Labour needs to rediscover campaigning, not just vision


3:10 pm - December 23rd 2010

by Don Paskini    


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Anthony Painter has an article on Left Foot Forward, which argues that Labour has spent the last year engaged in “displacement activity”, and needs instead to set out a new vision and to articulate a different future.

The four pieces of “displacement activity” which Labour was apparently involved in was plotting against Gordon Brown, the general election campaign (!), the leadership election and campaigning against the cuts. And what Labour needs to do instead of this permanent campaigning is set out a vision of “an economy that provides good jobs in new creative services and industry; that re-defines public value and values for the post-austerity age; and makes real the promise of the Big Society as a new citizenship that tangibly improves communities and lives.”

This might be the defining statement of the Pamphlet Labour tendency – a clever, articulate piece which argues the totally nonsensical proposition that campaigning in elections is displacement activity for the Labour Party and is a distraction from the key task of re-defining public value and values for the post-austerity age.

I would argue the opposite. Labour wins not “when it is the future”, but when Labour activists knock on doors and talk to people. Anything which doesn’t contribute to that is displacement activity.

One of the biggest mistakes Labour made over the last few years was to undervalue the importance of grassroots campaigning, and to overvalue the kind of elite politics of student politics to think tank to special adviser to MP to government minister.

A kind of vicious circle developed, where Labour drew its ideas from a narrower and narrower group of people, lost the expertise of people who knew how to win elections, and became ever more distant and out of touch in both the content of its policies and the way it communicated them. Correcting that mistake, talking to people and letting their experiences and ideas shape Labour’s policies is absolutely necessary.

There is a kind of virtuous circle which the grassroots-led approach taps into. The more people that Labour activists talk to, the more people vote for us. More local campaigning increases the number of members and volunteers, and helps us find excellent new people from all walks of life to become Labour candidates. Better Labour candidates increase the number of people who vote and volunteer for us. And developing policies in response to conversations on the doorstep helps to root them in the real world.

I’m happy to help Anthony develop a vision about making the promise of the Big Society real and talk about ways of creating good new jobs, and I am intrigued to learn about what “public value and values for the post-austerity age” might mean. But let’s have those sorts of conversations as a bit of light relief after the important business of a productive canvassing session.

Next year as the cuts hit home, going out and campaigning for Labour will be more important and rewarding than ever. Whether you’ve never done it before or (like me) you’ve done some but could do more, why not make a New Year’s Resolution to cut out a bit of displacement activity and go knock on some doors?

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About the author
Don Paskini is deputy-editor of LC. He also blogs at donpaskini. He is on twitter as @donpaskini
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Reader comments


Don,

I’m not sure I can agree that Labour are failing on the campaigning front – indeed, I’d argue that it was the strong SUCCESS of Labour grassroots campaigning that helped prevent a Tory government being formed after the election.

Labour grassroots campaigners did that rare thing – they polished the turd of a Parliamentary Labour Party and prevented its oblivion.

Hi John,

Agree completely about the success of Labour’s grassroots campaigning. That is the key lesson from the election, and should be the starting point for discussions of Labour’s future.

Agree with this article.

Labour spent a lot of time discussing its vision or its principles or where it came from and blah blah blah. That stuff helps inform opinions and policies, but what matters is those opinions and policies – and they need to be campaigned for.

The Daily Mash sums it up well of the present government too…

“Tom Logan, from Finsbury Park, said: “As far as I understand it, government is a mechanism for delivering opportunity and fairness. But the difficulty with that – in terms of service provision – is that it’s just a load of **** they use to justify spending my money on whatever they ******* want.

“So I would really, really love it if the government could do actual things.”

http://www.thedailymash.co.uk/news/society/are-we-supposed-to-be-doing-something-about-all-this-snow?-asks-government-201012203368/

@ 3

“So I would really, really love it if the government could do actual things.”

So would we all but unfortunately no democratically elected administration can achieve much beyond creating the climate for people to do actual things.

Yes..yes, we all know that democracies don’t work without compromise. A valued human attribute but unfortunately it often works against the ideals expressed in your posting.

Ted

Be fair – governments do some things. They raise taxes and hire teachers and nurses and doctors and run emergency services and so on.

But I actually offered the example as it summed up how I imagine most people feel whe politicians talk values instead of actual stuff.

In my own experience I have found that more young people are talking politics than they have done for a generation and it is at grass roots level the labour party need to be engaging with this new generation of political savvy youth to give it some structure and direction. If we fail to do this it will be an opportunity missed and while it is right to consider the future direction of the party if they do not develop talent there will be no one to fullfill that promise.

I actually thought it was a rather good article on LFF, though rather devoid of substance. It is important that Labour has a vision, and for me that should be of socialism in the age of the internet (as I outlined in my blog yesterday).

Now I’m sure campaigning is very important but, as has been mentioned, Labour isn’t actually that rubbish at that.

Yes, we need to talk to people, but we have to actually have something for people to understand. Otherwise we end up in the populist trap of promising everything, even if it defies our core beliefs- we need to set out where we stand fundamentally on the most controversial issues.

It’s all very well knocking on doors, but people will be mightily confused if we simply ask for their ideas!

Now, my only experience of campaigning has been for Hope Not Hate, and I’ve yet to even meet my BLP, but if I’m going to go traipsing down the road knocking on doors then I need to have something of substance to talk to those people about!

Regards,
Dan

I’m not sure what this response to my LFF piece is trying to achieve but a couple of points…

1. If we are saying that Labour polled 29% because its organisation wasn’t strong enough then credulity is somewhere in the distance barely visible in our rear view mirror. Knock more doors, make the case, people agree with Labour really they just need to hear us, so we must speak louder…I’m sorry but I’m just not buying this at all- the issues are bigger than simply organisation.

2. On that, the notion that I don’t think organisation is important is flabbergasting.

The really corrosive element of this piece is this pamphleteer v leafleter distinction. It is utterly fatuous and divisive and for no apparent purpose other than to elevate certain activists piously above others- the committed few in the trenches. Believe it or not it’s possible to think/write about politics, economics and society and knock doors also. This type of stuff is hardly a recipe for a solidaristic and effective mass movement. And if we were to accept the premise that is all it would take to return Labour to power then creating false status distinctions and divides is simply putting a stick in the spokes.

“It’s all very well knocking on doors, but people will be mightily confused if we simply ask for their ideas!”

Good on you for volunteering for Hope not Hope:

You might be surprised how many people are pleased to have someone from the Labour Party call round, ask them what they think should be done to improve their local area and listen to their ideas. It’s a simple thing, but highly effective.

What we do in response to these ideas and suggestions is informed by values, what’s possible and so on. But the first stage is just to listen.

I think that’s a good point, and I agree that it’s important that we do talk to people. I’m not sure, a part of me feels that would work in an area with a Labour councillor, and such like, but I’m still unconvinced that people would be receptive where I live.

And as has been said, there is no reason that we can’t discuss Labour’s vision AND talk to people- many of us are bloggers anyway and we wouldn’t stop that just because we’re knocking on doors and so on.

If Labour’s leadership can come up with a basic vision, then it will be much easier to use discussions within communities to flesh that out. It does help if those communities exist in the first place…

“There is a kind of virtuous circle which the grassroots-led approach taps into. The more people that Labour activists talk to, the more people vote for us. More local campaigning increases the number of members and volunteers, and helps us find excellent new people from all walks of life to become Labour candidates. Better Labour candidates increase the number of people who vote and volunteer for us. And developing policies in response to conversations on the doorstep helps to root them in the real world.”

As the Lib Dems have been doing for the past 20 or 30 years – it’s a long-term process but the dividends are well worth it.

John Spence @ 1 – I agree that the result of the May 2010 election was remarkable in a ‘turd-polishing’ sense. Turd polishing is an activity that is little short of miraculous to accomplish -( I imagine ). Only months before the General Election – reputable polling organisations were promising us a Tory government with a comfortable majority of 70. We know that opinion polls can sway opinions as well as record them – but how did a projected majority of 70 dissolve down to the Tories far less than polished showing in the election itself – in such a short time? My guess is that the rotten Tory turd proved far less amenable to taking a full gloss shine – now evident to all – even with added lack-lustre varnish as applied by the LIb Dems bright shiners.

Hi Anthony,

1. Clearly organisation was a large part of why Labour got 29%.  In
the seat where we made the most contacts, Labour’s share of the vote
rose from 36% to 43% – if this level of organisation had been
replicated across the country, we’d have won the election.  It really
is the case that the more people we talk to, the more people will vote
for us.

Additionally, I’m arguing that a focus on local organising is the
starting point to address a number of wider weaknesses, most notably
policies and language which are out of touch with most people, and
candidates and a leadership who are drawn from an increasingly narrow
section of the population.

2. I’m well aware that “it’s possible to think/write about politics,
economics and society and knock doors also” – I write a blog about
politics, after all!  Indeed, one of the pleasures of grassroots
campaigning is that it helps gain a deeper and better understanding of
politics.

But there is a genuine difference of perspective if you think that
fighting the election campaign was a displacement activity, or that
our election campaign never got off the starting blocks. Rather than a small number of thinkers coming up with a vision in 2011, I think the way to achieve the aims that we share starts with better grassroots organization.

Hi Don,

I think a flase dichotomy is being set up between local organisations vs big vision / ideas. After all, the latter ends up informing what the issues the party will campaign on, and then lead to the former. No?

Rather than a small number of thinkers coming up with a vision in 2011, I think the way to achieve the aims that we share starts with better grassroots organization.

Am I right here in understanding your point is that having a broader organisation will bring in new people who will be more rooted in their community, and therefore be able to inform politics at a national level?

Otherwise, I’m not sure how more organisation locally leads to more ideas. For example, Obama had a very centralised (at the top) organisation that generated its own ideas and policies without much input from the lower end. And yet he still beat McCain handsomely.

The leadership and how they articulate a vision matter, surely?

@ 5. Margin4error

Apologies, now understood in the context you meant it.

Couldn’t agree more, Don.

@Don

I find your reading of my argument very strange. Why on earth would I argue that Labour shouldn’t campaign in the election or that campaigning/ organisation was irrelevant? I kind of never imagined that anyone would suggest that- particularly in the context of what I have been arguing for quite a while- but I missed that angle…..weird.

“I think a flase dichotomy is being set up between local organisations vs big vision / ideas. After all, the latter ends up informing what the issues the party will campaign on, and then lead to the former. No?”

Other way round. The former should lead to the latter.

“Why on earth would I argue that Labour shouldn’t campaign in the election or that campaigning/ organisation was irrelevant?”

You argued that it was a displacement activity?

More importantly, I don’t understand the process that you would like to see for developing a vision in 2011, and think that we need to expand our grassroots organisation first. A vision based on priorities which are drawn from policy debates in the westminster village will be at best useless and at worst counter productive. Start with what people know, build with what they have, rather than starting with a vision based on three things which you are interested in.

19. Anthony Painter

I’m afraid this discussion is surreal Don. I just don’t see what point you are trying prove.

The substantive point that you make re Labour finding a new direction from grassroots engagement is admirably idealistic and sounds great. It’s a nonsense in practice of course. I’d love to know how such a process can inform, eg, regulatory reform of international finance or how to structure a modern health service. That’s not to say that grassroots engagement can’t inform local action or our understanding of the issues that people face. It can and should- I’ve written on this on this site as well as elsewhere copiously.

And if you are arguing that Labour can exist without ideas then we’ve gone into even more bizarre territory. My ideas stand or fall on their merits as do yours. Attack them, ignore them, whatever you want to do. But once we get into a position that says that ideas are irrelevant or elitist etc then it’s curtains for us as a movement.

Hi Anthony,

One more go at this – we’ll have plenty of occasions to discuss further in 2011, I’m sure 🙂

Your original claim was that in order to win the next election, Labour need to cease restless displacement activity and instead “spring forward with a different vision: of an economy that provides good jobs in new creative services and industry; that re-defines public value and values for the post-austerity age; and makes real the promise of the Big Society as a new citizenship that tangibly improves communities and lives.”

I don’t think this is correct. My alternative is that in 2011 Labour should emphasise building up from the grassroots – raising funds to employ local organisers, mobilising volunteers to increase the number of people that we speak to, developing feedback mechanisms to channel ideas and questions from the doorstep to the policy making process and so on. This in turn should inform the development of a vision which is real to people, not written in politico-speak and informed by the concerns and ideas of people beyond the Westminster bubble.

Clearly there is a role for policy specialists to develop policy proposals on specific, technical subjects as part of that, but having a set of policies on regulatory reform of international finance is very different from having a top line vision. (Health structures strike me as much more amenable to grassroots input).

If you’d written that you would like to see Labour adopt particular policies on employment in particular sectors, values and the Big Society, I’d have had no problem with that – I’m interested in all of these areas and happy to debate further. But the claim that adopting a vision based around your particular policy interests is a key political priority for the Labour Party to win the election is not something for which I think there is much evidence.

The evidence is overwhelmingly clear from the 2010 election – Labour’s election results were closely correlated to the quality of local organisation and the quantity of contacts made. I don’t think ideas are irrelevant or elitist, but they do need to be tested and refined through local organisation.

One key question which occurs from your article – who is it that is going to develop the vision that you would like to see? The leader? The shadow cabinet? The PLP? I know Labour members who have won awards for their work in tangibly improving communities and lives, and who think that the whole concept of the Big Society is a load of rubbish which should be thrown out completely. How would their views be taken into account in developing a vision around realising the promise of the Big Society?

An example might help. For years and years after 2000, Labour Party campaigners heard from people on the doorsteps that they were concerned about buy to let housing and the consequences for communities. But the thinkers at the top of the Labour Party believed that encouraging buy to let was an example of encouraging aspiration, and that regulating it would be anti-aspiration and anti-Middle England. It wasn’t until 2009 that we changed tack. If we had used the experience from grassroots campaigning to inform our policies and approach and challenge the views at the top of the party about what “aspiration” meant to Middle England, we’d have had a better and more compelling policy on housing. That’s the approach which I’m advocating that we build on.

Next year as the cuts hit home, going out and campaigning for Labour will be more important and rewarding than ever.

What on earth are you talkin about? You think people will just forget new Labour cos your little boy wants to pretend? You are having a giraffe.

Cos they are responsible for the cuts which we would have made if we had won we can jump for joy on the doorstep and blame it all on them and people will forget that we totally turn into Tory cunts who errode as much personal freedom as possible to the extent that INCOMING TORIES actually give peoples rights back?

I hope they wont mate. More fool them if they do. Merry Xmas!

Sunny @14
“I think a flase dichotomy is being set up between local organisations vs big vision / ideas. After all, the latter ends up informing what the issues the party will campaign on, and then lead to the former. No?”

DonPaskini @18
“Other way round. The former should lead to the latter.”

If you don’t have a democratic party structure where ordinary members contribute to the policy formation process rather than simply consuming whatever it is the leadership decides will give them the best advantage in tomorrow’s headlines then this is an irrelevant argument. What’s the point of participating if you are just a campaign monkey and protest victim?

As it is Labour is constructed on the featherbedding of various vested interests by favoured insiders who are brought up through think tanks in conjunction with the unions – it’s a system of paternalism.

Ordinary parties and ordinary members are overlooked and completely bypassed in the process, and this goes a long way to explaining why the dream of building a mass movement under a ‘Labour’ banner is completely undermined by the continuous decline in Labour party membership.

Good luck with paying off that £20m overdraft.

Labour should get Simon Cowell in on the act, he’s brilliant at getting stupid people to vote for losers on TV shows so Labour should snap him up as a campaign manager.

Why are our Labour Politicians so afraid of Obvious Solutions?
Politicians of all parties have removed themselves from the aspirations and needs of the electorate at an alarming rate over the past thirty years. Tragically, common sense and sound practical solutions to our countries problems are being eroded by slavish adherence to international protocols agreed over 60 years ago. The basic socialist principals of the left wing is subsumed by the “lawyer speak” of the leadership of all political parties. The current leadership of the political parties has little experience of ordinary life, they are all tainted with the background of University, political research within the village of Westminster, and placement in “safe seats” ensuring they form the core of their parties leadership.
It has long been quoted that “the law is an ass” and should only be a last resort. There is a need for all Parliamentarians to realise that they need to change, re-write and take steps to withdraw or re-negotiate national and international law to meet current national and international circumstances. If they fail to see the frustration and anger of their constituents they risk the anarchy and fractionalisation of the society they are elected to represent. A basic common sense approach is needed to a meet the realities of the problem. In this country, where we have the homeless without shelter, children and adults going to bed hungry, the mentally ill without treatment, our Senior Citizens living on a ‘fixed income’ , our Orphans, our hospitals, our Schools all under funded and reliant on fund raisers and charities, while our government and religious organizations pour hundreds of millions of pounds and tons of food into Foreign Aid.
We provide financial aid for the people of Afghanistan and Pakistan ,countries that train home grown Muslim extremists how to bomb and kill us, and our troops. A sub continent that ploughs millions into its nuclear programmes, with hundreds of millionaires, who do nothing for their own countrymen. The same sub-continent that has passed laws enabling rich people to avoid paying any taxes, and where most of the aid sent does not reach the ones in need. There are also international issues that are directly linked to the drugs trade. We are in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban because we don’t want them to send their drugs into this country and they in turn, use the Al-Qaida forces to assist them to fight against our troops thus bringing that most abhorrent combination of criminality and quasi-religious sectarianism.
There are no better examples of the knots we are tying ourselves up in than with our drugs laws. The prohibition approach to drugs, with stringent classification law and heavy policing, has only ensured the criminal elements of our society can highjack the supply and demands of the addicts. In turn, the need to feed the habit at prices dictated by the criminal gangs who supply the drugs, forces the addict to turn to criminal acts themselves in order to obtain the money to buy the drugs they need. These acts range through a whole gamut of anti-social and criminal acts, from shoplifting and theft, prostitution and common assault to the most heinous crime of drug induced murders.
We are quite content to expend our taxes on vehicles and ammunition, sacrificing our sons and daughters on the altar of a war against evil which has originally been caused by our drugs prohibition laws in this and other western countries. It is against this background that we need to reassess and change our laws to better serve the people of this country. Why do we not recognise addiction as a disease which needs to be treated, and not as some evil we need to eradicate without thought to the consequence? When the law is applied to attempt eradication, so criminality will flourish, to ensure the demand is met. Prohibition has a history of ensuring criminality, as surely as night follows day, where there is demand the supply will be achieved.
Why do we continue with this antiquated and divisive policy which has proved to be so damaging to this country and to the international community? Our economy is being decimated by a struggle to impose prohibition law on an illness which can be treated by our health service at a fraction of the costs we currently deploy to police the law. The monies saved can be diverted to ensure we look after the people and services I identified as needing help and funding. The shift in policy will bring the country back from the brink of the anarchy we are currently heading toward at a frightening rate of knots.


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