In George Bernard Shaw’s satire on christian social action and amoral capitalism, Major Barbara, the eponymous heroine leaves the Salvation Army in despair after it accepts a donation from a notoriously unscrupulous arms manufacturer. Her good works in London’s East End are sullied by this sordid deal to her mind. The donor, Andrew Undershaft, is well known to Barbara. It’s her father.
This world of religion, labour, temperance, of community good works and social action is the cauldron out of which the Labour Party emerged. In its very origins it was a community-oriented party. Don’t underestimate the moral foundations of Labour. It’s in our very roots. That is one of the reasons why the New Labour years became so sour for so many. On a day where it emerges that Tony Blair is godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s children, you can kind of understand why.
In a sense we’ve all got a bit of the Major Barbara in us. The Salvation Army exists to save people’s souls. The Labour Party existed to secure social justice. And boy did it do so. Look at the institutions of fairness in modern society – the NHS, full secondary and tertiary education available to all, social support, the minimum wage, the list goes on – and the Labour Party’s legacy is tremendous despite its relatively few years in office since its foundation.
The proposed amendments to the Labour constitution with a commitment to serve local communities and promote social justice are designed to reach back to the protean soup of Labour’s formation – no bad thing at all. It’s worth looking at the wording:
“bring together members and supporters who share its values to develop policies, make communities stronger through collective action and support, and promote the election of Labour representatives at all levels of the democratic process.”
Labour rose from community social action and now that is to be recognised in its constitution. But there’s a problem in all this. Everything that Labour has secured has been through becoming an electoral force. It is not community action and election. It is social justice secured through election.
That is the means through which political parties secure their aims. That is why you have a Labour Party as opposed to just trade unions, christian social action, or community activism. So the proposed new Clause I, while containing worthy elements, just doesn’t get it right. Labour people are part of their local community in a myriad of ways and they bring that into the party. The party reaches out to the local community and serves its needs. It does so through representative democracy. Actually, the current Clause I is better because at least it makes it clear that Labour is a political party:
“Its purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.”
At this point, Major Barbaras pipe up and say that it’s soulless, technocratic, without principle, a betrayal to ignore the human element of what Labour does.
It’s a confusion. A political party is a means not an end. To secure social justice? Sure. To serve local communities? Absolutely. Is power an end in itself? Absolutely not. That’s why we have a statement of our values in the constitution. It’s why we present ideas and policies in the form of a manifesto. You just muddy things if you make ‘collective action’ a foundational function of the party. It’s not the Salvation Army. It exists to advance a set of values through electoral success.
So where does this leave ‘community’? A while back I ‘persuaded’ (OK, I bounced) someone I thought would be a brilliant councillor into a selection. They won. They became a councillor. A year later I went campaigning with them and everyone in the local community knew who they were. This individual had created havoc in the local council and made an enormous difference – most notably in changing a local hazard and nuisance. Former Tory voters were voting for him. It was by becoming a voice on the inside that he was making a difference.
Back in 2009, Gisela Stuart was facing defeat if opinion polls were right. She and her campaign organiser, Caroline Badley, decided to throw out the traditional approach and try something entirely new. What did they have to lose?
They learned from Barack Obama. They didn’t look back to his community organiser years. Had they have done so Edgbaston could well now have a Conservative MP. That Obama wasn’t a particular success – and left in despair. Instead they learned from his community campaigning methods innovated in his 2008 campaign. They won – and now they are winning more councillors too. A Labour MP, councillors, and a chance to take back Birmingham: now Labour has the power to make the difference to the city’s local communities.
It is completely understandable that a party exhausted from thirteen years in office and demoralised by the excessive centralisation of the party should reach for something more community based. It is right. The problem is that rather than looking at the successful models of local campaigning in the party – and there are many – we have gone for something called ‘community organising’ which we don’t understand in a party context.
Personally, I would affiliate Caroline Badley – and others like her – as a socialist society to the Labour Party. We know much of what works – and it varies from situation to situation – so why aren’t we just getting on with it? It is completely perplexing. There is absolutely no harm at all in experimenting with ‘community organising.’ Experimentation is good but that is what it is.
I don’t doubt for a minute that it will have some striking success but that doesn’t justify the changes that are proposed. It’s too late to stop the changes outlined in the Guardian this morning is my guess. We’ve taken a diversion. It may work out. In the meantime, we are ignoring what has been proven to work, pretending it’s all part of the same ‘community organising’ thing. It’s not.
Eventually, Labour will re-assert it’s electoral focus. It has to. It will take donations from some people we don’t like. It will position itself for tactical advantage. It will crank up the machine. A lot of people will be disappointed. Major Barbara will become Barbara Undershaft again and turn her focus elsewhere. If the experiment works out I’ll put on the uniform, blow a trumpet, ladle out soup and march with joy alongside Major Barbara. Blood and fire.