This article is from the January issue of Total Politics
We’re sitting in the drafty back-room of a Lambeth pub, across the Thames from Westminster. Sixteen people listen while a woman expands on the content of a Powerpoint presentation. The wall-mounted projection shows a divided triangle. “What we want,” she says, indicating the different steps, “is to create more of a journey up the pyramid and try to establish relationships.” Some take notes, others nod.
Despite appearances, this isn’t some underground meeting for a pyramid scheme. This is Movement for Change, and for the first time, the organisation has opened its doors to a journalist.
If you’re not familiar with M4C (the catchy shorthand for Movement for Change), it’s the self-described “home for community organising within the Labour Party”, formed as part of David Miliband’s leadership campaign. The Lambeth meeting is an introductory session for Labour members, and the format fits somewhere between a corporate training day and group therapy.
There are even ground rules. “There’s a safe, friendly environment,” says one of the organisers. “We’re hoping that this is an active evening, so chip in. And we will have you all up on your feet.” Later, the group explores “relational connections” with bits of string and conducts a “mapping exercise” to identify social networks that already exist in the room.
Its unconventional methods might explain why some have dubbed it “Movement for Strange”, but maybe they are on to something. By the end of the session, the attendees have set up ambitious ‘action points’, and even the most sceptical attendee remarks how “positive” he feels.
This is not your average Labour Party meeting.
It all began with David Miliband’s bid to be leader last year. And although that didn’t work out, he stuck with the project, becoming an M4C trustee. From his parliamentary office, Miliband explains: “It’s two-thirds Labour history, one-third American community organising.”
From the global stage as foreign secretary to a hyper-local community organising force: it must be quite a step-change. “It’s definitely a journey,” Miliband admits, “definitely a change, but a very welcome one. I’ve spent 20 years working in government for the people. This is about government by the people. That’s very refreshing, very enhancing.”
Although he does not sit on the Labour frontbench, Miliband has found influence through M4C. “It gave me an important outlet for my passion for electing Labour Party governments, given that I wasn’t going to be in the shadow cabinet,” he explains. “It was a good way for fulfilling my passion to make the Labour Party a relevant, powerful, electable organisation that lived up to the best of its potential. But if you’re suggesting that it’s providing me with a family I didn’t have, then no.”
Although not familial, some suggested that Miliband’s attachment to M4C could be blamed for his failed leadership bid. In Rowenna Davis’ book Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul, Labour influencer Maurice Glasman is quoted as saying that one reason David lost was because of his inability to dedicate enough time to the project. “That failure to commit cost him the job.”
“That’s nonsense,” Miliband retorts. “I’m proud I did it and I would do it again. It’s a very important part of my politics that we’re a movement, not just a machine. When we are a machine, we lose. We’ve got to become a movement again if we want to win. And I want us to win.”
One former Miliband staffer explains: “None of the candidates standing at the leadership election could claim to be particularly rooted in the movement, or trade unionists – they were special advisers and political professionals. There was a need to talk about the grassroots. Ed did it through the Living Wage. David did it through Movement for Change.”
But perhaps the idea was too big for the leadership contest. Miliband is reluctant to talk further about it. “There are all sorts of things I could say about that, but I generally don’t talk about the past,” he states carefully.
Did people understand then what M4C was trying to achieve? “You’d have to ask others,” he replies. “I’m not going to be drawn into it. The important thing is that people know about it now, and are inspired by it.”
And people really do seem to be inspired. Back in that Lambeth pub, members take turns to say why they joined the Labour Party. Rukayah, in her 20s, was inspired after witnessing local injustices. “I want to match the experiences, particularly of Afro-Caribbean communities, and find a good way to get our voices heard.”
Kate, a Cambridge graduate, grew up at the end of the Thatcher era and has never known a non-Labour government. “I became very active at Cambridge – university was a big thing.”
And Alan was inspired by his industrial-worker father. “I was on the buses for 20 years. They were all Labour. Spent some time down-and-out… got myself back together, decided what a twit I’d been, that I should become active again rather than just moan… I’m good at moaning.”
Trained community organiser Kathryn Perera explains why these stories are so important. “When knocking on somebody’s doorstep, it’s all very well telling them about Ed Balls or Ed Miliband, whom you’ve never met… but sharing your story – why you care, why you’re angry – can be a way of connecting with them. We start to understand why we are here. And if we understand why we’re here, we understand how we can work together on things.”
National director of M4C Blair McDougall places this “reciprocal relationship” at the heart of what they do. “You need community campaigning because there is only so much election campaigning can get you,” he says. “You need a blend. What gets forgotten sometimes is the longer term – activism for its own sake and other ways in which Labour Party members can be powerful agents for change in their own communities.”
And although it’s a grassroots organisation, David Miliband is not the only MP to act as an advocate in Parliament. Stella Creasy, on the organisation’s management board, is also enthusiastic about what the project can do for her local community. Her local Labour party pays for an M4C organiser. “The challenge is to take things in Walthamstow to a national level, and vice versa, to set that test about how to make a difference,” she explains.
“None of us joined the party to deliver leaflets. We joined because we wanted to change the world. It troubles me that sometimes people say we should be proud that if Keir Hardie turned up, he’d see the same structures now that they had in the 1900s. If we’re focused on structures, we end up in meetings wishing we could go home, rather than thinking how this is advancing what we joined for.”
Speaking fervently, she explains how she has used M4C in her campaign on illegal loan sharks. “We stand outside our local illegal loan sharks’, handing out leaflets to our credit unions, talking to people about debt, about the difference it can make to our community to tackle these problems.”
McDougall, who worked on Miliband’s leadership campaign, is tasked with building these local alliances between the party and the public. “Every few years, someone comes up with something fancy and new-fangled in politics,” he says, “and 99 per cent come and go. I hope what’s different is that we’ve not only got the idea, but also a resource attached to it. We want to build something sustainable. The challenge is to show that we’re returning the party to its organisational roots and, in the long term, benefitting the party’s electoral base.”
McDougall and Miliband aim to build a 10,000-strong army of community organisers within four years. “The question is how many of those we can get to be leading organisers themselves to go and train other people,” says McDougall. “That’s the way to become a sustainable organisation.”
“If 1,000 of them became real community leaders, that would be a very big thing,” adds Miliband. “It would be extraordinary. I hope we have ripple effects in communities all around the country that then grow into a big wave. That’s the idea.”
In his only appearance at Labour Party conference this year, Miliband sought to explain why this army of organisers is vital to the party’s future: “He [Ed] is right to recognise that more or new policy is not the place to start. We need a different kind of politics.”
A few months on, he expands on this: “My theme was a coalition of the people to replace a coalition of convenience. There’s a coalition government because people didn’t just vote us out, they didn’t vote anyone in. They didn’t believe that any of us had the answers.
“I look to where our most innovative local government leaders – Nick Forbes in Newcastle and Steve Reed in Lambeth are good examples – are practising the kind of politics I believe in.”
If this new type of politics is what’s required for the party, where is Labour currently getting it right and wrong? Miliband seems reluctant to answer – perhaps because of how a direct critique would be interpreted. “Correct,” he replies. “I’m talking about what I am doing in Movement for Change.”
Unfortunately, this results in some of his analysis of Labour being so broad, it’s almost cryptic. Asked who convinced him of the merits of community organising, he replies: “Action is the parent of hope; hope is not the parent of action.” And, later (discussing the party’s future): “The rooms are no longer smoke-filled, but the doors are often closed.”
But his caution is understandable. One of the more cynical nicknames for the organisation is “Movement for Change of leader”.
Both Miliband brothers have sought to destroy the idea that the organisation is a vehicle for David’s second stab at the leadership. Ed formally endorsed M4C at the beginning of the year. “Rebuilding our party and renewing our support in the country has to start from the bottom up,” he declared. “Movement for Change is an important investment in grassroots activism.”
Was that initial conversation difficult? A source close to both Milibands says Ed would always have given his blessing to the organisation: “It’s the one thing his brother had asked of him. How could he possibly have said no?”
David Miliband remains tight-lipped on the exchange: “Ed’s very supportive. That’s a good thing. He and Peter Hain are doing ‘Refounding Labour’. But this is about grassroots troops. Whatever the structure is, the personal development of our people is an important part of what we are.”
So, it wasn’t a negotiation? “Not at all. It’s good for the party. Why wouldn’t he be keen?… And now it’s flowering into a great oak.” He smiles.
Creasy agrees that the movement cannot be framed as an ‘Ed vs David’ thing. “All I’ve ever said to people in Walthamstow is, just come to one of the sessions and see what you think,” she says. “If I’m honest, one of the reasons I chose to support David in the leadership election was because he understood this stuff wasn’t incidental to our ability to advance progressive policies – it was how we would do it.”
It’s not the only element of M4C that the older Miliband is cautious about. He also doesn’t want to overdo what it can achieve. “This isn’t a silver bullet for all the world’s problems,” he says. “If we oversell what this is, it will disappoint. This is a critical part of regenerating the Labour Party and, I would say, the country – because we’re under-powered in our communities as much as we are over-centralised in our politics – but it’s not going to be a quick fix.
“It’s necessary for the return of a Labour government, but not sufficient for the return of a Labour government. Over the next 50 years, it will be helpful both when we are in power and out of power. That’s why it’s important to carry on. It’s not just a four-year thing.”
“I keep telling people, ‘You’ve got to give it time’,” says Creasy. “This is a cultural change, and that takes time. Sometimes Labour doesn’t understand that community organising is not just what you do outside of elections, it’s how to reconnect people to purpose and passion. You win elections by saying, ‘This is what we stand for. Are you part of it?’”
And the organisation can point to some tangible victories. There’s Marion Maxwell, a retiree from Norfolk, who campaigned successfully to get the county council to change its plans for night-lighting. Then there’s the estate in Enfield, where two of the 7/7 bombers came from. Following an M4C campaign, the local community now has a working security door.
The next two projects include organising commuters in the south to improve their transport links, and the ‘missing millions’ campaign in London. McDougall explains: “We think there are thousands of properties in London with no registered tenants. Those properties, overwhelmingly, will be held in seats that are safely Labour, and there’s a political price to pay for that. The Boundary Review has disenfranchised thousands in constituencies where people haven’t registered to vote.”
“The fundamental point is that when we’re out of power in Westminster we shouldn’t deal ourselves out of power everywhere,” says Miliband.
“This will help us get into power, but we should be under no illusions as to the mountain we have to climb to do so, even without the boundary changes.”
The Labour Party is not alone in seeking to harness the power of community organising. The government is now investing in the idea. Andrew Stunell, the minister responsible for implementing the big society, says “a huge amount” is being organised by the Office for Civil Society.
“They are recruiting 5,000 community organisers to go and stir up trouble in, and help build, communities,” Stunell says. “We’re not delivering community organisers yet, but the budget and preparation are there.
“A key part of what the big society is trying to do is to ensure that every neighbourhood has the aspiration and capacity to fulfil its needs. But there are communities that don’t have the resources, human or physical. That’s where the community organisers will come in.”
Although the government might be looking to capitalise on community organising, M4C would never seek to build a national platform.
“Movement for Change is there to train people locally and help nurture Labour’s strength and relationships at the grassroots,” explains Miliband. “I’m not going to say to you, ‘We’re going to raise GDP by X, increase school results by Y or cut crime by so much’. There’ll never be a Movement for Change manifesto.”
But if M4C had existed 10 years ago, could it have saved the last Labour government? “Well, maybe, yeah,” Miliband replies frankly. “We would have nurtured the relationships, ideas and systems to avoid the disconnection between a government elected as a group of politicians that became an administration.”
It might use Powerpoint to illustrate its ideas, but M4C does not want to become part of any administration.
In Lambeth, the session is coming to a close. “This is only the start of the process,” says community organiser Kathryn Perera. “We are building towards taking action. There are a lot of things that can be done based on what people want. We will work with them to help them make that change.”
Everyone claps – and then fills out an evaluation form. Even a grassroots revolution requires some bureaucracy.