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 Those members no longer represent the broader electorate and politicians are increasingly placed in the invidious position of either supporting the interests of the members who elect them or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
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Life and Style
Suited and booted in the Lanvin show at the Paris menswear collections
fashionParis Fashion Week
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Kara Tointon and Jeremy Piven star in Mr Selfridge
tvActress Kara Tointon on what to expect from Series 3
Voices
Winston Churchill, then prime minister, outside No 10 in June 1943
voicesA C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
News
i100
News
An asteroid is set to pass so close to Earth it will be visible with binoculars
news
News
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

The enemy within

People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

Autumn/winter menswear 2015

The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

Army general planning to come out
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project