Labour is innovating – but the change has only just begun

This is a really tricky article to write for two reasons. Firstly, it may come across as critical of Labour’s new ‘community organising’ ethos (referenced in Ed Miliband’s interview in the Independent this morning and Mark’s piece earlier on LabourList). I’m actually very uplifted to hear about the Preston event and Lancashire Labour party work on their County election manifesto. Secondly, I’ve just come back from a trip to the market rather than to a street corner to meet with comrades to canvass (or build relationships through conversation). At this point you may think ‘who the hell are you to be lecturing us on party democracy?’ and stop reading there. Fair enough.

At this point, I’m quite lucky if you are still reading so let me continue to tread carefully. It seems to me that the networked approach (or relational or conversational depending on your preference) is a brilliant campaigning approach. By crafting networks of influence throughout communities you embed your work as a party in a better way than the more corporate marketing style of politics that has become the norm over the last couple of decades. This corporate style of politics is (regrettably to a certain extent) making a comeback under the guise of ‘big data’ – the second time in his career that Barack Obama has turned his back on community organising. With networked/relational politics, you are of and with people rather than simply transacting with them. Arnie Graf seems to have this humanistic insight. It very much goes with the grain of what we now understand about human behaviour and motivations.

The easy thing to say at this point would be: ‘Yes but it’s only a certain number of areas and by no means is it universal.’ But I’m not going to fall back on that as innovation can spread – and quickly. It would be equally easy to say: ‘It seems strange that a lot of the same policy concerns – living wage, gambling shops on the High Street, pay day loans – tend to come up everywhere in the country and they just so happen to be London Citizens et al concerns.’ But again, this doesn’t really concern me.

No, I’m going to raise a more fundamental concern. For me transformational change is about where power lies, who has access to it as a resource, and how it is used. What we are seeing in the current model of change within the Labour party is a new way of campaigning in some local contexts. It is brilliant and the new organisers trained in this network/community organising approach will enable the Labour Party to be a far more locally interwoven political force. But is this really political change?

On that, the jury is very much out.

Again, treading carefully, this is not a criticism of the work that is being done – far from it. There should be more of it. Who knows where it will lead? But the fact is that power within the Labour Party still sits with the same sorts of people, access to it is still tightly controlled and it is used in strikingly recognisable ways. The organisation in some places is getting bigger. Opposition does tend to do that – especially in times like ours when people are mobilising (to a fairly minor degree actually) to fight austerity and protect what they have. It is difficult to separate the positive work being done by Labour to renew itself as a campaigning organisation and resistance politics. The problem with resistance politics is it first melts away then re-forms in opposition to you once you win power.

The major risk is that Labour simply rides a wave of resistance politics and cites this as evidence of change and the founding of a ‘new movement’ while actually changing its power structures very little. This explains my anxiety about claims of fundamental change and a ‘new movement’. Both locally and nationally, the Labour Party remains extremely closed and narrow both in terms of access to political position and to policy influence. It’s a party that still fears pluralism; its core value is loyalism. Diversity is seen as about representation of certain groups rather than a complete opening out. It is still more a phalanx than a network.

The central populist attack on mainstream democracy from the likes of UKIP and much of the media is that mainstream parties have become aloof and serve the interests of a narrow elite. Again with a hard hat on, I can’t help feeling that this attack is caricatured but, nonetheless, contains a germ of truth. Most of the energy for change within the Labour Party is around the way it campaigns rather than the way the party welcomes people to join it or (even better!) connect with it, selects candidates and leaders, the way it engages with local democratic structures and communities, and the manner in which Labour assembles a political programme. There are also wider questions about how British democracy functions as a whole – in a digital age. There is near silence about all of this in mainstream politics (with the most interesting voice on this actually on the right- Douglas Carswell MP). Where democracy is energetic is in the loudest voices protecting obvious interests – on the left and the right. There’s nothing new here.

To be serious about change and ‘transformation’ there are far tougher questions that have to be asked about power. The conversation we are having is about organisation ultimately – though it is often dressed up in the language of power. The conclusion on this level is that there are many brilliant initiatives taking place but much of political sell around is, well, political sell. Until some vested interests not just in the Labour Party but British democracy more widely are cracked, however, transformational change will remain elusive.

Yet, the changes should be encouraged and strongly so. There is much to be very positive about – Labour is starting to do politics again. ‘Starting’ is the operative word. Real change means cracking apart power, dispersing it, opening out. On this, there is an ominous silence. Until there is cacophony of voices – including many who were previously silent – then ‘transformation’ is quite a way off.

Anthony Painter’s latest pamphlet is ‘Democratic stress, the populist signal and extremist threat: a call for new mainstream statecraft and contact democracy’ from Policy Network

More from LabourList