This could change the way Labour does politics

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On Thursday I travelled with Ed Miliband and his Community Organising “guru” Arnie Graf to see some of the work on party reform that has been carried out over the last few months.

I also took the time to interview Ed about a huge range of policies and political issues of the day. But we’ll come to that tomorrow, because what I saw on this trip is more important than that – it could change the way we do politics in the Labour Party for good (and help win elections too).

The first event of the day took place in Carlisle, so after a long train journey (in which Miliband seemed to revel in chatting to everyone he could on the carriage) we arrived at a Q&A hosted by local PPC Lee Sherriff. She’s an interesting kind of candidate – only recently a member, and rooted firmly in campaigning in her community.

The Q&A passed off relatively uneventfully (Miliband is good at these, but I’ve seen enough of them to know that already), and as we headed back to the train station, I began to wonder why Miliband and his team thought today would be of sufficient interest to bring the press (both old and new media) along. With the best will in the world, 300 miles is a long way to go to see a fairly good Q&A.

I presumed – and hoped – this was not what I was here to see today.

So we headed to Preston for the second leg of the trip, I interviewed Ed on the train over some rather pungent fish and chips (of which more tomorrow – the interview, not the chips) and Miliband spent another train journey talking to passengers (and sometimes their friends and family on their phones too). It turns out he quite enjoys it, and his affable demeanour means he puts strangers at ease. It’s all rather nice, but again, I’m not sure it’s what I’m here to see.

By early evening we arrive in Preston, and there’s certainly plenty of enthusiasm for the event from Miliband’s staff, many of whom have made the trip to Preston North End’s Deepdale stadium. It seems they want a glimpse of what’s happening here too – and I sense that Preston might be the purpose of my being here after all. I also begin to wonder how eerily quiet the leader’s office must be – as it seems they’re all here.

I can’t focus on that for long though, as I’m distracted by the number of people arriving for the event.

It soon becomes clear there’s a problem. Too many people have arrived – the fire regulations will only allow 350 people in the room, but over 100 more have arrived and are standing huddled outside in the cold. The room is already full to capacity. They will, unfortunately, have to go home.

People are being turned away from a Labour Party event because there was an unexpectedly large number of people keen to attend. Lets be totally frank here – that just doesn’t happen. In the parts of the country with the largest party memberships – London, Manchester, Birmingham – you’d probably be quite happy with 100 people turning up at a meeting, no matter how good the keynote speaker was. Yet here in Preston tonight, on a cold and wintry Thursday, more than 400 people have come from their homes to come to a Labour Party meeting. But unlike the well organised Q&A of the morning, this doesn’t feel like a party meeting at all. It feels like a community coming together.

Because that’s exactly what it is.

The build up to this event in Preston began about six months ago with just a handful of people in a room with Arnie Graf and some talented party organisers. That handful of people went out to engage with a handful more, who engaged with a handful more, until it snowballed into the 400 who attended on Thursday evening. It turns out if you’re invited by a friend or family member, and feel some investment in the process, hundreds people – engaged people willing to take actions and engage thousands more people for the good of the party – will turn up. As Miliband told them that night – “It isn’t me who has brought people here – it’s you.”

It sounds so obvious – so mundane almost – but unlike most “member mobilisation strategies” I’ve heard about in the party, this one actually works.

That’s not the bureaucracy of a party – that’s a movement. A much bigger, much more effective, and perhaps much more difficult to control entity. But by taking the concerns of this group and others into account in an “open manifesto” process – Lancashire Labour have managed to create an army with a personal investment in the success of the party, because they feel like the party is their party. And the manifesto is their manifesto.

That night in Preston, Miliband talked confidently (and with real belief) about the kind of party that is being built in places like Preston. It was a good speech, and one line in particular (a line he’d also used in Carlisle) “Politics is too important to be left to politicians” resonated both with the anti-politician mood in the country and the need for communities and individuals to work together and achieve their goals. That need – and desire – for a different kind of politics was what this whole event was about. Politics isn’t – Miliband was keen to note – just him and David Cameron berating each other in Westminster.

And so to illustrate that point, everyone in the room – most of whom had been invited by friends and family, and all of whom were the result of a handful of people starting this process six months ago – picked up their phones, and began to call others and get them to pledge their time, their energy or just their vote, to the Labour Party. Everyone went away having pledged to contact at least ten more people – with some promising to contact dozens.

And suddenly, in Preston – not known to be a political hotbed – you have hundreds, and potentially thousands, of active engaged volunteers, a better (more representative) manifesto and a potentially election-winning army.

Replicate this across the country, and it could help Labour win the next election.

But more than that – replicate this across the country, and it will change the way our party does politics for good – and much for the better.

Hyperbole? Perhaps. But for years now party reform has been the dry and dusty preserve of Labour Party nerds like me rattling on about “engagement”, “movement building” and the “relational” way of doing things. But in Preston, and elsewhere, they’re actually doing it. And to see it in the flesh is incredibly powerful.

Suddenly it doesn’t seem that dry or dusty anymore – it feels like it’s what the Labour Party should be like. needs to be like.

Stay tuned over the next few days for Mark’s interview with Ed Miliband – and with Arnie Graf too

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