Arnie Graf: The sage who can see Ed Miliband at No 10

The 69-year-old American inspired Barack Obama's route to the White House. Now he has set his sights on a Labour victory. Jane Merrick meets Arnie Graf

For a man who has provided political inspiration to the President of the United States, there is no air of grandeur about Arnie Graf. Perhaps it is his upbringing in New York's Lower East Side, or the fact that, as a community organiser for nearly 50 years, he must have spoken to tens of thousands of what we in Westminster lazily call "ordinary people".

Few outside the political bubble will have heard of the 69-year-old, but he is one of the most influential figures in the circle of Labour leader Ed Miliband. Graf is helping to reinvigorate the party's grassroots. And he can see something that many voters, even Labour supporters, cannot: Miliband as Prime Minister.

So who is the man who could be the key to Labour winning the next election? Graf helped to set up the first "living wage" ordinance – the policy at the heart of Miliband's 2015 manifesto – in Baltimore in the early 1990s; and, in 1986, he was a community organiser when he met a young Barack Obama. After a job as a cleaner, his father became a salesman – a working-class man getting on, as Graf puts it.

But the most dramatic influence on Graf's politics came when he was 18, on a spring evening in 1961 in the bar of University at Buffalo. Graf was a member of the university's intramural basketball team. After an end-of-term match, the team, including one black player called Vernon, went to the college bar. Graf queued for a long time without being served, eventually leaning over to grab the barman's attention. The barman said: "Get rid of the negro and I will serve you." Says Graf, whose Jewish parents had suffered anti-Semitic abuse, said: "My parents always told me, we don't call people names. That is not proper behaviour." When Graf put out his arm again, the barman called him a "negro-lover" and Graf "just lost it". He was thrown out. None of his friends, including his black team-mate, came to his support.

A few months later, Graf saw Vernon eating alone in the cafeteria, and asked him why he had not even made eye contact since the incident. Vernon replied: "I decided you are either ignorant or a fool." Vernon explained that his sister was at the same university, studying to be a lawyer. To pay for college, their mother took two buses every day "to go to a white lady's house to clean it", returned home to cook dinner, before going out to a second job. Their father also had two jobs. Vernon said: "This is what they do, every day except Sunday, so my sister and I can go to university. What would have happened if I reacted? I would have been arrested for disorderly behaviour, then I would have been expelled from school, then I would have broken my parents' hearts. Everything they had done would have been for nothing. I cannot be around people like you."

Graf adds: "I got very teary-eyed. I said: 'I am both ignorant and naive.' This was a picture that stayed with me. It changed me. It made me livid." Graf never saw Vernon again. But by the time he left Buffalo he was channelling his anger at the bar incident into the civil rights movement. He later married Martha, an African-American academic, in 1973 – 40 years ago this month. Graf's work centred on the Industrial Areas Foundation, a Chicago-based community activist group, and through this he met a 25-year-old Obama at a seminar in LA, who spent a week learning about the methods that helped him win the 2008 presidency.

Graf's long-standing interracial marriage interested Obama because that of his own parents, a white mother and an African father, had not survived beyond a few years. "When I met him I didn't see a future president – but that's because I never believed it possible. I tried to recruit Obama as a community organiser; he was very impressive. But by the time he came to me he intended to do a law degree."

Graf met Miliband in December 2010, and was similarly impressed – particularly when the Labour leader told him he had put the living wage in his leadership campaign. Miliband told him he wanted the party to be in touch with the low-paid disenfranchised: "No Democrat had ever said that to me. People on low incomes, they don't see what the heck politics has to do with their life. They need a reason to vote."

Graf carried out a "root-and-branch" review of the party in 2011, and is now working to get Labour's local parties to engage with community groups. But, Graf says, there is something else that Miliband has beyond a strategy to build from the grassroots: growing up in Hampstead with his intellectual parents, the young Miliband not only had ideology, but also developed compassion. Graf says: "He told me 'There was something else in my heart – it was real people doing real things.' " He adds: "I feel I have a connection with him." The majority of voters do not see this, yet, but Graf believes eventually they will.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Geography Teacher

£24000 - £33600 per annum + pre 12 week AWR : Randstad Education Manchester Se...

E150/2014 - English Language Checker (Grade B3)

On Application: Council of Europe: The European Court of Human Rights’s judgme...

Marketing Executive

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Charter Selection: A professional services company ...

Project Manager - Bristol South West

£400 - £450 per day: Orgtel: Project Manager (PM), Key Banking Client, Retail ...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice