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.