Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement

Becoming a social movement has sound principles and is smart politics - it should be where Labour organisationally steals a march on our rival parties in government.

Neil Foster lives in Northumberland and works in the trade union movement across the North East

This has been a good week for the future of the Labour party. The appointment of Iain McNicol as Labour’s new General Secretary demonstrates a real recognition of the scale of changes required.

We cannot recover as uniting force in the UK until we’ve listened and learned from our experiences in government, how elected office can be used to bend and re-shape power and used to provide practical solutions for working and middle class people in a time of great uncertainty.

As it stands one thing seems abundantly clear: one year into Opposition and we still need to listen more. Re-engineering our organisation and approach is vital and I am confident Labour’s new General Secretary will be the crucial catalyst.

Last month in a brilliant analysis for Social Europe of the organisational design and culture within political parties, Left Foot Forward’s Marcus Roberts and Daniel Elton make a compelling case for Labour committing to a new way of working:

“Movement-oriented politics means a break with a fixation on centralised structures, rigid hierarchies and a strict command-and-control ethos. In Britain, Labour must realise that to win again it must organise in a far more open, loose, democratic and pluralist fashion.”

This is no comfort zone, but a stark recognition the fast changing world we are in puts hierarchical organisations under incredible strain. The growing interconnectedness through technology, the continued decline of deference and a revived respect for authenticity means New Labour’s command and control methods now look dated.

The Conservative party’s determination to re-run our old approach in a new age is extraordinary miscalculation, and at times appears comical. Their instruction to parliamentary candidates at the 2010 general election to ensure each and every tweet was ‘signed off’ was as absurd as it was revealing.

The social movement principles outlined by Marcus and Daniel benefit any centre-left party in our situation wanting to renew, make a difference and become a sustained electoral force The thread running throughout it all is relationships. This applies as much as for the digital-savvy campaigners as those who keep all their opinions and activities offline. It will not be easy to pull off, but it is critical that it is attempted sooner rather than later.

Thinking back over past elections it is fair to say that on the doorstep our relationship with voters has in places been stretched to breaking point. In some ‘safe’ wards or seats the amount of contact is patchy. Even in areas of success with high voter contact rates, our interaction is often restricted to asking the five same old questions.

These are not questions to reveal insight or issues, but to enable us to codify individuals and streets in terms of their voting intentions. The aim is to establish their usefulness to use on election days. There is more to politics than this equation in whereby both the party and public eventually lose.

Relying on the old techniques doesn’t help us identify what we did well in government or highlight what mistakes were made. Without a more meaningful relationship, it risks being a somewhat soulless exercise in harvesting votes with ever-diminishing returns. That is why the remarkable lessons from Birmingham Edgbaston are now being applied to Dagenham and Rainham and can be learned elsewhere.

We need texture and tone and learn to listen in a different way.

Last week I convened a public meeting in Ashington, alongside Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery, on behalf of the Northern Public Services Alliance and the Hardest Hit Coalition of disability charities. I learned more from this packed meeting than I have from months of canvassing. We heard a harrowing account of disability hate crime sustained for almost a decade. Only a Community Support Officer kept the blind woman safe and sane – but now his job is at risk from swingeing cuts.

We heard a series of accounts about how assessments by private firm Atos, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions, cause incalculable terror because of the superficiality of decision-making and demeaning nature of questioning. You can read these stories elsewhere online, but meeting people face to face and hearing them share their stories paints a more powerful picture.

Present at the meeting were a range of local organisations and self-help groups who gave their views and outlined new ideas. One had recently started a new group providing training to volunteer advocates to attend appeals with disabled people when they believed their benefits were being unfairly withdrawn.

Labour activists, councillors and trade unionists interspersed and overlapped identities with disability campaigners and carers. We all listened and offered many different perspectives but the social solidarity bound the meeting together. It gave a glimpse of Labour’s past and its future. We can build these relationships locally on the ground, but nationally it appears to require more effort. The challenge in Opposition is to co-exist with many other campaigning forces.

Organisations such as 38 Degrees have made an enormous impact – not in attempting to speak for the country, but to enabling much of the country to speak for itself. Labour should be collaborating with others where shared values and objectives overlap.

At one point 38 Degrees was building an enormous petition to oppose the government’s health plans; Labour’s response was to launch its own partisan online petition. Why? It was the old way of working – gathering names and email addresses for our benefit alone. I don’t know how many signed it in total. I doubt it was that many and I’m certain that’s not where our energies should have been.

A party guided on social movement principles would have emailed all our members asking them to add their name to the 38 Degrees petition. Then, in parliament, Labour MPs hammer home the cause using examples from constituencies.

We should not shy away from what we are good at. As a Labour movement our collective knowledge is immense. TUC research shows that trade union reps are eight times more likely than average to engage in voluntary work. In a world of single issue politics Labour can help join some dots. In April at a meeting on the NHS in Stockton a Communication Workers Union rep drew parallels between the cherry-picking of services by private firms in the postal industry and what was in place in the health bill. It hit home to people.

The Labour Party must form a multitude of coalitions to beat this Coalition. Our cousins within civil society have a vital part to play. We simply cannot afford go into battle alone at the next general election simply as ‘The ‘ex-Government party’. Labour needs more than a million conversations to take place between now and the next election, whenever it is. Some will take place within public meetings, others through neighbourhood events, online campaign activities or in workplaces, pubs and cafes.

These conversations must include stressed parents, frustrated young people, proud pensioners and increasingly exhausted entrepreneurs who rightly conclude the country is not being run in the interests of the majority. We can only hope to pull this off with a new organisational approach with members and supporters empowered at the heart of the action.

Relationships are at the heart of how we listen, how we learn and ultimately how we lead. They are key to getting small donors to give regularly, identifying new candidates with broad community appeal for elections and building alliances to sweep this government from power at the first opportunity. Get the structure right and the culture will follow.

Early signs of Iain McNicol’s thinking are very encouraging.

Answering questions on Labour List prior to his successful appointment, Iain summed it up neatly:

“Rebuilding the voluntary party is crucial not simply because an active grassroots speaks to our, dare I say it, big society values, but because it is often the difference between winning and losing.”

Becoming a social movement has sound principles and is smart politics. It should be where Labour organisationally steals a march on our rival parties in government. The potential gains could not be bigger. Get it right and our best years are yet to come.

35 Responses to “Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement”

  1. Michael Bater

    RT @leftfootfwd: Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement //t.co/cAC6KiU

  2. Adele Reynolds

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  3. Keith Hudson

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  4. neilrfoster

    My thoughts at @leftfootfwd why Labour mustn't go into the next general election as 'The Ex-Government Party' //t.co/SpdkuhP

  5. Dr Eoin Clarke

    My thoughts at @leftfootfwd why Labour mustn't go into the next general election as 'The Ex-Government Party' //t.co/SpdkuhP

  6. GEER UK

    My thoughts at @leftfootfwd why Labour mustn't go into the next general election as 'The Ex-Government Party' //t.co/SpdkuhP

  7. Herbert Pimlott

    LP must move away from top-down structure @leftfootfwd Relationships must be heart of Labours revival as social movemnt //t.co/urJshf9

  8. John Lever

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  9. PaulMracek

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement //bit.ly/q0YFte

  10. hollygemer

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement: The social movement principles outline… //bit.ly/o9IBHU

  11. Ahmad

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement: The social movement principles outline… //bit.ly/prHAUZ

  12. dorian young

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement: The social movement principles outline… //bit.ly/pmP1U8

  13. Robert Kingsley

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement //bit.ly/r0iq3r

  14. married affairs

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement //bit.ly/nMfEQS

  15. neilrfoster

    @M4COnline Hi I thought you guys might appreciate this article putting relationships at the heart of party reform. //t.co/koXqD3c

  16. Ann Marie

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement: The social movement principles outline… //bit.ly/quaHdj

  17. Pendle Labour

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  18. CostaCouples

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement: The social movement principles outline… //bit.ly/rdIp5P

  19. Ian Preston

    My thoughts at @leftfootfwd why Labour mustn't go into the next general election as 'The Ex-Government Party' //t.co/SpdkuhP

  20. phil dodd

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  21. natasha

    Good article. The tactics, strategy and concept of ‘social movements’ is correct. However, the important problem not addressed is that the Labour Party, because it is a political party seking power through representation of the working class, IS hierachichal and IS ‘representative’ and it DOES have leaders.
    The Labour movement formed the Labour party, it is from the movement itself, not the party, that real progress and emancipation will come.

    State centric and centralised power (media, MPs, Police, Finance, political parties) have been shown to be utterly bankrupt, both morally and in their visions. A genuine social movement will be people organising genuinely for themselves, not deferring to people (Labout party MPs) who claim to represent them. The fight against the ill effects of capitalism must be a de-centralised, bottom up movement, like the birth of the Trade Union movement.

    We do not no what it will look like yet, but it can be seen in its embryonic stages already and one thing is for sure, it will not involve the Labour Party as its central opressive focus.

  22. Jack

    My thoughts at @leftfootfwd why Labour mustn't go into the next general election as 'The Ex-Government Party' //t.co/SpdkuhP

  23. Ian Fleming

    RT @leftfootfwd: Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement //t.co/61zIHfF

  24. Bristol NUJ

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  25. Miranda Stevens

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour's revival as a social movement //bit.ly/qwax0H

  26. Dave Citizen

    Well said Neil – proper engagement with people rather than “vote harvesting” must be the way forward for Labour. This new relationship must be based around some basic principles though or it risks turning into the next set of tactical shifting sands. Clarify the vision of a more equal, fairer society of the future and combine it with your social movement and then I agree with you: Labour can indeed do something special for our country.

  27. Robert

    But in the end you have to trust the politicians and it’s difficult when parachuted in or placed into position because they worked for a leader, or the leaders know they will back them as mine was.

    But in the end Labour I suspect will win the next election only if the Tories mess up big time.

    Being a disabled person my vote at the next election will go to neither Labour or Tory, if I do vote that is.

    But this country is now more unequal then at anytime I remember.

  28. Dave

    When I cut up my Labour membership card last year, it was because it seemed clear to me that the only relationships that matter to the Labour Party, it’s activists and Councillors, are relationships with the affluent, the powerful and the well-connected.

    A year on, I don’t believe for a moment that anything has changed.

    As a Party member, I saw a casual regard for key democratic values amongst leading Councillors, deep-rooted, arrogant greed for power that translated all too readily into absolute disdain for the electorate, for participation, and for democratic discourse.

    Is this the quality of the relationships that the Labour Party is about?

    As a Party member, I saw vicious infighting over the most petty things. I saw a focus on spin and sophistry over ethics and anything that might bear the most fleeting resemblance to an inclusive social movement. And I experienced the arrogance of a political elitism that fast-tracks wealthy, well-connected careerist politicos but very effectively excludes those who just wish to make a difference and who don’t have Union connections or the ear of half the Council Labour bloc or the wealth to move to London from the north of England for volunteer for years at a stretch.

    Is this future of the Labour Party? Because I see absolutely nothing that suggests otherwise; in the rhetoric, the clearly empty ‘listening exercises’, the knowledge-building processes which effectively disenfranchise anyone who isn’t already very much an insider.

  29. Serena O'Sullivan

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  30. Adam White

    Does my society look big in this? //t.co/2Qfv83i

  31. Jonathan Lintern

    I can't remember which one of you tweeted this (apologies!) but it's excellent. //bit.ly/oDs2cF

  32. Ma

    And shitty Labour? oh, they want to have '…texture and tone and learn to listen in a different way.' FFS! //bit.ly/oDs2cF

  33. We

    And shitty Labour? oh, they want to have '…texture and tone and learn to listen in a different way.' FFS! //bit.ly/oDs2cF

  34. Stuart Berry

    Relationships must be the heart of Labour’s revival as a social movement: //bit.ly/nptx09 writes @NeilRFoster

  35. neilrfoster

    @jonewilson Not just the state that needs to put more weight on relationship – also the case for the party >> //t.co/SIov1CMy

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