Wednesday, August 25, 2010

David Miliband's dilemma

Jonathan Cox, one of the organisers of David Miliband's "Movement for Change", argues that:

"To build a movement you have to put the development of people before policies. So the answer to the rejuvenation of the Labour Party’s grassroots is not to adopt other organisations’ campaigns and turn them into Labour campaigns, but to invest in the development of our members and harness their desire to tackle local issues."

This is an attempt to resolve the dilemma at the heart of David Miliband's campaign. On the one hand, Miliband (like his brother) believes that Labour needs to rebuild from the bottom up, involving tens of thousands of people in campaigning for Labour and shaping the party's priorities. But at the same time, many of his most influential supporters are determined to make sure that they keep control of deciding the priorities of the Labour Party, and to achieve that are briefing the newspapers about the dangers of "pandering" to Labour Party members and the importance of remaining in the radical moderate modernising centre.

I don't think the formulation of "putting people before policies" addresses this conflict. For example, community leaders trained by London Citizens identified a cap on interest rates and an amnesty for illegal immigrants as two of their top priorities - yet these are exactly the sort of policies which powerful vested interests and political opponents would claim show Labour 'lurching to the left'.

The examples that Cox gives of the Movement for Change in action are of autonomous action to address local injustices, such as cuts by a local council, or getting a developer to tarmac a road. But these are the kinds of campaigns which could be (and often are) led by groups of any political persuasion. Most local injustices pose bigger political dilemmas than this. When local community leaders called for tough regulations on buy to let landlords, David Miliband and allies of his such as Hazel Blears listened to civil service advice that sought instead to minimise "excessive regulations". How do campaigns against local cuts, or for more social housing or youth facilities fit with Miliband's economic policy of halving the deficit over the next four years? How does this approach avoid the Lib Dem franchise problem, where local Lib Dem parties campaign on whatever they think is popular, with essentially no reference to the policies of the national party?

And this line of thought leads to the most troubling section of Cox's piece. He mocks the idea that people join the Labour Party "to pass resolutions at GC", but he doesn't suggest any other mechanism by which the knowledge and ideas of local Labour members and activists can contribute to shaping the policies of the Labour Party. Passing resolutions at a GC isn't my idea of a good night out either, but there doesn't seem to be any way in which the Movement for Change either has influenced, or could influence, the policies which the Labour Party would adopt if David Miliband were elected leader.

I think the Movement for Change is a fantastic idea, and I fully support investing in developing the skills of Labour's grassroots members and supporting them to take action to improve their local communities. But it is important to recognise that there isn't anything particularly new about any of this. The Labour activists who have spent years in developing the skills of grassroots leaders and campaigning against local injustices are exactly the ones who some of David Miliband's anonymous supporters warn against "pandering" to.

To win the leadership election, I think that David Miliband needs to follow through on the logic of the Movement for Change. It's no good focusing on "people not policies" if the only people who get to shape the policies of the Labour Party are a small elite at the top of the party. Labour's future housing policies need to be shaped more by Movement for Change leaders like Liza Harding, and less by people like Hazel Blears.


At 10:18 pm , Blogger james said...

What Cox is saying makes more sense if you've familiar with Saul Alinsky's writing on community organising (

My biggest worry is that like Obama's community organising campaign, the M4C will be wound up at the end of the leadership contest. Hopefully it would be something that, whoever wins, is continued but focused on activists in the parliamentary seats we need to win back.

At 12:15 am , Blogger Liza said...

Thanks for the shout, Don! You're right - I am living proof like many others, feeling the effects of the cuts daily, lack of housing etc. I also want the Movement For Change to work right up to the top of the tree to David himself on a national level so that the Housing crisis many people face for example, including myself, can be addressed properly by those who can make these changes.

To James,
The M4C is an ongoing gift to the Labour party, regardless of whether or not David wins. He pledged a third of his campaign funds solely for the M4C right from the start.
1000 of us have been or will be trained as Future Leaders by the end of his campaign and we can use this training to continue to train other CLP members for as long as we want.
All the M4C is doing is reinforcing and re-igniting what many of our grassroot members have already been doing for years, except it is a little more organised and does build great teams not only within the CLPs but groups in the communities also.
The momentum has already started and won't need to end just because it's the end of the campaign - it's a really good opportunity for a stronger Labour party from the grassroots upwards.
I'm sure that those seats we need to win back will be targeted at the same time, and perhaps moreso with a push from either David himself or (heaven forbid!) another leader if they win.
Hope that helps!

At 12:09 pm , Anonymous Heather said...

He who has the youth has the future, I hope Ed wins. Imagine two party leaders both middle age white males and even worse, called David. What diveristy we have.

At 3:58 pm , Anonymous Stephen said...

You'll notice that the people at the top who supposedly want more activism at the bottom - run screaming in terror from any suggestion of empowering people in the workplace by relaxing our (still) Thatcherite industrial relations laws. gives you an idea about how little their empowerment rhetoric really means.


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