Why I’d sack Arnie Graf

Arnie Graf sounds like a lovely, genuine, moral man. He’s been involved in some truly inspiring campaigns and deserves heartfelt applause for his stands on everything from civil rights to low pay.

He should also be immediately shuffled out of the Labour party’s electoral and organising thinking, never to be heard of again until some point after the 2015 election.

Heartless? Unpleasant? Yes. But also necessary.

Right now, the Tory party are relentlessly focussed. You can feel it in eery press release and tweet.

They’re trying to drag Labour into elephant traps on welfare, immigration and taxation, traps that can be used, come 2015, to rally Tory minded voters in the polls.

They’re defining Ed Miliband as weak and a bit useless, in contrast to David Cameron.

They’re pushing out a message on growth, on the economy which is essentially a chorus of: “I was right and you were wrong, I’m going to sing the ‘I was right‘ song” (repeat).

I’d also suspect they are busy trying to raise an absolute fortune for the election campaign.

There are lots of flaws with this strategy. But it is a strategy.

So what are we doing about this?

To paint it in it’s most positive light, We’re doing three things.

First, we’re working to neutralise the obvious Tory lines of attack: On the economy we’ve made it clear there will be little new spending under Labour. On Ed, he’s being defined as strong by his proposals to reform the party and his attacks on broader vested interests in society.

Second, we’re trying to paint an affordable vision of a better tomorrow. This encompasses everything from industrial banks to payday loans, from a living wage to greater housebuilding.

Third, we’re trying to reconnect in communities, building local campaigns and parties that are rooted in the community, vibrant, campaigning and full of members. We’re also trying to reform the party so it appears less internally focussed in policy development.

It’s this third area where the whole debate about Community organising comes in.

As an idea for party rebuilding after a shattering defeat, it makes a reasonable amount of sense. Of course, political parties should be part of their communities. Of course they should reflect the concerns and worries of their electorate. As the Tories showed in the last parliament, such activity can also have a useful decontamination role.

However, with just under two years to go, Political parties also have to be utterly ruthless vote aggregating machines, and I have no clear idea how the model advocated by the party for community organising moves us from stage A to stage B.

Ideally, what should have happened is that a wave of inspired, connected community organisers will have been recruited to the party over the last two years, and these will now go out and deliver the electoral campaign.

In places, I’m sure this is happening. Yet overall, party membership is flat or declining, the community organisers we’re hiring look rather like the trainee regional organisers of yore and pretty soon their evaluations are all going to be about contact rates, events organisation and the other bread and butter elements of an election campaign.

Further, is there much evidence that Community organising, as practiced, is winning elections more effectively than elsewhere?  We’ve heard a lot less about the Preston model since Labour failed to take Lancashire in the 2013 local elections (making only one gain in Preston itself from the Liberal Democrats, but doing much better in Barrow and Rossendale).

It’s hard to see what value is going to be added in the extended campaign by community organising that hasn’t already been achieved. As far as I can tell, if Community organising is working, it’s already succeeded. If it isn’t, it’s already failed.

Either way, we’re not going to build new community movements in the next year or so, at least not without compromising time spent on things we absolutely have to get done to win an election.

What’s more, as a result of the pressures above, we have to design a new model for the Labour party, one that encompasses funding, constituency organisation, party decision-making.

The features of this new model Labour party need to be crafted by people who understand how party financing, decision-making, campaigning and recruitment fit together to create an election-winning machine. I’m not sure Mr Graf fits that job description. Judging from this article, it’s hard to know what role community organising can play other than rhetorical cheerleading.

Mind you’ I’m biassed. I’m congenitally allergic to the descriptions of the Labour party as a movement, and so on. Screw that. We’re a political party, not a religion. Our job is to win elections, do as much as we can and hang on for as long as we can.

But “The Labour party is a crusade or it is nothing”, surely? Well, remember that Crusades involved cynical attempts to whip up hysteria, naked power grabs, cynical compromises, and ended in utter failure, out of which a few people did very well indeed.

Even a real crusade is not an imagined crusade, in other words. It’s grittier, dirtier and far less ideal.

Brutally, with less than two years to go before the election, Arnie Graf and his movement politics is now a lovely, beautiful, inspiring barnacle.

It’s time to scrape him off the boat.

9 Responses to “Why I’d sack Arnie Graf”

  1. Andreas Paterson

    I think I’m inclined to agree, the Tory campaigners seem to be pulling off minor miracles given how little material they have to work with. Turning a single quarter of reasonably good growth into “We saved the economy” is a particularly good coup (although I personally think there’s a good chance that could explode in their faces).

    On community organising I think I also agree. I’ve seen one very good example of where it’s worked really well (in my old stomping ground of Town Close in Norwich) but it seems to depend on having amazing people willing to put in the effort and people like that are in short supply.

    All in all then, I agree.

  2. Simon Landau

    However, Labour has (at least) twice as many members and active supporters than the Tories. What are the members supposed to do, wait to be told what to think by Hopi Sen?

    In my old job I used to be the man from Head Office come to help you. Hopi Sen has done that job too, does he think his writ ran beyond the confines of his desk?

  3. Stuart Bruce

    Usually tend to agree with you, but I’m not totally convinced by this. But that’s maybe because I’m not totally convinced by the concept of community organising.

    I’ve attended Arnie Graf training sessions and they appear mainly to be about telling you the bleedin’ obvious. It’s the sort of thing that GOOD Labour councillors (and indeed other parties) and Labour Party activists already do and indeed have always done. It just puts a fancy new label on it and gives the Westminster village and professional political types something to talk about.

    It’s not exactly rocket science to suggest that when you’re doing voter ID you don’t stick rigidly to a script, but incorporate the questions into a conversation. As you’re walking watch out for the dog poo on the street, the broken street light or bus shelter and mention it to the people you talk to. And if they are particularly supportive then maybe ask them to deliver some leaflets on their streets or perish the thought come to a social event (please not a meeting).

    Both of these were tips from the training, that good campaigners would do naturally.

    The problem is not only does the party suffer from a lack of volunteers, often they aren’t as ‘capable’ as we might like them to be.

    That’s one value I see in community organising, it helps us to train/motivate our activists to do the things that need to be done. Just a bit better.

    • hopisen

      Funny, cause I completely agree with this. My take on community organising in the context of party politics is that old line about it being both original and good, but that unfortunately the bits that are good aren’t original and vice versa..

  4. Edward Carlsson Browne

    I broadly agree that Arnie Graf doesn’t have much to offer us. Mind you, I think you’re being both inaccurate and unfair about the Preston model.

    Inaccurate, because Barrow hasn’t been in Lancashire for nearly forty years and our results in Rossendale were underwhelming, and unfair because Labour held up much better in Preston in 2009 than elsewhere in the county. They therefore had fewer possible gains to make, but the one gain they did get was convincing and they did well in a couple of other divisions that are a long way from being natural Labour territory.

    I think the Preston model works. It’s just that I see no sign that Arnie Graf can replicate it everywhere over the next two years, or that he’s even trying to.

    • Lancashire Lad

      Exactly, Preston did alright in 2009, their targets beyond Preston North West were ambitious to say the least, and they weren’t far off!

      Preston of course already had a decent campaign operation and more capacity than most parts of the county.

      I’d disagree with you in that Arnie doesn’t have much to offer us. I’d say it needs synthesising with the needs of a political party and it should be focussed in key seats that have a big need to capacity build.

  5. cllr chris tough

    Time to reflect I think, I attended a recruitment day for the Community Organiser (a paid position) to identify what community minded person would apply and what the position actual did for the community, well, not a lot to date as it was for a short term contract gathering local concerns and directing to relevant agency.
    The information was private and confidential and forwarded to central government and used for political insight to that particular area, in fact it was a tory ward of a town which town had a majority lead council of 12 to 3 labour control which is surrounded by tory parishes, district and county lead councils….well Mr America, no need for your input, ask local parish and town councillors what is needed and be surprised on how we know more about what local people want, so sorry to Mrs Flint to, not in favour of Mr America in my back yard yo.

  6. Lancashire Lad

    No offence but your references to Lancashire here are absolute nonsense.

    a) If you look at 2009, Labour was smashed beyond belief. Wiped out in Burnley of all places. Lost a seat in Fleetwood and in Skelmersdale! Lost Leyland Central. Nearly lost Skerton! To have regained control would have been a fantastic achievement. Remember Blackburn and Blackpool (Labour voting areas generally speaking) both left Lancashire in 1998. 2001 and 2005 county elections were boosted by the GE turnout. It isn’t an easy county to win! If you look at the number of gains, it is actually rather impressive – 23 up on 2009 (one less in actuality due to a prior by-election in Burnley).

    b) Organisational changes in Lancashire were actually primarily based around improving levels of voter ID contact and they made around 10 times more contacts in 2012 and early 2013, than they did in a comparable period in 2008/09. They used candidate contracts for the first time for example.

    c) Arnie made a very valid contribution to Lancashire. It was a big moral booster and it brought extra people into our quite stretched campaign machines. But to believe Labour’s Lancashire County Campaign was all about community organising is plain daft! In many of those areas, they ran the best campaigns they have ever run in terms of doorknocking, GOTV, GOTPV and polling day.

    d) This is a daft way to slate Arnie Graf. I’ve got a lot of time for him and his ideas. I think this needs synthesising with the needs of a political party, which obviously isn’t where his background is. BUT let’s not talk crap here and attempt to misrepresent a few quite powerful visits to Lancashire as Lancashire running their elections along community organising lines, just to have a dig at Arnie.

    e) Rossendale is in Lancashire! Chorley the CLP with the most VID contacts in 2012 is also in Lancashire by the way. And Preston by the way is the one place where we largely held on in 2009, so had less target seats!


Leave a Reply