Speech by Iain McNicol
General Secretary of the Labour Party
Fabian Society, London Saturday 30th June 2012
Friends, I am delighted to open this important Fabian summer conference.
That you have the leader, deputy leader, policy review co-ordinator and so many shadow ministers here today shows how important the Fabian Society is to the future of our party.
The Fabian Society and the Labour Party have worked hand in glove since the very first Labour conference in 1900 in the Memorial Hall, Farringdon.
In the drafting of Clause IV – both versions – in the writing of the Labour manifestoes in 1945, 1964 and 1997, in the development of policies which have shaped our society, the Fabians have made a vast contribution.
Even this month, the Fabians have published and important collection of essays called The Shape of Things to Come, which looks to the future agenda for an Ed Miliband government, reforming both markets and the state.
What’s so impressive and vital about the Fabian Society is that the world’s oldest socialist society, operating out of an old house bought by George Bernard Shaw, with everyone from Mahatma Ghandi to the poet Rupert Brook as alumni, still has so much to tell us about the future.
It is the future, not the past, that I want to talk about this morning.
I welcomed Aung San Suu Kyi to open the new Labour Party headquarters this week.
I spent some time in conversation with this remarkable, dignified, courageous fighter for freedom.
It puts everything in perspective.
We complain about our media, but forget it is free from state censorship.
We worry about the state of our democracy, but take for granted our right to vote.
We have vibrant debates with our friends in the trade unions, but seldom celebrate free trade unionism.
We are modernising our party, but rarely pause to treasure its existence.
All of our freedoms and rights have been hard-fought and hard-won.
The price of our freedom is eternal vigilance.
There’s a growing sense amongst the people that this is a government with something rotten at its heart.
It’s not just incompetence.
U-turns on pasties, churches, charities, skips and now fuel.
Chaos at the heart of government on everything from the welfare system to the House of Lords.
It’s also betrayal.
What other word is there for ministers who take welfare payments from disabled people,
take housing benefit from young people,
take hope from the millions of unemployed?
But with every passing day, it is clear that ministers’ enthusiasm for austerity is merely a mask for a much older desire.
They’re cutting our services, not because they have to, but because they want to.
It is the classic Tory and Liberal position – a small state and a free market.
It’s the very politics that the Fabian Society came together to fight.
When the Webbs issued their famous Minority Report against the Poor Law in 1909,
it argued against the position on poverty, unemployment and charity that Cameron, Osborne and Duncan Smith are peddling today.
It makes no economic sense in a world recession.
As Ed Balls has said loud and clear:
you can’t make cuts on this scale and expect the economy to grow.
The Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman argued recently in the New York Times:
‘This doctrine has an undeniable emotional appeal to people who are themselves comfortable. It’s also completely crazy given everything we’ve learned about economics these past 80 years. But these are times of madness, dressed in good suits.’
We’re starting to see the real impact of this madness.
Crime is rising.
Homelessness is rising.
Unemployment is rising.
NHS waiting lists are rising.
And the Tories’ answer is to reduce the taxes of the millionaires, whilst cutting pensions.
But what should the political response be?
Ed Miliband has led the Labour Party through these difficult times with great nerve and skill.
He’s shown courage in the face of News International.
He was one of the very first to talk about the Squeezed Middle.
And now he’s rightly demanding action in the face of this banking scandal.
But it hasn’t all been plain sailing.
We lost in Bradford.
We were beaten by Boris.
But on that same election, we gained seats on the London Assembly, and on councils across the country.
We won the mayoralties in Salford and Liverpool.
And significantly we did well in the areas where Labour needs to win parliamentary seats – places such as Harlow and Hastings.
The Southern Discomfort identified by the Fabian Society 20 years ago remains a huge concern, but we’re addressing it head-on.
I was a Labour Party organiser 20 years ago in the south of England.
At times it felt like missionary work.
But what I learned is that there are Labour heartlands in every constituency, Labour supporters just waiting to be asked.
We organised to win small victories at a local level:
We built from the bottom-up, and we won seats like Dorset South as a result.
It was called Operation Toehold.
We must match the spirit and determination of then.
But new ideas must be matched by a new organisation.
We need a compelling platform of policies, of course.
But let’s be clear: without change to our party organisation, we can’t make the changes to our politics, our economy and our society.
An old-fashioned Labour party cannot rebuild a modern Britain.
We’ve been modernising our party since the day it was founded.
Earlier I mentioned the founding conference of the Labour Party in 1900.
The first day was spent on the big political questions.
But the second day was spent arguing about committee structures and who should chair them.
We’ve been having the same argument ever since.
I’m a modernising general secretary. I don’t want to leave the job with the Labour Party in the same state as when I started.
Because to win the 2015 election, the Labour Party must change.
The party of 1997 would be hopelessly outmoded.
In 2010, only one in ten voters was a member of any of the main political parties.
One in ten voters.
We need to change.
The lesson I took from Labour’s defeat in the Bradford by-election last month was simple:
we were running an analogue campaign in the digital age.
Our campaign was straight out of our 1990s playbook.
It might have worked then, but it’s not good enough now.
Labour had ceased to be properly anchored in the community, it was seen as the establishment, not the insurgent force for change.
We had forgotten our purpose.
When more than 70 per cent of people in Harlow did not vote at all, that does not show a solid base for greater change in the future.
This is not the way we deliver change in communities,
this is not the way we earn permission to be heard,
and this is not the way we gain support for the ideas we got involved in politics for in the first place.
Our super-professionalised media-oriented machine that helped drive us to victory in 1997 needs some serious re-engineering.
A baby born the year we won that landslide is a first-time voter at the next election. 1997 was a different age. An age before iPhones, Facebook and Twitter.
It’s as dead as the age of steam ships and quill pens.
Centrally-broadcast messages and mass data-harvesting will not do.
It is based on an electoral model that focuses solely on ‘switcher’ or ‘swing’ voters at the expense of understanding people’s relationship with politics and their communities.
This has to change.
Labour had nearly two million conversations between January and May this year.
Imagine if all those conversations tweeted as #LabourDoorstep were about more than just voting intentions.
If we had engaged properly with people’s hopes, listened to their fears.
If we treated Labour activists as more than a network of unpaid leaflet distributers.
This is the shift to the Party we need to achieve.
It’s what Ed Miliband has been championing, which I’m sure he’ll want to talk about this afternoon.
It was well-understood to the founders of Labour, with their roots in church, co-operative movement, unions and community campaigns.
That’s why we are building a network of 200 community organisers across the UK.
I am clear that we need parliamentary candidates in place as fast as possible.
A candidate is a catalyst, a central point of focus for the campaign.
The longer we can give them, the greater the chance of success.
That’s why we are selecting a further 100 candidates in coming years
We are looking at practical ways to make our candidates more representative of the communities they serve.
More people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds.
More working class candidates.
This change is already happening.
As we modernise our organisation, we can learn from local parties.
- In Edinburgh, the Labour Party has engaged with local communities and trade unions using methods – both familiar and novel – to draw up their local election manifesto.
- In Walthamstow, local activists have worked with the Movement for Change to register voters, and to reflect their concerns over jobs and the local environment.
- In Swindon, the Labour candidate Anne Snelgrove has been meeting with local opinion-formers and networks to establish Labour as the credible alternative to the Tories. Labour is seen as the party of change.
Our party must change if we are to regain the trust of the people:
More of all of this, before we can ask people for their vote.
The vote is a precious thing, won by centuries of struggle and sacrifice.
In countries like Burma that right is still fragile.
No-one has a right to your vote.
It must be earned.
So that is our task.
To earn the vote of millions of people.
To listen to their changing concerns.
To understand the realities of life at the sharp end.
And what a contrast with the Tories – out of touch, incompetent, insulated from the concern of the people.
I am committed, as general secretary of the Labour Party, to modernise Labour,
so that once again it is a vibrant voice in every neighbourhood,
an agent of change on every street.
I know the Fabians will be with us every step of the way.
The godfather of community organising was Saul Alinsky,
who worked with the poorest and most-exploited people in America, from the Great Depression to the 1960s.
He influenced Obama’s presidential campaign in 2010.
Saul Alinsky said:
‘We must believe that it is the darkest before the dawn of a beautiful new world. We will see it when we believe it.’
We will see it, when we believe it.
For me, that’s the biggest divide of all between us our opponents.
Progressives believe tomorrow can be better than today. Conservatives believe the best days are behind us
Progressives see the good in people. Conservatives fear the worst.
Progressives are restless, visionary, ambitious.
Conservatives are small-minded, self-satisfied and smug.
That’s the difference between us and the Tories, between us and the Liberal Democrats, between Ed Miliband and David Cameron.
We’ve a steep climb ahead, in uncertain, unsteady times.
So we must do what you always do when the way ahead is tricky.
Come together. Co-operate. Look out for one another.
And reach the safe ground together.
Thanks for listening and good luck.