Obama would have been blocked by Labour – what about the Lib Dems?

A former US grassroots campaigner, now working in Manchester, has claimed that Labour is an alienating force in our big cities and Obama would never have made it in the Labour Party.

Gregory Galluzo, the Guardian claimed on Saturday, trained Obama in grassroots politics over a decade ago.

Galluzo is quoted in the Guardian as saying:

In my experience the Labour party in your big cities like Manchester is one of the most alienating forces in Great Britain.

It is a very small group of people that controls the city council and they get voted in because they are Labour, not because of their policies. You just need 3,000 votes to control politics in Manchester.

…Barack could never have been elected in Great Britain. He would have had to suck up to the Labour party for 30 years before they gave someone like him a chance.”

I’ve no idea how much of an idealised view of Obama’s rise and rise this is, and far be it from me to comment on Labour politics in Manchester – I’m sure others know much more than I do on that one.

The more interesting questions for me are how well the Lib Dems are currently doing and, however good that might be, how we can do better at involving, encouraging and empowering grass-roots activists.

First up, let’s admit that it’s a difficult thing to do – and not just for politicians. Whether it’s a political party, a company, a sports club or simply a group of friends meeting down the pub, it’s simply easier to stick with the comfortable status quo that sees the same group amble along with no-one really being challenged or having their nose put out of joint.

Involving and encouraging new people, breaking the cosy consensus and requires positive action – it doesn’t happen all by itself.

How do the Lib Dems measure up? In different places, and at different times, the party does it both well and badly, just like everyone else.

Overall, the party’s pretty good at getting people onto the first rung of the ladder. By and large, members of the public getting involved in local campaigns or community groups are helped and encouraged by Lib Dem councillors, activists and MPs.

The party brings in candidates from a wide field – not just long-serving supporters. But, to be honest, all parties do that – at least partly through necessity, as we all sometimes struggle to find good candidates to stand in the thousands of seats up for election.

The party also encourages young people, women and ethnic minority candidates, through support and training (but not all-women shortlists or positive discrimination at present). Again, all the main parties are tackling that challenge in slightly different ways and none has quite cracked it yet – as can be seen from the small number of MPs who aren’t white, middle-aged men.

How about senior positions. Could an outsider rise to a senior position within the party – say, a council leader or frontbench MP?

Yes, it does happen – and fairly often.

Nick Clegg, after all, became an MP only in 2005 and was elected party leader after an all-member ballot. (Compare to Gordon Brown, who – more than any other Prime Minister since Anthony Eden – inherited the job of party leader and PM due to long service and being seen as next in line to the throne.)

I could go on with further anecdotal evidence of Lib Dem politicians achieving senior roles from outside any magic circle. The truth is, though, I don’t know of any studies that would take us beyond anecdotes and gut feeling. I can’t say for sure that the Lib Dems are any better than the other parties at getting the best people for the job into those senior roles, regardless of their background.

And, with some honourable exceptions (such as Mayor Dorothy Thornhill in Watford), the party certainly hasn’t reached where it wants to with senior women and ethnic minority politicians.

It would be nice to think the criticism levelled at Labour by Galluzo doesn’t apply to the Lib Dems. Perhaps it doesn’t to quite that extent.

But any political party, or for that matter any company or any sports or social club, would be foolish to think it requires anything other than ongoing effort, year after year, to steer clear of the lazy, cosy club, bring in new people and use them to the best of their abilities.

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  • Didn’t Obhama prosper in Chicargo which is hardly a city known for being free of political machines.

  • Foregone Conclusion 1st Mar '10 - 11:42am

    What Simon said. Richard M. Daley has been the Mayor of Chicago since 1989, and he only came to office because his father (Richard J. Daley) was Mayor (1955-76). If Obama had wanted to go far in City government, I wonder how long it would have been before he had to suck up to the Daley Machine.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Mar '10 - 11:57am

    Galluzzo, 66, who believes the Labour party has lost touch with its own base, said Obama built up a constituency of support by first agitating for playgrounds, rubbish collections and the removal of asbestos from public housing in Chicago in the early 1990s before moving on to registration drives across the country.

    Er, yes, that’s what we do. We call it “community politics”. It works. We know. The fact that the Westminster bubble and the Oxbridge smart set who form the commentariat don’t know about this and don’t report it, doesn’t stop it being successful. Let them think politics is all about national swings and a swish national image of people who are “people like us” saying the things people like us say and thinking the things people like us think. And let them be constantly surprised when we win where they weren’t expecting.

    Barack Obama could very easily have won in this country – had he been Liberal Democrat. Like quite a number of our MPs, he could have taken on a part of the country where no-one was doing much, worked it and won it. At local elections level we know in particular there aren’t any barriers to success in our party, mostly anyone who turns up and wants to start a campaign in a new ward is welcome to do so, so long as they aren’t complete nutters. And if they are complete nutters, it doesn’t matter too much, because then they lose. One of the nice things about the community politics method is that it does act as a good filtering mechanism, those who just want power but are impatient, lack empathy, or are just lacking in decent common sense generally can’t get the technique to work or give up when they find the effort it takes to get it working.

    The biggest barrier is the perception of ordinary people who aren’t involved in politics that somehow there is some big barrier, and that all the political parties – us included – are big well-funded machines, so there’s no point in getting involved. The next barrier is when they do join us and find it’s the opposite – when they ask where the machine is, the answer is “you’re it”.

    So many times when I was a councillor I found people phoning me who assumed they were getting through to a big party office rather than the phone in my flat, or when I was younger my parents’ house. So many times when I’m delivering Focus, people are astonished to find I’m doing at as volunteer, and if it wasn’t for me and a few other volunteers it wouldn’t happen. They assume there’s big money which pays for it all.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Mar '10 - 12:05pm

    Obviously it’s great to help people campaign on something locally, but I think the idea that it’s the first rung on a “ladder” needs to be considered carefully. Otherwise you get people joining the party on the back of a local relationship who are neither liberal nor democratic. It’s no-one’s fault, as such, but it can result in others getting a poor, or incorrect, impression of the party.

    It’s a risk, which is made worse by the fact that most people in this country who aren’t involved in politics think that all political parties are organised on Leninist lines, so it’s just assumed that whatever anyone with a party label says or does must be official party policy.

    On the whole, however, it seems to work remarkably well, which I think is the filtering mechanism I mentioned coming into play.

  • Obama went to Columbia and Harvard. The ‘Oxbridge smart set’? As much as this can be said to exist (and it is very arguable!), the Ivy League is at least its equivalent. Bottom-up participation is certainly preferable to top-down machine politics, but it takes people from all walks of life. Whether Cambridge (Clegg/Cable) or Ivy schools. Certainly a diversity of backgrounds, ideas and experience is important, regardless. Part of it, I guess, is the sense that political participation is not just desirable, but possible. Bush and Kennedy family traditions, the inevitable product of a Yale degree, Oxbridge Union debating, being buddies with a big city councillor: these provide the impetus for lots of people to choose to get involved. The question is, how do we get everyone else involved (and not just at election time, cf. Obama’s campaign, but over the course of a parliament etc). That has to start with talking about issues that they care about rather than Westminster inside-arcana, and doing so in an interesting and engaging way.

  • Frank- interesting comment. Would you care to expand? The British legal profession is hardly a utopia, but Pat Scotland, Michel Massey, Elizabeth Butler-Schloss, Cherie Blair etc have all risen to the top of the profession, amongst many others from underrepresented groups. In that sense, the law seems to be well ahead of other similar professions. It’s partly generational, but some pioneers have shattered some glass ceilings which used to exist. More to do, obviously.

  • Matthew Huntbach 1st Mar '10 - 9:34pm

    The ‘Oxbridge smart set’? As much as this can be said to exist (and it is very arguable!),

    Well, try looking at the universities attended by the prominent members of the commentariat. How many Guardian columnists are NOT graduates of Oxford and Cambridge, for example? Try this:

    Emily Bell – ????????, Oxford
    Riazat Butt – ??????, Oxford
    Vikram Dodd – ??????, Oxford
    Rowenna Davis – Balliol College, Oxford
    Martin Kettle – Balliol College, Oxford
    Seumas Milne- Balliol College, Oxford
    George Monbiot – Brasenose College, Oxford
    Marina Hyde – Christ Church, Oxford
    Catherine Bennett – Hertford College, Oxford
    Nick Cohen – Hertford, Oxford
    Zoe Williams – Lincoln College, Oxford
    Ben Goldacre – Magdalen College, Oxford
    Sam Leith – Magdalen College, Oxford
    Tanya Gold – Merton College, Oxford
    Andrew Osborn – Oriel College, Oxford
    John Harris – Queen’s College, Oxford
    Jackie Ashley – St Anne’s College, Oxford
    Melanie Phillips – St Anne’s College, Oxford
    Polly Toynbee – St Anne’s College, Oxford
    Timothy Garton Ash – St Antony’s College, Oxford
    Sue Blackmore – St. Hilda’s College, Oxford
    Bidisha Bandyopadhyay – St Edmund Hall, Oxford
    Victoria Coren – St John’s College, Oxford
    Janine Gibson – St John’s College, Oxford
    Peter Preston – St John’s College, Oxford
    Simon Jenkins – St John’s College, Oxford
    Jonathan Freedland – Wadham College, Oxford
    Ian Black – ??????????????????????, Cambridge
    Peter Bradshaw – ?????????????????, Cambridge
    Jane Martinson – ?????????????, Cambridge
    Madeleine Bunting – Corpus Christi College, Cambridge
    Allegra Stratton – Emmanuel College, Cambridge
    Simon Hoggart – King’s College, Cambridge
    David Shariatmadari – King’s College, Cambridge
    Alan Rusbridger – Magdalene College, Cambridge
    Andrew Rawnsley – Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge
    Alexander Chancellor – Trinity Hall, Cambridge
    Simon Tisdall – Downing College, Cambridge
    John Hooper – St Catharines College, Cambridge


  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd Mar '10 - 4:07pm

    You mention not being told about the AGM. It is a constitutional requirement that all members are told about the AGM of their local association, if you really were not, that is a serious matter for which those responsible should be disciplined.

    In general, however, the weird thing is the party often consists of a few activists who think “why aren’t more people getting involved?” and lots of members who think “why can’t I get involved?”. It may be different on those places where membership is large, but I’ve never experienced any problem getting involved when I’ve wanted to. Mostly my experience is that those running the party locally are begging and pleading their members to get involved, stand for the exec posts, become council candidates etc.

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