A Labour Movement? Really?


“You have got to stop seeing political parties as the engines of social change.”

Colin Crouch, a lefty professor of governance and public management, said this a few weeks ago at a seminar hosted by Policy Network to mark the publishing of his nicely-titled new book, The Strange Non-Death of Neo-Liberalism.

One of his arguments at the seminar and in the book is that political parties cannot take on major concentrations of power (which we now know as “The Vested Interests”), cannot take on big ideas, and are also always necessarily beholden to “public opinion”.

At the event, he said, “You have got to create a public opinion for them [parties] to follow”, articulating a vision that only civil society groups like charities and voluntary organisations can lead the challenge to unaccountable concentrations of power.

Professor Crouch’s argument holds some force, no doubt. We can see that from recent history. 38 Degrees on NHS reforms and the attempted privatisation of forests, the National Trust on planning, and the Occupy protests, are just three examples of how more flexible and enterprising groupings outside the political mainstream have left the national Labour Party trailing with their ability and/or willingness to mobilise people to action and lead opposition to Government policy.

So is Professor Crouch correct – are political parties like Labour unsuited to becoming anything more than aggregators of public opinion? Is the dream of becoming a “movement” just that?

Or is Crouch simply describing the present state of things? Certainly at present none of the major or minor political parties (even the Greens) have the appearance of anything like a “movement”. All are locked into squeezing the maximum number of seats out of their target constituencies.

Savaged for an alternative vision

Ed Miliband’s November 5th Observer article, in which he showed some sympathy for the “challenges” posed by the protestors outside St Paul’s, sketched out the outlines of an alternative vision for the Labour Party from the present reality. This article has drawn stinging criticism from certain Labour bloggers.

In the piece, he delved once more into the themes of irresponsibility at top and bottom of society and the need to “make big changes in the way our country works”. However, the most interesting point he made in my view was this: “The role of politicians is not to protest, but to find answers. I am determined that mainstream politics, and the Labour party in particular, speaks to that crisis and rises to the challenge.”

The reaction from certain bloggers provided something of a lesson in disdain.

Dan Hodges in his Telegraph blog for instance wrote that he had received a text message saying Miliband “had announced in a newspaper article that he was backing the St Paul’s protesters”, using this communication to launch into a tirade against the protestors for what the church authorities said was not necessarily anything to do with them and taking time to wipe the Labour leader with the same stinking brush. Hodges added:

“With that one article, Labour’s leader has linked himself to those encamped on the steps of St Paul’s as surely as if he’d rolled up with a sleeping bag and pitched a tent. In the public’s mind, Ed Miliband and the protesters are now one.”

The previous day, here on LabourList, Anthony Painter sketched out an almost identical but not so brutal picture, saying:

“Miliband is now attached to the Occupy movement today in a way he wasn’t yesterday. Its fate will help decide his fate.”

These claims are patently nonsense, and one wonders if their writers even read Miliband’s article – which does none of what they say it does.

Painter’s is the more thoughtful argument, but ultimately falls back upon opposition to the leader and his aims. Having originally declared -incorrectly – that Miliband has hitched his wagon to the Occupy movement, he says:

“Labour needs to show more self-awareness about its own failings and weaknesses before we start marching off to the promised land.  Its challenge is to get a credible voice in the debate and to show that it is capable of responsible leadership. Labour has to show that it can be trusted again.”

To which a perfectly reasonable response would seem to be, “If there is a promised land, then why not start marching towards it?”

But he goes on…

“Such a strategic course may be less exciting and involve Labour denying itself a sense of emotional release. But if this energy of Occupy, of strikes (and how can Miliband give encouragement to Occupy but not public sector pensions strikers now?), of student protests (ditto), of anger at bankers and the cuts is not enough to take it all the way then it’s wise to unhitch the wagon now before the train runs out of track. 2015 and beyond will be about credible and responsible national leadership.”

So we can see the underlying argument here. Confronting the manifest injustices that underpin our economic system and trying to do something about them is in fact incredible and irresponsible. This is not an argument I find acceptable.

But…a Labour movement? 

Nevertheless, there is an argument to be made about whether Labour or any other party can realistically establish itself as anything more than an aggregator of public opinion, dependent on the latest opinion poll and focus group findings.

Miliband has staked a claim for an alternative, but the vision is not particularly clear at present. Nevertheless, there is one concrete example of how the Labour Party is being changed to become something different, which is the affiliate organisation Movement for Change – the brainchild and project of Ed’s brother, David – that the new leader has taken on.

Movement for Change may not be the most self-effacing name ever devised for an organisation, but it has serious intentions and an admirable focus on humble grassroots action – starting with normal Labour Party members in their communities.

This sort of “movement” is not what you might expect of something given such a name – it bears no resemblance to a bunch of believers marching off to any “promised land”. It is more an attempt to reintegrate real community engagement into parts of the Labour Party that have perhaps lost sight of it. The wider vision however incorporates nothing short of the recreation of community itself – creating links between people locally and helping make those links stronger. So there is a promised land after all…

Any bottom-up attempt like this to create a genuine “movement” (which, incidentally, 38 Degrees is not) will take time and effort from a great many people. We have little idea what it will look like if and when it becomes a reality – and indeed whether the name “movement” will make any sense when it does. But it is progress.

Coming back to Professor Crouch’s conclusions that only third sector organisations can lead social change, we can perhaps see something of a blurring of definitions. What, after all, is the Labour Party but a third sector, voluntary, organisation? Local parties are dependent on members’ goodwill and activism to keep going. They have a lot in common with charities.

The likes of Hodges and Painter downplay these aspects in their more technocratic, cynical and centralised approach, but this is the essence of what being a “movement” is all about – people on the ground in their local areas motivated enough to go out and engage with the voters. Certainly, if that is what being a movement entails, we should all embrace it.

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