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.