When I scraped home in the 2004 Hodge Hill by-election by 450 votes, I knew I had a fight on my hands to win the next election.
But as we organised endless street surgeries and coffee mornings, we realised that victory was not going to come from politics as usual. There was a “frustrated force” of people who wanted to participate but to reach them meant kicking an attitude problem. Too often, we were just asking for votes or help stuffing envelopes. That ask was – and is – critical. But we failed to ask a second question. What could we the Labour party do, to help people change what was going on outside their front-door?
So we patiently started helping local people bid for money and projects, and things started to happen. E-Caffs started for teenagers. Training for people seeking work. Outreach among disaffected youngsters on our toughest estates. ‘Frustrated voices’ became community activists. And the community activists started joining the Labour party. These “social entrepreneurs” didn’t want to change Britain simply law by law, they wanted to change it street by street. They needed advice, connections, money and perhaps above all, someone who believed in them. That’s what we helped provide.
Today, many have not only joined the Labour party, but they’re out door-knocking with me on Friday nights. A month ago, one sought selection as a Labour council candidate. He won hands-down.
Our story in Hodge Hill is only one story of political change. But as I’ve talked to activists around the country, I’ve heard strong endorsement. One said “so basically you want the Labour Party to be a community service organisation like the WI or British Legion”. Another said “it sounds just like what the Church of Scotland do where my mum and dad live”.
I think that’s right. The Labour party needs to be the home of realistic radicals who change their local community. And two big changes in Britain mean the opportunity to do this is now.
First, we can connect community entrepreneurs to the new centres of local power we’ve created in Government: neighbourhood policing, Sure Starts, new schools and youth centres. The places community activists can partner with to improve services – whether its new beat patterns, youth clubs, or advice on getting a job.
Second, twelve years of Labour has helped Britain become a more progressive country with a bigger army of active citizens. We can connect these people to each other – and to the forces of political change. Indeed, unless we connect to this new force, we are missing one of the biggest opportunities handed to our movement this decade.
The online world can help. A few of us are setting up a virtual organisation – www.localactionnetwork.co.uk – to connect social entrepreneurs and community activists with Labour activists and politicians who want to help. Please log on and help us build it!
But this is only the start. Because this is not going to be a battle that is won or lost online – as they are discovering in America. In February I met young Democratic leaders in Washington to discuss how the Internet transformed electioneering. The challenge they talked about? How to turn a 13 million strong database – gathered by the Obama campaign – into local change.
An email list can’t simply be kept ‘on tap’ for a national purpose. It should be let off the leash for local change. The next frontier, we agreed, is not simply how to mobilise communities to ‘serve’ political parties – but how to mobilise parties to change streets and serve communities.
As I’ve discussed this argument with activists up and down the country, I couldn’t but be struck by the echoes with Labour’s past. Before we were born as a political party, we started the movement of mutual help, self-organisation, getting things done for ourselves. I believe this is happening all over again in modern Britain. We need to lead it.