Why Parties need to become Movements again

by Marcus Roberts and Daniel Elton

Winning progressive parties in the 1990s were those that had learnt the lessons of the 1980s: that division, disorganisation and an obsession with a core left vote was no way to win. As a consequence from Blair and New Labour to Schroeder and the SPD’s Neue Mitte, progressive parties in the ‘90s embraced change through discipline, professionalism, tight message control and a focus on the political centre ground. Such an approach made sense at the time both as a response to the defeats of the previous decade and as a positive appeal to the moderate-minded electorates of the affluent 1990s

But the electoral and economic challenges of recent years call for a change as dramatic as that of the 1980s to 1990s. In short, the era of political organisation predicated upon hierarchy has passed and the time has come for political organisation based on movements.

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. Campaign groups London Citizens (focused on inner-city minorities) or 38 Degrees (focused on more affluent floating voter groups and issues) are trailblazers for this new politics. They understand that alliances around campaign issues and a focus on short term results that advance greater progressive strategic goals is the key to attracting ever increasing support and, critically, donations. In contrast, a political party that tries to control all activities centrally and on an in-house basis is far less effective. The Obama campaign’s startling devolution of power is testament to the electoral strength of this new model.


Competing models of organisation

The need for a political movement to have a large active membership, especially a progressive movement, is indisputable. Campaigns aimed at stopping something can succeed with few volunteers, as all that is needed is to spread doubt and fear in people’s minds. An iconic TV advert, a smear that sticks, can win a conservative campaign. However, if a campaign is arguing for positive change, it requires trust to be built up between the people and those hoping to make the change. That takes years and familiarity – something only provided through a strong, sustained presence on the ground.

That will be even more true in the future. Studies have shown that the one election intervention shown to work best is face-to-face persuasion of voters. This trend is likely to become even stronger while trust in professional politicians is so low. Ultimately, a party leader on TV will never trump the sincere opinion of their friend or neighbour.

Furthermore, as we move from a televisual age to a social networking one, the era of one-way communication, when a centralised party could broadcast a message that voters would consume is crumbling. For those raised on social media, a dialogue will be expected, with the lines between voter, advocate, candidate and leader blurred. The job of the movement-party is not to win an election every four years, but to be constantly moving supporters along the continuum from passive supporter, through advocate, to local leader, always building credibility for the next effort. This is a structure, whose primary task is to build long-term allegiances from supporters, such as charities, would be entirely familiar with.

Competing models of organisation

In Britain, Labour thought has been dominated by two models of change, neither of which are suited for politics as it is currently developing. The first is that members meet and decide what policies they want for the party, adopt them, and then campaign for election on them.

Given the question ‘what can I do with political power?’, the answer will always be given in terms of legislative action. The answers do little to build links between the party and the community. The minimum wage is a landmark in the history of social justice. But once passed, it is a law enforcement issue. Compare that to the living wage, championed by London Citizens, which needs constant tendering, and can become the lifeblood of an organisation, requiring a constant dialogue between campaigners and the wider community. The current policy-campaign model is an inward-looking model that does little to build membership beyond the promise of abstract policy-making.

The other model, is that of the marketing franchise. Here, the central party undergoes research of key ‘swing voters’ through polling and focus groups. This then guides policy, messages and campaign material which members then deliver. These, crucially, are standardised, and so the same narrative is delivered, no matter which part of the country. There may be a level of segmentation – Liberal Democrat voters given a certain leaflet, that phone bank script for older voters – but it is all centrally guided. The member is a delivery system and their personality and particular voice – a key tool when ensuring that we talk to voters in a language they can relate to – goes to waste.

The problem with this model is that the franchise analogy breaks down at the level of incentive. In the MacDonald’s franchise, the franchisee is motivated by profit to deliver the same burger with the same fries and the same novelty toy. But what is the incentive for the member? They may agree with the policy, or like the leader, but this is coincidental to the model itself – if it is true, it’s only by accident. Maybe they have been socialised to ‘think of themselves as Labour’, but again, that would be by accident.

In fact, the key problem of both models is that they do little to build the party. Any action to attract members is external to the models. The reality is, that for much of the twentieth century in Britain, Labour outsourced the role of grounding itself in communities to the trade union movement. Falling union membership undermines this task today. But even if it is a viable way forward co-operation between trades councils and Constituency Labour Parties, does not happen by central design but local initiative.

Both these models have their strengths, are at play within the modern Labour party, and will always be part of it. But we need to develop new ways of working that roots the party in communities and is constantly building it as a movement.  That means that when elections come around the required trust has been built so we can ask people for their vote. Much of that work is already being done, in places like Birmingham Edgbaston and London’s East End. In some cases, the Labour party may be part of the glue that hangs together a community that has little meaning beyond a geographical expression. In doing so we can change from a model of organisation suitable in the past to one built for the future. In sum, victory for progressives depends upon movements not hierarchies.

Marcus Roberts is a Director of Zentrum, a campaigns consultancy offering field, fundraising and strategy services to progressive organisations in Europe and America. Prior to co-founding Zentrum he was Field Director for Ed Miliband's Labour leadership campaign and worked on over 20 US and UK political campaigns. He is a contributing editor at Left Foot Forward.

Daniel Elton is managing director of Left Foot Forward, a non-partisan evidence-based blog for progressives, voted number one left-wing blog in the UK. He writes here in a personal capacity.