On Arnie Graf’s tube journey to our meeting, a young woman had stood up and insisted that he take her seat. “First time that’s happened,” he says. “It made me feel very elderly.” At 69, Graf does not look old, but he does have the slightly weary-eyed appearance of the too-frequent flyer. His routine obliges him to shuttle between the US and the UK, where he now spends half the year seeking, at Ed Miliband’s behest, to rebuild Labour’s way of doing politics and so win the 2015 election.
Although Graf makes no great claims for his role, it is hard to overstate his influence on Miliband, who last year commissioned him to carry out a thorough review of the party. Miliband’s preferred campaigning style, featuring meet-the-people sessions in market squares, is textbook Graf, as is the focus on community power. The science of Grafology, in basic terms, means an end to the clipboards, cold-calling, door-knocking and envelope-stuffing on which all previous Labour victories (and routs) have relied. The new technique is to mobilise apathetic and disenchanted voters by helping them to change their lives and neighbourhoods for the better.
While the success of Graf’s project has yet to be tested, the trust invested in him is beyond doubt. Asked if he is pivotal to Labour’s election chances, Graf says modestly: “I have some humility about this. What’s really important is the team.” As one of America’s best-known community organisers, he has imported a system that works on an inverted pyramid principle. If a handful of people turn up to a meeting, they are encouraged to bring their friends, who in turn recruit more helpers until a critical mass is reached.
By that method – and through the unaffected warmth that Blue Labourites would label ‘relational’ – Graf turned a single-figure attendance at an early civic get-together in Preston, Lancashire, into a capacity house with crowds queuing in vain to get inside the hall when Ed Miliband turned up to speak. Away from the stump, Graf sits down regularly with Miliband to brief him on what he is hearing at street level. It is possible to imagine that an outsider bearing no Labour party baggage is someone in whom Miliband can confide his hopes and disappointments.
“Sure. It’s two human beings talking, but I’m not a father confessor to him. My work takes me out into the country, so I’m really not around for that kind of role.” Whatever the exact rapport, Graf and Miliband are an unusual political pairing. They met some time after the leadership election and long after Graf had first been brought into the leader’s circle by the Blue Labour luminary, Maurice Glasman. Having met Marc Stears, Miliband’s old friend and speechwriter, and other key aides and advisers, Graf was finally introduced to the leader, with whom he seems to have established an instant rapport. The only thing more astonishing than the speed of Graf’s rise to power is that such preferment should hold any allure for him.
His arrival was marked by a flutter of media interest in two details. The first was that he had been instrumental in rebuilding the drug and crime-ridden Baltimore estate where The Wire was filmed; the second was his role as a former mentor to Barack Obama. As a community organiser of 50 years’ standing and a co-director of the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, Graf was not a likely candidate for a radical change in lifestyle.
Nor did he have any past form in politics, having declined all previous offers of work from US candidates for Senate and Congress and refused even to join a political party. “I had nothing in common with the Republican party, and I didn’t really care for the Democratic party. The Republicans, and the Democrats in a different kind of way, are so tied up with money that they can’t really be what they should be.
“So while I voted for Obama and was happy he won, I’ve been critical of his handling of the foreclosure crisis, the banks and the financial economies.” That disenchantment with the centre-left politics of his homeland makes it all the more singular that Graf should choose to disrupt his life, take a sizeable pay cut and commute across the Atlantic to work for a newly-installed and much-criticised British Labour leader of uncertain prospects.
Why does he like Ed Miliband? Let him count the ways. “One is the personal level. I believe that he is as decent a person in a political position as I’ve come across. He has compassion. Any number of politicians have a capacity for sympathy. I imagine David Cameron has that. A sympathetic person feels sorry about something, maybe donates to a cause and carries on with their own life. An empathetic person, a compassionate person, can put themselves in someone else’s shoes and feel what they are feeling.
“I’ve seen that in Ed because I’ve travelled with him quite a bit. I see him on a train and talking to people. I was attracted by his compassionate heart – and then he attracted me politically. I like Labour’s traditions and its values, and a victory would be important outside Britain. If Ed could win with Labour values, he would say to other politicians that you can run on [that prospectus] and you can win.”
Whether the qualities that attracted Graf to Miliband can magnetise the populace at large is open to question, at the very least. As Graf says: “If the Ed on the train could get translated to the nation, we’d win for sure.”
Though Graf does not say so, it seems likely that he sees – in a British politician raised in privileged circumstances – the vehicle for achieving his own goal of a more just society. Graf was also raised in a comfortable milieu, but his father, denied a high school education, had been a janitor in a handbag factory before becoming a salesman and successful businessman. Graf’s wider family stayed poor, and their experience instilled in him “a physical, visceral reaction” to disadvantage.
The second factor that shaped him seems to have been his own mortality. Some years ago, he says, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and his survival – after weeks of not knowing whether the disease had spread – makes him more eager to seize his chances. The third milestone was the civil rights movement during which Graf, an active campaigner in the early 70s, received regular death threats.
“I’d get a note from someone saying I’d been seen in the men’s room at a certain restaurant at a certain time, and I knew I was being followed.” There was no point complaining to the police, who were so against civil rights that they would do nothing. One officer said to me: “You’re Arnold Graf? I hope they kill you.”
Some years later, Graf met Martha – now a professor of social work, his wife of 40 years and mother of their four children, of whom the oldest, Alisha Graf Mack, is a renowned dancer whose work brings her into contact with Michelle Obama. It was Graf’s marriage to a black woman, a rare phenomenon in the America of his youth, that brought him to the notice of the current US president.
Graf, who has always sought to dismiss his label as Obama’s former mentor, continues to play down their contact. “I haven’t even seen the guy in 27 years.” None the less, it sounds as if their brief period of contact came at a pivotal time in the future president’s life. Having enrolled at the centre where Graf was training community organisers in Chicago, the young Obama explained that he was looking for a certain kind of mentor. “He sought me out. He’d been talking about immigration and asked whether there was a trainer in a stable mixed race marriage. He’d been raised in Hawaii, educated at a Muslim school and he was thinking about racial identity.
“He didn’t come across as troubled. He was 25 or so, and he was searching – figuring things out. I saw him several times over ten days. He asked me all about how to raise children and about their [relationships with] grandparents. When I asked him questions back, there was a lack of emotion. I took it as a young person coming to terms with who he was, but I see that [detachment] in him now.”
Even so, Graf was sufficiently impressed with his charismatic pupil to offer him a job. “I tried to hire him, but he turned me down. He told me he wanted to be the leading civil rights lawyer in the country or a judge. When I asked him why, in that case, he was learning about community organising, he said: “Because I want to understand about people.”
And so Obama progressed towards the White House while Graf, many years later, ended up in Lancashire – the test bed for the new democracy that Miliband hopes will win him the election. Having recruited organisers andvolunteers, Graf encouraged them to draw up a local manifesto listing priorities such as better social care, a move against anti-social behaviour, a living wage, more housing and fewer potholes.
The test was to see whether his message, of power to the people, could restore the left’s fortunes on a Tory-held council where Labour held only 17 out of 86 seats. “We did extremely well. We took back 22 seats, we became the majority party and we nearly won it outright.” That progress failed to represent a trend in the May local elections where Labour’s overall showing looked disappointing compared to a night of triumph for Ukip.
Perhaps inevitably, some commentators looking for scapegoats settled on Graf as the guru who had failed to work a miracle. In addition, the vested interests to whom Graf is opposed also exist within the Labour party and may take none too kindly to outside intervention. Asked whether he gets hostility from some quarters, he says: “It’s a fair question. There are days when I say to myself: ‘This is why I never got involved with [political] parties.’”
What examples can he cite? “Take something like pay day lending, which I think is an abomination. There are people in the party – not Ed – who keep pushing that you can’t set interest caps because you’ll upset the City and bankers.” Does he consider Ed Balls too pro-City? “I don’t know. I’ve only met him once – a really good meeting, and he’s invited me to go to his constituency, which I’ll do. I’m not ducking the question. I just don’t know whether he’s too pro-City, but I have other names – not him. People who have said to me: ‘Be careful.’”
Are these people high up in the party? “Yes.” Their advice is, he says, to “stay away from certain issues and concentrate on local things, such as dog fouling and potholes. Go after the Tory councils. Don’t go after the market sector. Don’t go talking about organising lots of people to move their money from a certain bank. Stay away from those kinds of issues.”
Graf has flouted that advice, supporting activists in Southampton who have persuaded the local council to move their payroll to a local credit union which has promised, in turn, to give workers loans at rates that vastly undercut those of pay day sharks. Despite the prominence of his critics, he says they have “no authority”, citing the free hand he has been given by Miliband.
Presumably Graf’s ideas on organisation are new to powerful figures such as Tom Watson, the party’s deputy chair. Do they get on well? “We do. I think at first he may have been sceptical, but he came to me to meet community leaders, and he’s been great.” So enthusiastic is Watson that he apparently wanted to call the organisers’ training programme the Arnie Graf Academy, but modesty prompted its founder to decline that suggestion.
Another senior backer – one for whom Graf reserves especial praise – is the party’s general secretary, Iain McNicol. But is it really possible that the breakthrough sought by both men can be made before the election, or will Labour default to its old campaigning methods? Graf thinks that the community organising he is trying to embed will take “more like seven or eight years”, but he hopes that volunteers – many drawn from among uncommitted voters – plus the 200 paid organisers that Labour hopes to recruit by the end of this year will contrive radically to change the 2015 campaign.
His target, “the additional vote that’s going to get us over the top,” is the “lazy voter. They vote sometimes and not others, and there are a lot out there.” He is not relying solely on grassroots activism to engage the politically estranged. As he points out, the recently recruited Matthew McGregor, known as Obama’s ‘digital attack dog’, will supply the online input vital to any successful campaign. Were Labour to lose, however, is it not likely that the Graf revolution might be quietly scrapped? “I’m positive. My hope is that even if we don’t win, people will feel so good about increased participation that they’ll carry on.
“You can’t take democracy away from them, [no matter] who the leader is. If we lost and the party put Ed out and someone else in, I would hope there would be enough people saying: this is our party, and we do our manifesto.” Not that Graf is being defeatist. “I think we can win. I really do.”
Can or will? “I don’t know about will. I think we can.” The promise that all things are possible is a small echo of the first-term Obama, the former pupil that Graf has not seen in decades. But, a little while ago, he heard from him again when a rabbi whom Graf had taught was handed a civic award by the president.
Told that he had been mentored by the same person as the recipient of the gong, Obama turned back as he was being ushered offstage and asked: “Really? Who is that?” On hearing Graf’s name, the President of the United States is said to have replied: “Will you tell him he had a big impact on my life?” Ed Miliband, within reach of becoming the next prime minister, will hope that one day he can say as much.