Miliband’s “Movement for Change” – Grassroots or Astro-turf?

David Milliband has announced this weekend that he is launching a grassroots “Movement for Change”, promising to recruit “1000 Labour Party members to become ‘Future Leaders’ during the leadership campaign – and more if elected Leader.The Guardian has been briefed to compare it “with the techniques that helped Barack Obama into the White House.” He also wants to double party membership, “to rebuild and renew the Labour Party from the bottom up,” and “to open up a debate about strengthening democracy in the Party”.

No-one can oppose such things on the basis of the information supplied – although we’d prefer to strengthen democracy rather than just have a debate about it – but where does David stand on the trade union role in all this? Are they part of the planned Movement for Change? He does helpfully remind us:

This is in the best traditions of the Labour Party. It is where our movement started – trade unions, the co-op. Before working people had the vote they organised for change, to campaign against things like child labour and for things like decent working conditions.

On the other hand the Guardian informs us that he will also call; for “a nationwide drive to encourage three million trade union levy payers to become full members.” No-one is against encouraging individual trade union members to join the party. But what about trade unionists collectively? Are they not an organising force in the workplace? And could they not be a force in the wider community too – Trades Councils after all have had a wider role, historically.

The implication, you see, David, of seeking to recruit individual trade unionists rather than wanting to build on what trade unions do now is that you’re not really very keen on bottom up, collective action at all, nor on the Party-Union link.

The lesson of the election no-one won this year is that we need to build a mass membership campaigning party, with grassroots activists who are engaged in their communities, who respond to their needs and who are in a position, together, to make the policy that addresses those needs. What we don’t need is 1000 astro-turf “activists”, advocates for the leadership, and really engaged in yet another top-down PR exercise.

  1. Reading DM’s pitch, I felt slightly embarrassed to be in the Labour Party. Most of the outlines I’ve seen from all of the major candidates so far seem to have a lot of the hallmarks of the last government – hastily cobbled-together moves that are more geared towards signalling than any coherent action.

    They seem to be more like ‘gambits’ than expressions of a coherent philosophy (socialist, social democratic or otherwise).

    There is a project of decentralisation coupled with party-building that could command support from a wide range of the political spectrum – both within and outside of the Labour Party.

    This would involve a set of thorough-going reforms that address the rebuilding of cabinet government, the strengthening of the powers and capacity of MPs, Councillors and other elected representatives, along with a commitment to look at ways that new inclusive deliberative spaces can be opened up.

    It involves a commitment to implement (relatively inexpensive) policies designed to increase social capital at a local level and to make governmental structures more accessible and usable. It’s an approach that would force Labour out of all of its comfort zones and into a proper conversation, instead of the clumsy posturing on immigration that has dominated the debate so far.

    Labour needs to understand and articulate the hazards of the Tories’ approach to decentralisation and respond with our own alternative – one that understands why our current democratic settlement emerged in the first place.

    We’re at a point in history when Labour can introduce innovations to the way we do politics while keeping our commitment to social justice and inclusion intact. It’s a sign of how shallow our party has become that none of the leaders can offer anything more than these cynical eye-catching pitches in which they convince us that they wouldn’t have lost ‘the last war’ quite as badly as Brown did.