Two years ago, when Ed Miliband went round the country, people avoided eye contact with him. A year ago, a few people warily stopped him for a chat. Today people want to talk to him wherever he goes.
On a train journey to Carlisle, he was constantly interrupted by fellow passengers. They were so friendly that I wondered whether they were stooges planted by Labour HQ. But they were genuinely interested in this politician in crowded standard class; some passengers even noted the contrast with George Osborne, whose staff had a well-publicised spat with a ticket inspector when he sat in first.
A steady stream of passengers wanted their picture taken with the Labour leader on their phones – and of him with their children. I knew his aides had discussed how to project “Ed on the train” to a much wider audience to transform his geeky image. Now I knew why.
Mr Miliband gave everyone time, even though he had work to do. I wondered if it was all an act but, as our three-hour journey to Carlisle progressed, it was clear that he really does like meeting people far from the Westminster bubble.
A 28-year-old woman excitedly phoned her brother and passed the phone to the Labour leader, who talked to him for 10 minutes. It turned out to be a rehearsal for a “phone a friend” session Mr Miliband would join on Thursday night in Preston.
Its moribund constituency party has become the model for revitalising Labour. A handful of remaining activists built a community campaign by inviting members of the public along to small meetings to ask them what issues concerned them. Instead of leaflets through letterboxes and direct mailshots, Labour has gone back to basics by talking to people on their doorstep.
The number of “conversations” in Lancashire rose from 12,000 in 2008 to 150,000 last year. They shaped Labour’s local manifesto for the county council elections on 2 May, on issues such as paying the living wage; putting curbs on payday loan companies; children’s centres; and saving live timetable information at bus stops threatened by spending cuts.
On Thursday night, more than 300 members of the public and party faithful crowded into an executive lounge at Preston North End’s ground. Not bad for a grassroots campaign started by seven Labour members. It feels like a public meeting, not a party one, even though it is hosted by Labour. “You are the pioneers here in Lancashire,” Mr Miliband tells his audience. “We have got to do politics differently. It is far too important to be left to the politicians!”
The meeting stops while everyone phones a friend to urge them to vote Labour next month. Mr Miliband happily speaks to several people who have been rung; some think it is a wind-up when he says who he is. It’s an approach that would be easy for the Conservatives to mock – but the Eastleigh by-election in February showed the value of grassroots campaigning by the Liberal Democrats, who outgunned an ageing local Tory association.
Labour’s attempt to “do things with people, not to them” aims to combat the alienation with politics being exploited by the UK Independence Party, which pushed the Tories into third place in Eastleigh. Labour’s battle plan, seen by The Independent, argues that community organising is the antidote to today’s “anti-politics” mood. It includes a mock poster saying “Vote for nobody… Nobody tells the truth” to show what Labour is up against. The document admits: “Before now, our general election strategies have been entirely focused on identifying and mobilising the Labour or swing vote. In many local parties this has involved a small team of volunteers struggling to achieve targets set by the centre.”
Interviewed on his much-interrupted train journey, Mr Miliband tells The Independent: “There is a quiet revolution happening in the Labour Party. It is no longer about approving the minutes of the last meeting, or delivering leaflets. It is about delivering real change on the doorstep.”
But is he really prepared to abandon New Labour’s “command and control”, which ensured party discipline at general elections? He insists he is. “You can’t have six different policies on taxation,” Mr Miliband admits. But the days of “one party line” all over the country are over: “New Labour did a good job with an old model of party members delivering leaflets, but we live in a totally different world now.”
It’s not about politics on the cheap. Labour will have 170 full-time organisers in place in its 106 target seats by the end of this year, many more than at this stage of the party’s 2005 campaign. The paid officials will train a total of 1,000 volunteer community leaders to hold meetings and urge people to bring friends.
“It’s not just about winning elections,” says Mr Miliband. “It’s about constructing a real political movement. It’s a change from machine politics to grassroots politics.”
The Preston project was guided by Arnie Graf, a 69-year-old American who in 1984 trained someone called Barack Obama as a community organiser in Chicago for 10 days, and thought the guy had some potential. Two years ago, Mr Graf had a meeting with Mr Miliband, who wondered why he had to find time for this genial but elderly man.
“Your politics is broken,” Mr Graf told him. Labour was based on a bureaucracy, not relationships with people. By the end of the meeting, Mr Miliband agreed, and hired Mr Graf to review the party’s structure. He now trains Labour’s community organisers, who work with the parallel Movement for Change set up by David Miliband, which may turn out to be a very useful leaving present for his brother as he heads off to New York.
Ed Miliband has also broken down the barriers between party members and the public by allowing non-members to contribute ideas to Labour’s policy review. But when will we see any of the fruits? He angrily rejects the Tory charge that Labour is a “blank page” on policy. “It is a myth,” he says, rattling off proposals for a mansion tax, a 10p income tax rate and many more. Mr Miliband acknowledges the pressure to say more about Labour’s economic stance. He dismisses the latest calls by trade union leaders for the party to oppose the Coalition’s spending cuts. “We have been very cautious about making big spending commitments. We need to make commitments that are credible.” He will not be swayed by union threats to take their money away from Labour. “I am going to do what is right for the country,” he says.
And he insists his One Nation Labour mission is on track. “The journey is being clear about what we got wrong – banking regulation, immigration, Iraq – then outlining a vision of where the country goes, then showing what that means in practice. We are on a very consistent and clear journey.”
Yet he knows this ride won’t be as easy as his trip to Carlisle. “We are eternal warriors against complacency. We have a long way to go,” he says.