Ground Control

There’s a great future for left-wing politics – built from the bottom up

By George Monbiot, published in the Guardian 13th May 2015

Leadership comes from below: that’s what most successful progressive parties have in common. Left-wing parties have triumphed where politics have been reshaped by powerful social movements, and failed where they rely on passive support. The late 20th-century model, of speeches, spin and central diktats, is a dud.

No progressive party can survive the corporate press, corrupt party funding systems and conservative fear machines by fighting these forces on their own terms. The left can build only from the ground up; reshaping itself through the revitalisation of communities, working with local people to help fill the gaps in social provision left by an uncaring elite. Successful progressive movements must now be citizen’s advice bureau, housing association, scout troop, trade union, credit union, bingo hall, food bank, careworker, football club and evangelical church, rolled into one. Focus groups and spin doctors no longer deliver.

This is the lesson from Latin America, where many of the progressive victories of the past 20 years have been won. They arose not from short-term electoral strategies, let alone from friendly overtures to media barons and banks, but from citizens’ movements that began, in some cases, 50 years ago. These movements have had plenty of setbacks and disappointments. But they have locked in change of the kind that once seemed impossible.

Between 1989 and 1991, I worked with movements representing landless rural workers in Brazil. As they sought to reclaim their land, thousands were arrested; many were tortured; some were killed. They faced not only hostile newspapers, but television channels that made the Daily Mail look like the Morning Star. Yet the change they catalysed looks, in retrospect, inexorable. These mobilisations were preceded, during the murderous reign of the generals, by liberation theology and popular education movements that involved a daily risk to the lives of their instigators. You think we have it hard in Britain? Think again.

In Bolivia, Argentina, Ecuador, Venezuela, Uruguay and Chile, similar movements transformed political life. They have evicted governments opposed to their interests and held to account those who claim to represent them. Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain have been inspired, directly or indirectly, by the Latin American experience.

Ed Miliband has left little behind, except his attempts to mobilise communities. Though his efforts were small, tentative and mostly frustrated, he appeared to have understood what it took to produce lasting change. He altered Clause 1 of Labour’s constitution to include a pledge to “make communities stronger through collective action and support”. He re-launched his brother’s attempt to create a mass movement of community organisers. The Movement for Change might be small, but where it’s active, it works. It has lobbied job centres to stop treating applicants like criminals; pressed local businesses to advertise their jobs openly; urged the police to change the way they engage with victims of domestic abuse; chivvied councils to clear up discarded needles; struggled against revenge evictions; asked local media to stop running advertisements for loan sharks and sought to provide alternative finance; and appealed to the owners of derelict buildings to rehabilitate them, all with a degree of success.

Miliband brought in the community organiser Arnie Graf from Chicago to try to catalyse mass participation and allow party supporters to lead, rather than merely follow orders. But in October 2013, he made what might have been the biggest of his many blunders: he put Douglas Alexander in charge of his election strategy.

Alexander is widely reported to have been responsible for sacking Arnie Graf. He pulled Labour back to the old model of clipboards and cold calling, centralisation and commands from on high. The Movement for Change appears to have been treated as if it were an embarrassment: it was scarcely mentioned during the Labour campaign. You can see how well Alexander’s political instincts were attuned to the times: he was beaten in his own constituency by a 20-year-old student, on a 27% swing.

It’s true that community development will not produce instant results. In Britain community life is weaker than almost anywhere else. The destruction of rural populations through enclosure and agricultural change, followed by rapid and chaotic urbanisation based around industries that later collapsed, the implosion of organised labour, extreme atomisation and hyper-consumerism: all these mean that there is less with which to work than in other parts of the world. Rebuilding community has to start almost from scratch, and it might take decades. But until it happens, there’s little hope for lasting progressive change in this country.

Labour’s problem is not that the people who run the party have spent their entire careers in politics. It’s that they have spent their entire careers in the kind of politics that washes its hands if ever it has the misfortune of touching a voter. A lifetime’s study of tactics and manouevres within the Westminster bubble might work for a party supported by the corporate media, and that can mobilise fear to push people to the right; it does not work for a party that requires genuine public enthusiasm to succeed. It’s not people with experience in banking or business that Labour desperately needs, but people who know how to build a political movement from the bottom up.

Amid depressing signs that the party might be learning all the wrong lessons from defeat – not least the collection of pre-programmed animatrons currently considered serious contenders to lead the party – there are also some stirrings of hope. For example the former minister John Denham notes that “our failure to recognise, let alone address, the central importance of the politics of belonging was the single unifying thread of our disappointment”. Tessa Jowell writes that “we missed Arnie Graf’s work in changing the relationship with local communities and labour activists … it is an important part of building our shared future.” But so far their voices have been drowned by arguments about the message that “we” should have handed down to “them”; them being the remote and inscrutable tribe known as the electorate.

Revitalising communities is not just an election strategy. It is a programme for change in its own right; even without a sympathetic government. If it takes root, it will outlast the vicissitudes of politics. But it will also make success more likely. If Labour wants to reconnect, it must be the change it wants to see.