local leadership shown by Councillors in Hackney, Oxford, and Lambeth and MPs such as Siobhan McDonagh, Jim Knight and Martin Salter – they have been very clear that campaigning is at the heart of being a Labour representative. That means MPs doing regular campaigning on top of their representational role. If they don’t perform, questions need to be raised. The best MPs are already excellent campaigners, but the NEC and Party whips should be less concerned with votes in Parliament as a measure of loyalty and more worried about how many voters they spoken to. If MPs aren’t up for leading from the front they should be out – deselected. As simple as that.

Getting back out there and engaging with people would protect us from some of the excesses of bad media coverage and help us to speak with a more authentic voice. Less time at conferences and briefings - more time outside Tescos, in the new Children’s Centre or the local Mosque. True renewal will only come when we become closer to the people. Let’s take a good look at the Britain we have been a part of creating, look at what works and what doesn’t. Let’s return politics to the people by talking to them about their priorities.

Breaking open the political class and reconnecting with supporters and voters will not be done through open primaries, or other such eye catching quick fixes that risk disenfranchising Labour Party members. It will happen through the dedicated hard work of putting the Labour Party back at the heart of our communities. Less Whitehall, less navel-gazing, and less waiting for someone else to come up with a solution. The tough political climate is not going to change overnight and we won’t always be happy with every policy decision made, yet all of us have the power to bring about real change we can believe in - by getting actively involved.

Philip Glanville, Progress Member and Labour Councillor for Hoxton