I was at the Progress Conference yesterday and heard the Ed Miliband speech that’s the centre piece of Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column today. It was the best speech I’ve heard Ed give  and he responded in the Q&A session with determination and some humour. It’s clear that Ed believes deeply in what he is saying – that the decline of trust in British politics is a crushing problem and it requires urgent solutions.

The problem is that, like Andrew Rawnsley, I am far from convinced that Ed (or indeed any major British politician) is even close to having any of the answers. His recipe seems to be an effort to go back to the basics of party political campaigning – more local activity, community organising as inspired by Arnie Graf. Fair enough, but it’s not as if any British political party of any political colour has ever gone far away from this model. It is more than as parties have declined as mass membership organisations, and voting allegiances and populations have become more transitory, meaning the old models do not work as well as they once did. Plus local organising is time consuming and expensive, and in the absence of state funding of political parties, where is the cash going to come from?

The heart of the problem is summed up with Ed’s line “I won’t make promises that I can’t keep”. I think he expresses this line honestly enough, but who actually believes it? I don’t believe it from him any more than I believe it from any other politician, and hell, I am on Ed’s side. It’s as if Ed Miliband is trying to just be a better version of a traditional politician, that one last push with the old means will be enough. I’m absolutely sure that it is not, even if it might just be enough to get Labour back into power in 2015.

So what can Ed and Labour do? The 2015 programme could be so vague that no-one would be able to tell if Ed’s promises had been broken – hardly a resounding success. Alternatively if promises had to be broken later, this could be done with honesty rather than trying to find ways of showing promises had been kept when everyone else was thinking the opposite. Neither of these approaches is remotely inspiring.

The only alternative is to bring more people into the policy making and governing process, and to do this through online networking. If Labour cannot deliver on its budgetary promises because the economy prevents it, the party could learn from participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre and, by making the facts available to the public, collaboratively reach better decisions – even if those decisions were not perfectly in line with the party’s manifesto. The party would also need to experiment with participative democratic tools such as Adhocracy or Liquid Feedback to engage more people in its policy processes from an early stage. This would mean that Ed’s line would better be “If I can’t keep my promises then you will know why, and you will have the power to help me find solutions”. The internet is the best tool ever invented for mass consultation, yet no British political party has even attempted to make it central to its policy making. It is also not even necessary to have absolutely mass participation in this process – it empowers the citizens who want to participate, and by doing so helps legitimise the decisions taken. If you doubt it then this might allay some of the fears.

Will all of this work? I am not altogether sure. But I for sure know that more of the same, even a better version of the same, is not going to be enough. Ed posed the right questions yesterday, and here is my partial answer. What’s your answer?


  1. Beth Morris

    Thank you,

    there are two things here for me

    1. the paternalistic and often out dated notion of power particularly at a local leve, I worked as a community development worker both in the voluntary and public sector. I have sadly all too often come accross appalling behaviour either members of the community would cry well im going to “insert councillors name” to some poor beleagured officer – with the often powerful council riding in on thier charger over riding protocol and rules to get thier way


    2. the taking over or blocking of community intiative, hiding behind the rules a culture that believes the “local community” all to often poor ones were not capable of making informed decisions, did not have the knowoeldge or skills to make a difference. etc and the councillor percieveing any inroads into this as a threat to their power.

    ultimately it comes down to trust and power, you say local orgnaising is expensice actually it isnt in so many ways, what it takes is tackling power absues and culture within the party and not accepting the satus quo knowing what goes on but not doing anything about it

    vision to do soemthing different soem fot he localism work in the mid 2000’s was really good but it got mixed up and as ever innovation was stifled because the local authority had to be the accountable body and as often cherry picked, made it difficult of hid behind procedure to stifle community ownership.

    if we inverted the triangle and worked bottom up with support, skills, knowlege and soem risk taking communities themsevles can find the solutions w ejust have to invest in them. I dont mean with yet another pilot scheme, or parachited project worker I mean truly, honest, work that inspire, upskills and addresses the issues properly. then we might just move towards making politics relevent for people.

    while politicians Ed included do not tackle the power greedy, unaccoutnable local politicinas he has little hope.

  2. Quietzapple

    Sometimes it is best continue basically as before, despite its decreasing success in terms of some objectives, because alternatives increase unacceptable risks and downsides.

    The best is often the enemy of the mediocre.

  3. Looking forward to reading some answers here. Seeing the importance that the internet and social tool are beginning to have on the way we communicate, interact and develop ideas in other areas. Politics and public policy seems to be the last frontier

  4. @Jeffrey – yes, that’s a good example too, had forgotten that one!

  5. Excellent. New Icelandic constitution also important pointer. Thanks.

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