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Can Labour revive its democracy?

All hail, Arnie Graf. Once again, the press are heralding a new “guru” for dear leader Ed Miliband.

Graf, like Maurice “Blue Labour” Glasman before him, says he offers fresh ideas to make the Labour Party vibrant once more.

His “community organising” and “Obama mentor” repertoire is ideal – here’s the man steeped in the US president’s most exciting campaign tactic, the man who will save Labour’s structures from their desert-like state.

Graf is completely right in his diagnosis of what is wrong with Labour. ”The party sets its policy from the top to the bottom, rather than bottom to the top … the members weren’t seen as leaders but people to do tasks,” he says. The reality is that Labour has yet to recover from its hollowing out over the past 20 years.

First the leadership cracked down on dissent, making it nigh on impossible for local branches to put forward policy motions to party conference. Anyone who dared challenge the command and control structures during the Blair years was told they were threatening the party’s electoral success.

Before long, such threats were no longer needed. As party policy moved more and more towards neoliberalism, with Iraq as the final straw, members left in droves.

In 1997, there were 405,000 – after 10 years of Blair government this was down to 177,000. Many of those who remained active in their branches were comfortable with the party’s shift, or perhaps simply career-minded.

Graf told Guardian writer Rowenna Davis in a recent interview that Labour needs a “relational culture.” Party members need “working relationships.” Meetings should be a place to “build relationships” because “we grow up and get meaning from relationships.” By the time the interview was over “the idea of becoming a relational party is starting to come together.” Well, you could have fooled me.

If those coming up with “refreshing” ideas use such impenetrable jargon they cannot hope to ever relate to party members, let alone those outside of party politics. The use of such ideological jargon is just one symptom of a wider problem.

An outsider’s perspective can be refreshing. But when figures with no experience of the British labour movement are parachuted in by the party leadership to solve all ills, their perspectives can be somewhat naive. Both Glasman and Graf have recognised the pitfalls of command-and-control party structures. But they fail to grasp that top-down structures will never be abolished via top-down reform.

Since Ed Miliband became leader, numerous promises have been made about empowering the membership. But it has only been lip-service.

Party members have blamed the cautiousness of Miliband’s advisers, one of whom reportedly remarked wittily that giving the grass roots more of a say in the policy process would mean “a return to resolutionary socialism.” The planned reforms to the party’s national policy forum were then quietly dropped.

This pussyfooting makes it clearer than ever before that even if his intentions are good the party leader is not in a position to sort out the mess. Hierarchical structures and the powerlessness of party members can only be solved by grass-roots organisation.

Yes, some of this this will begin with the procedural functions that Graf rails against, such as submitting motions to amend the party constitution.

But party members aren’t put off simply by procedure. They’re put off by procedure being used against them.

Worryingly, Miliband’s do-gooders are in danger of being complicit in this. Glasman’s rhetoric about democratic control of industry has been used to pay lip service to the notion that there is a policy debate happening inside the party when in reality Labour remains hopelessly committed to an agenda of austerity-lite.

Similarly, Graf’s suggestions for reform could well be used by party officials to remove even more power from the party membership. His support for open primaries, for instance, could be used to undermine the trade union link and empower business sponsorship of candidates, as seen in the US and increasingly in Britain, with David Sainsbury’s Blairite group Progress already training and sponsoring candidates in parliamentary selections.

Graf has taken a tour of local constituency Labour parties (CLPs) to find out their concerns – and rightly so. He is also right to recognise that not all CLP activists want to see their members more empowered.

But rather than thinking that a report to the party leader will suffice he must take that tour again – and convince those who do want to see Labour become a modern, vibrant and democratic party that they must take action for themselves.

This article first appeared in the Morning Star, on Wednesday 12th December 2012.

8 Comments

  1. John Page says:

    I suspect that whoever wrote this article has never met Arnie, nor attended a meeting he has facilitated. If they had they would not have ended the article with a plea for Arnie to convince party activists that ‘they must take action for themselves’ (unless of course that was a dishonest attempt to assert that this is not what he does). It is also simply ignorant to say he has ‘no experience of the labour movement’ (yahoo him and the Baltimore Living Wage campaign). It is also a serious mistake to conflate Arnie with Morris (Arnie has an impressive track record of delivering real wins as a result of community action, whereas Morris probably does not have any meaningful experience of the Labour movement). To be honest, this article suggests that some on the left are as frightened of Labour becoming an open, active and inclusive party, as the remnants of the Blairite machine. Building meaningful relationships with communities that lead to collective action involves a lot of listening and considerably less arrogance. I hope these comments were not too ‘impenetrable’!

    1. Being the “whoever” who wrote the article, I will readily admit that no, I have never met Arnie. I meant the British labour movement – I’ve corrected this for clarity’s sake. Interviewed by the Guardian, he does not seem to refer to ways in which the party grassroots will reform the structures, as some activists seek to do year after year at annual conference, only to be obstructed by the conference arrangements committee. Instead, there’s an inherent assumption in his comments that there are certain ways to make party events and the like more “relational” – and that that can come from above.

  2. Robert says:

    All are welcome into Labour if he comes down to a meeting by me he can have one of about 100 empty seats

  3. john reid says:

    eh robert ,sniping again

  4. John Page says:

    Conrad,

    It seems then that the only point of reference for your article is Arnie’s reported comments in a Guardian article. You then complain that you don’t understand his reference to relational organising. It is a different (but not new) way of doing politics, based on recognising that members and potential members are individuals with individual motivations, who need to be valued, and not merely used to service the needs of the party. This approach has allowed communities to build power often in very difficult circumstances. Perhaps you should Yahoo it. I suspect that you would dismiss it, but at least you would know what you are disagreeing with!

    I also have to observe that if activists have been pursuing a strategy ‘year after year’ at annual conference without success, they might want to review their tactics. Banging your head against a brick wall is not a particularly attractive form of politics.

    In reference to ‘Robert’ the reason why some of us are excited by Arnie’s relational organising, is that he has demonstrated (in the UK Labour movement) how easy it is to fll those 100 empty seats if you view every member and contact as a potential leader and ask them to behave accordingly.

    This suggests that the way to transform the Labour party is not to pursue a resolution to conference approach, but to make sure that, at its base, it is a genuine mass movement not just representing working class communities, but actually organising them, so that every member is trained in how to become a local leader.

  5. Robert says:

    No John not sniping mate, I’ve left the Labour party walked away after 46 years, I do not sleep with Tony Blair picture under my pillow mate.

    Watch out your not sent on rendition me old mate.

  6. John P Reid says:

    glad to here that robert and there was me thinking that toehr people Like Roy jenkins who similar left labour after 46 years and took millions of votes with them were the ones you blamed for laobur losing the 83 election, not the policies they had which were the ones you fully supported, that they could no longer support,

  7. Robert says:

    John you thought Tony Blair would have won the 2010 election you also feel that labour in 1945 were commies, we know your history all I can say I will not take a history lesson from a bloke who’s love affair with Tony Blair came close to stalking

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