In December 2010 I was introduced to Ed Miliband by Lord Maurice Glasman.
Up to that point I had been an organizer in the US for over 45 years. All of my work took place in the voluntary sector. I never did political party work. I put all of my efforts into building powerful citizens organizations that could hold both political and corporate leaders accountable and could initiate ideas that came from the community.
An example of one of the organizations that I helped to organize conceived of the idea of a Living Wage. In 1994 the B.U.I.L.D. organization was successful in getting the first Living Wage law in the US passed by the Baltimore City Council. Since then the Living Wage Law has been adopted in over 100 jurisdictions in the U.S.
The idea of the Living Wage has been championed in the UK by Citizens UK, a powerful broadly based network of community organizations throughout the country. To my delight I learned in my first meeting with Ed that he had campaigned for the Living Wage during the Labour leadership campaign.
At the end of our first meeting, Ed asked me if I would return to the UK to do a root and branch of the Party. I was both honoured and surprised, but I agreed to return to do this because it both seemed like it would be a fascinating experience for me and because there was something about Ed’s openness and honesty that struck a chord in me.
In the summer of 2011 I returned to the UK. For over six weeks I travelled all over the country meeting with leaders and staff of the party as well as leaders in the voluntary sector. In one 17 day period I visited 14 different cities, suburbs and villages throughout England, Wales and Scotland. During this time I met with 511 people either individually or in groups of 5-20.
This experience was one of the richest I have had in my career.
Since my report to Ed on that trip, he has asked me to continue to work with the Party. It has been a little over two years now that I have been working with the party organizers, regional directors, national staff, members, supporters and elected officials in a collective endeavour to build a party that has the body of a strong organization with the soul of a Movement.
Over the past two years, having met literally thousands of people from every corner of the country, what have I learned?
The first and foremost lesson I have learned is that the American stereotype of the British people is just that – a stereotype.
I was led to believe that a relational approach to organizing would not work in the in the UK because the British people are too formal and reserved. They are the people of the stiff upper lip and not forthcoming with their emotions. I now tell people at home who said that to me that they ought to watch a football match just once. I defy them to find anything formal or lacking in emotion during a match.
Generally speaking what I have found throughout the country are a pragmatic people who do not suffer fools easily. I have also encountered a people who are warm and have a generous heart. Whether I am in the North or the South of England or in Scotland or Wales or in cities, suburbs or villages, people have been both curious and welcoming.
They have been remarkably patient with me. As an organizer and a person of great curiosity, I ask a lot of questions. For the most part I have not encountered “distant” responses. Most of the time I have found a willingness to engage in thoughtful conversations about themselves, their families, their jobs and their aspirations, joys and concerns and anxieties about the future.
I have found a gnawing sense of loss and a growing sense of impotency as to how to fill the void. I find this sense of loss totally understandable. Just walk down too many of the high streets and take in the vacant shops and the proliferation of betting parlors and legal loan shark businesses.
A great poet said that when the center will not hold, things fall apart.
What is the center that keeps things from falling apart? What is it that fosters hope and nourishment?
My fifty years of organizing experience has taught me that the ties that bind are relationships and institutions that are both powerful enough to protect people and to initiate collective action on behalf of the common good.
The problem in the country now is that too many of the institutions that once served people well are either fraying and losing their vitality or they have collapsed. Of the many institutions that are failing and losing trust amongst the people are the political parties. For many people the word politician has become akin to a four letter curse word.
Some of the most disturbing experiences for me here have been the number of people that I have encountered at their door who do not and will not vote.
These people give primarily two reasons for not voting. One reason I categorise as a kind of sad resignation. These people are convinced that voting is a complete waste of time. To them all politicians are the same regardless of Party. They believe that none of the politicians tell the truth.
The second group of non voters I categorise as the angry non voter. Their refusal to vote is their way of expressing their power. It is their way of telling the politicians to go stuff it.
What is particularly disturbing about this is that the people whose doors I am knocking on are people from a Labour list. These are either people who have voted before or who have indicated in some way that they may be willing to vote.
This withdrawal is true for all parties. I know this because I have tested this reality by going to doors and simply asking people to vote. I get the same response from many people, “I don’t vote anymore”.
Ed Miliband has correctly identified this as a central problem facing the country. This is why he has made it a priority to initiate a major cultural change in the Labour Party. Ed is saying that the party must be the change it wants to see in the country.
To do this he is moving the party from a centralised bureaucratic culture to a locally self-determining relational culture. He is committed to opening up the party. His vision is to restore meaning to politics by following the principle of subsidiarity. Although not Catholic myself, I learned this principle from Catholic Social Teaching. The principle behind subsidiarity is that the best and most effective decisions are made at the most local level.
In the past, too often decisions were made in London and passed down to the local leaders and staff throughout the country. They had no or very limited participation in the decisions that they were told to implement. Some of this is simply a mechanism of control. It shows a complete lack of trust in people’s capacity to come together to discuss, to argue and to come to solutions on issues that they identify as important to them.
This cultural change is what Bernard Crick called the belief in the “affirmative person”. The belief that most people, given the appropriate circumstances, will make the right decisions. I have experienced this change in the open manifesto processes that have taken place in places like Preston. The energy in the room was palbable.
As importantly, the talent in the room was extraordinary.
A large institution does not change easily or quickly. Vested interests are always there to block the way. However, I believe firmly that Ed and Iain McNicol, the party’s General Secretary, are totally committed to this effort.
I am 69 years old and I have been organizing for 50 years. In those 50 years I have had my life threatened numerous times, especially when I was involved the US Civil Rights Movement. I have been called every name in the book. I have experienced enormous victories and devastating defeats. I am not a naive person. I know what it takes to create big change and how difficult it is to do particularly in old institutions that are set in their ways.
Ed once asked me why I was spending so much time away from home.
I told him that in my 50 years of work, I have steadfastly refused to either run for office when asked or to work for a politician when I have been approached. I told him that he is the first politician that I have ever agreed to work with. I told him that at first I was doing this because I believe in him as a person and as a politician. Additionally, I believe in the tradition of the Labour Party. After all, a party that calls itself Labour has to have come from a good place.
However, after two years of being here, there is a third reason why I am doing this work.
I have developed a belief, a respect and a fondness for the British people. Their basic decency and generous spirit deserves a meaningful, thoughtful and inclusive politics. In some way I am hoping that in working with Ed, Iain and the hundreds of Party staff, members and supporters, I can be part of Britain’s New Day.