Thursday, December 23, 2010

Displacement activity

Anthony Painter has an article on Left Foot Forward, which argues that Labour has spent the last year engaged in "displacement activity", and needs instead to set out a new vision and to articulate a different future.

The four pieces of "displacement activity" which Labour was apparently involved in was plotting against Gordon Brown, the general election campaign (!), the leadership election and campaigning against the cuts. And what Labour needs to do instead of this permanent campaigning is set out a vision of "an economy that provides good jobs in new creative services and industry; that re-defines public value and values for the post-austerity age; and makes real the promise of the Big Society as a new citizenship that tangibly improves communities and lives."

This might be the defining statement of the Pamphlet Labour tendency - a clever, articulate piece which argues the totally nonsensical proposition that campaigning in elections is displacement activity for the Labour Party and is a distraction from the key task of re-defining public value and values for the post-austerity age.

I would argue the opposite. Labour wins not "when it is the future" (whatever that means), but when Labour activists knock on doors and talk to people. Anything which doesn't contribute to that is displacement activity.

One of the biggest mistakes Labour made over the last few years was to undervalue the importance of grassroots campaigning, and to overvalue the kind of elite politics of student politics to think tank to special adviser to MP to government minister. A kind of vicious circle developed, where Labour drew its ideas from a narrower and narrower group of people, lost the expertise of people who knew how to win elections, and became ever more distant and out of touch in both the content of its policies and the way it communicated them. Correcting that mistake, talking to people and letting their experiences and ideas shape Labour's policies is absolutely necessary.

There is a kind of virtuous circle which the grassroots-led approach taps into. The more people that Labour activists talk to, the more people vote for us. More local campaigning increases the number of members and volunteers, and helps us find excellent new people from all walks of life to become Labour candidates. Better Labour candidates increase the number of people who vote and volunteer for us. And developing policies in response to conversations on the doorstep helps to root them in the real world.

I'm happy to help Anthony develop a vision about making the promise of the Big Society real and talk about ways of creating good new jobs, and I am intrigued to learn about what "public value and values for the post-austerity age" might mean. But let's have those sorts of conversations as a bit of light relief after the important business of a productive canvassing session.

Next year as the cuts hit home, going out and campaigning for Labour will be more important and rewarding than ever. Whether you've never done it before or (like me) you've done some but could do more, why not make a New Year's Resolution to cut out a bit of displacement activity and go knock on some doors?


At 11:55 am , Blogger Hughes Views said...

Alas for too many of the party's employees and top dogs the election campaigns in 2009/10 could be described as displacement activity if that means something that occupies a lot of time but isn't effectively directed towards the main goal.

Too many laptops and not enough leaflets as one wag dubbed it.

Not wholly their fault perhaps but a result of overvaluing "the kind of elite politics of student politics to think tank to special adviser" and ignoring the old codgers who've been doing it unpaid for half a century.

At 9:03 pm , Anonymous Rich Green said...

This is very good. It's always nice to have a case made for grassroots campaigning as an antidote to some of the inveterate nonsense of the wannabe thinktankists.

However, I don't think you can entirely dismiss the need for a compelling national narrative. After all, if all Labour becomes is a series of good local campaigning units with no overarching set of values, how are we any different from pre-election Lib Dems?

It's always frustrated me that so many Labour people see door-knocking and campaigning as somehow separate from the policy stuff. The challenge I've always found is to get people to see door-knocking and a strong grassroots presence as an EXPRESSION of Labour values- not just as a vehicle for advancing them.

So rather than dismissing policy talk all together, what I'd like to see is every Labour person who posts on the internet with magical ideas for the party's future, to sign off saying how much door-knocking they've done in the last month. It might help put their view in perspective.

Rich Green
5 hours worth (should be more)

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