Exclusive Ed Miliband interview: I’ll return politics to the people

With membership numbers declining, Labour’s leader desperately needs to connect with people. Oliver Wright hears how he plans to do it

Talk quietly to any senior political figure from any major political party today and they all express the same concern. How do they connect with a public that often cares passionately about political issues but despises party politics?

Once, it was simple. Mass-membership parties elected constituency candidates for Westminster elections who would represent their interests and concerns. Those MPs in turn would select a party leader who had a wider legitimacy. All party members (to a greater or lesser extent depending on the party) had at least some role in formulating the party’s policies and directions.

But with party membership ageing and declining, there is now a democratic deficit. Those members no longer represent the broader electorate and politicians are increasingly placed in the invidious position of either supporting the interests of the members who elect them or the voters they need to win power.

That is the problem that Ed Miliband was attempting to confront today at a meeting of Labour activists and trade unionists in Leeds. Next Saturday he will attempt to push through what is – by any standards – a pretty radical reform to the way in which his party is run, at a special party conference in London.

No longer will it be necessary to be a fully paid-up member of Labour to vote for a future leader, attend a local meeting or have an input into the policy-making process. Instead, for the nominal sum of £3, people will be able to register as “supporters” and take a pretty active role in the formation of future Labour politics.

It was clear today that the audience had some reservations about this new kind of politics, particularly the weakening of the traditional relationship between the organised trade union movement and Labour. In a way, it was a vivid representation of the problem: the kind of thing old Labour members care about would have very little resonance among the wider electorate.

But Mr Miliband is clear that the party has to change. In part his inspiration has come from America, where Barack Obama built up a formidable and motivated grass-roots organisation that propelled him to the White House.

But in part the reforms have their roots closer to home: he wants to portray Labour at the next election as the party of the many versus the Conservatives, whose support comes from a few rich donors and a dwindling band of ageing Tories in the shires.

“There is this myth that people don’t care about the things that are happening around them because people are turned off political parties,” he says. “The truth is that people are turned off political parties but care hugely about zero-hours contracts, childcare ... the care for their elderly mum. They just don’t think the politics represents them.

“But it can represent them and deal with the issues that they care about. Part of this opening up is about saying ‘We’ve got to hear those voices’. Once you crack open the system different things become possible. You can be part of the party without paying £40 – you can become a registered supporter.”

Mr Miliband adds – with some justification – that some of the most important and radical changes to British society in the past 100 years have not come top-down from Westminster, but bottom-up from campaigns which politicians have then latched on to.

“How does change happen? Some people say the only way change happens is that great leaders get elected, make change happen and it has nothing to do with people,” he says. “But all of the evidence is you need leadership but you also need movements. Everything from workers’ rights to gay rights, equal pay to the minimum wage. All of the big changes nationally and internationally happened because movements made them happen.”

He goes on: “And this is what is really interesting about the way in which Labour is changing because we are also creating a campaigning organisation on the ground. We are not just saying vote for us, we are campaigning on payday lending, on getting employers to adopt the living wage. We are campaigning on the things that matter. I know I can’t just be prime minister at the heart of a declining party in government. I want us to be an expanding party in government and reaching out to new people.”

And here the Obama parallel is interesting again. Because while Labour may have been envious of his success in building a movement, they have also witnessed how it failed to continue in a meaningful way once he became President. Many of his supporters have felt let down and disengaged by his time in power – and generally have not been motivated to support his day-to-day legislative agenda. It is a mistake, Miliband hints, that he would hope to avoid in Britain.

“You are more likely to achieve things and make change happen if you are a real presence on the ground,” he says. “Why? Because you are more likely to win arguments door to door, street by street, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. And you are more likely to get ideas filtering up from the ground to government.”

He then adds, pointedly: “We would have been a better government [under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown] if we had been listening to people on the ground.”

As part of this new politics, Miliband wants to devolve more power to local authorities so decisions are made closer to the people that they affect. He does not accept the argument that many local councils are not up to the job: “The calibre of local politicians is very high,” he says.

“In the 1980s Labour leaders, it would be fair to say, had some problems with local government, to put it mildly. But it is a different story now. There is an unwritten story about what local government leaders have done in incredibly difficult circumstances to try and keep the show on the road. We ... need to learn from them. We need to involve them in Whitehall.”

In Westminster, he is interested in examining whether to resurrect the idea that voters could eject MPs who are not properly representing them. You also get the sense that he rather favours the idea of having at least some parliamentary sessions outside London.

Before then, of course, there is an election to win. And for that he will need the old Labour faithful fully engaged. Because it is all very well opening up your party to the new members – but you need to be careful that the existing faithful feel welcome in the brave new world too.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive or Senior Sales Executive - B2B Exhibitions

£18000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive or Senior Sal...

Recruitment Genius: Head of Support Services

£40000 - £55000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Team Leader

£22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leading company produces h...

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £40,000

£20000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT provider for the educat...

Day In a Page

A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

A nap a day could save your life

A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

If men are so obsessed by sex...

...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

Rolling in the deep

The bathing machine is back but with a difference
Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory