Usman Ali is a committee member for the Refounding Labour Community Campaigning Working Group; he is an active grassroots campaigner with a passion for access to education and raising aspirations and ambitions
Engagement seems to have become a tokenistic term, said by many but resulting in very little. The disappointing general election result in 2010 was a wake up call to Labour – losing Labour safe seats was no easy pill to swallow, especially when hearing from many our policies and actions have disconnected us with the people on the ground.
The party became complacent. However, steps towards achieving true engagement and actual relationship building are now coming to life as witnessed at a historic event at the Islamic Cultural Centre in London last week, led by Ed Miliband and shadow justice secretary Sadiq Khan.
Five hundred members of the Muslim community from all across the UK had the chance to spend their evening with Miliband and Khan, an event notoriously referred to on Twitter as #aDateWithEd. The audience did not solely consist of “community leaders and elders” alone, but included Muslim women and young future activists from more than 20 ethnic backgrounds.
Engagement at this level is essential – I have come to see how, even in my own family, young members of families have radically changed the attitude of their families’ attitude towards politics, and how women have been the most potent force in transforming community attitudes beyond cultural norms.
This level of engagement, beyond those we traditionally identify as leaders, should be the norm – and not the exception – for the party.
Ed Miliband’s vision to “look like the country we seek to represent” hit home with many in the audience. He articulated how he believed in a multi-ethnic, diverse Britain working together as one nation, “to build a country we can be proud of by working together”.
We must realise trust is the critical factor at play here. Labour will do this only by winning back the relationships through its leadership, connecting with members who were hit the hardest and addressing with sincerity the concerns of those communities that have become disenfranchised with the party. This is what was being revived during this ‘date with Ed’ – he did not shy away from the tough questions.
At a time when transparency is not expected from politicians, Miliband openly and clearly stated his views on Palestinian statehood, the Iraq war, and the higher education changes that are disproportionately affecting young British Muslims.
In my own speech to the event, I had initially thought to speak about the importance of rebuilding our values and the Refounding Labour project. But I decided instead to live the very values we need. I spoke about the importance of maintaining connections with the community and gaining advice from them. My own journey is testament to this.
I am where I am today due to that advice given to me from the leaders of different communities, names mostly unheard of, and the lessons explained to me by those activists around me.
In the event, I could see in the eyes of the young activists in the hall they were desperate for change but lacked the means to doing so. Speaking to a young woman at the end of the event, she felt empowered but expressed the lack of cultural and social capital of not understanding the world of politics and many of the acronyms used (reminding me of my experience just two years ago).
To them this event was the start of their journey. It was the start of building their knowledge capital for political engagement.
The result of the last general election opened Labour’s eyes to many lessons.
Community organising is not just about knocking on doors and talking to people, but about meaningfully realising our duty to serve – and crucially – empowering and supporting change regardless of who gets the credit for it. It is about helping local people campaigning on local issues and having a physical presence of their party alongside them on every level.
Labour needs to go back to being that party whose diversity enriched its vision; to become a party that learns from its failures of the past, with sincerity, to define our common future… a ‘One Nation’ party that, in the words of Ed, “looks like the country we seek to represent”.