Arnie Graf: The man Ed Miliband asked to rebuild Labour

Ed Miliband

Arnie Graf is a figure shrouded in mystery.

At 68, he has 50 years experience working on community organising campaigns with the Industrial Areas Foundation in Chicago, and wild rumours about him abound. He is said to have been the mentor of Barack Obama, and a disciple of the revered academic activist Saul Alinsky. Yet his special relationship with Ed Miliband is beyond question: last year the Labour leader asked him to conduct a root-and-branch review of the party, with an eye to revitalising it across the country. Graf's report was never published, and he remains influential but near invisible to those outside Labour's inner circle.

To understand Graf's role, it is important to understand the problem he is trying to fix. Labour is fighting to represent a country of some 60 million people, but it has just 200,000 members. The party looks too much like a narrow group of people only interested in office, and it risks losing its connection with the vast majority of working and non-working people. Without members, the analysis goes, the party is hollow, and it cannot win.

Behind the dwindling numbers is a much deeper problem. Labour party members often describe feeling uninspired by meetings. Members have to pay to join, but they are only called on to do the legwork. Constituency and branch party meetings have often become bureaucratic and closed off. They are dominated by older members with established power bases and minutes from the previous meetings. Newcomers can be greeted with suspicion.

With his neat sweater and immaculately parted silver hair, Graf is a softly spoken outsider looking in; he can see these problems for what they are. Reflecting on his tour of Labour branches across the country, he does not hold back: "This was a party that had a bureaucratic culture rather than a relational culture," he says. "At the end of meetings I'd rather chew off my arm with my own teeth than go back. I thought the smartest people are the ones who didn't come. Going to the pub afterwards seemed to be the best part."

Graf has lived a very different way of doing politics. Born on the Lower East side of New York to a strongly Jewish family with working-class roots, he was brought up to vote Democrat because they "supported the little guy rather than the rich guy". He was politicised by the civil rights movement and married an African-American woman he met in graduate school. He became a state school–teacher and taught in Sierra Leone for two years before settling in the IAF – the oldest and largest network of community organisations in the US – where he rose to become co-director in Chicago.

Barack Obama worked in the same city as a community organiser before he became a law student. Their paths crossed only once, when Obama came to the IAF on a training weekend. Graf remembers the young Obama coming to talk to him: "He asked me what it was like to be in a stable interracial family. We talked for quite a few hours ... he had a lot of questions about how people treated me and my wife, what our kids felt. I knew he did not want to be an organiser. He talked about being a civil rights lawyer or a judge."

Obama took the lessons he learned on the streets of Chicago into his election campaign. These grassroots techniques – empowering members, engaging a more diverse set of activists, encouraging small donations – were widely credited for helping him win in 2008. If Miliband could revitalise Labour the way Obama revitalised the Democrats, maybe the party could also replicate his success at the polls.

In autumn 2010 Graf got a call from Maurice Glasman, who had just been made a lord by Miliband, in recognition of his community organising work. Glasman told Graf he should move to the UK and start working with Labour's new leader: "I wasn't paying attention to UK politics," says Graf. "My first question was: 'Who's Ed Miliband?' When he [Glasman] explained, I said: 'I'm honoured, but you're crazy.'"

None of Graf's work up to that point had been party political. Although he was excited by Obama, Graf felt that the Democrats remained "too top-down" and "too tied to money" to truly call themselves the people's party. In Miliband and Labour, though, he saw the possibility of building something genuinely exciting: "One time before I die I'd like to see one meaningful social-democratic party in the world. That could really start to get the ball rolling. In the US, both parties are owned by the banks, but Labour has a genuine tradition. It's just not organised any more."

When Graf came to the UK in late 2010, he was introduced to a huge array of people, including Tessa Jowell, Douglas Alexander, David Miliband, Jon Cruddas and senior figures in Ed Miliband's office such as Stewart Wood and Tom Baldwin. The last person he met was Ed Miliband. After an initial awkwardness, the Labour leader asked Graf about his first impressions of the party: "I said my impression was that the party sets its policy from the top to the bottom, rather than bottom to the top. That the members weren't seen as leaders but people to do tasks … I said if I was really going to understand what was going on, I'd need to go out into the country and talk to people. And not just those that were party political."

Miliband asked Graf to complete a full review of the Labour party, looking at its organisation, operations and infrastructure. Graf agreed, as long as one third of the people he talked to wouldn't be Labour party members. He wanted to talk to community figures, clergy, and public and private sector workers, and to people who were disillusioned by politics, as well as those who were inspired by it. He also wanted the leader to participate and to discuss its findings. The only payment he wanted was his forgone wages in the US and flight costs. To Graf's surprise, Miliband agreed.

Graf remembers one particular time when he spent the whole day with Miliband, visiting his constituency in Doncaster: "I thought he was lovely with people. It didn't look like a burden for him to be with them." Graf noted that this would often fail to translate to the public, where he was still perceived as being rather out of touch. Graf had never seen Miliband more inspired and genuine than when he was coming home after a day out of the office, meeting and talking with people about their struggles and experiences – Ed on the train: "If I didn't know anything about him, and just met him then and there, I'd vote for him. If we could translate Ed on the train to Ed in the country … There's a real empathy when he was talking to working people."

The idea of "Ed on the train" was a familiar concept in the leader's office. After the summer riots of 2011, he had consistently gone out to community after community and listened to what had happened, frequently talking to groups outside of the media spotlight long after the headlines had moved on. This kind of approach appealed to Miliband in a way that it hadn't seemed to do for past leaders, who had perhaps become more detached in government. Certainly some still thought it naive to spend time talking to individual voters when the opportunity cost was a networking event with journalists or a meeting with donors. But Miliband seemed to understand that to rebuild the party, he and his organisation needed to reconnect with the lived experiences of those outside Westminster.

In Graf, Miliband found an older and experienced man on whom he could rely, precisely because he wasn't involved. Miliband's personal leadership ability was repeatedly being called into question by commentators and poll data at the time, and staff were under pressure to turn things around and find someone to blame. Graf reminded Miliband that the real world was much wider. On Graf's increasingly frequent visits to the UK, the two would almost always have several hours alone together — a huge amount of a leader's time. Characteristically, Graf is wary of overstating his influence or infringing on the privacy of his meetings with Miliband, but Graf does admit that he feels a closeness to the leader: "It's a good relationship. It's warm and respectful. I can talk to him in an unvarnished way."

Graf wrote his report in time for the 2011 Labour party conference. However, while some senior officials have seen it, the report has not been widely circulated. It contained four key conclusions. First, there was a need to deal with what Graf describes as the party's "bureaucratic rather than a relational culture". A new member coming into their first meeting should expect more than bureaucracy and hierarchy. They should be welcomed into a group that offered trusted, working relationships and interesting political discussions.

Second, the party had to stop treating members as drones rather than leaders. Many of the party members Graf visited in the regions seemed to think that if there were genuine leaders in the party, they were all in London. Most orders came from the capital. It was in London that the leaflets were designed, the timetables set and the marching orders given.

Thirdly, the party was too closed: Labour gatherings were often suspicious of outsiders, particularly people who were Labour sympathisers but not prepared to be members. It seemed hard for newcomers to break in.

Finally, the party offered little inspiration to its members. Graf blew open a complacent consensus that branch meetings had to be boring. He could see that they could offer more, and dared them to be so: "We grow up and get meaning from relationships … politics should provide that."

Perhaps the most radical of Graf's proposals was his call for open primaries, meaning that Labour's candidate would be selected by the area's population as a whole, rather than just its members. Although Graf was only suggesting a trial in volunteer constituencies, he met active resistance: "Not everyone was willing to open up the party … I spoke to one person who said, 'But if we allow in a lot of people and give them the vote, who knows what they'll do?' I thought, 'Well, if you want to stitch up everything, maybe that's why you're losing so badly …'"

A second proposal was for community membership, which would allow voluntary associations to join as collectives. They would get one vote per institution, and they'd have responsibility for bringing their members into the party. People who were members of the institution but not individual party members would then have a way of engaging with the party.

Another idea was establishing a supporters' network, which would provide individuals with a way of engaging with the party if they didn't want to become full-blown members. Supporters might be asked to pay a small amount of money, and that would entitle them to vote in Labour selections; or they could be asked to pay nothing but have some say over the party's manifesto.

According to Graf, Miliband was engaged with all of these suggestions, but massive obstacles remain. The theme of "vested interests" is a favourite of Miliband's, but he tends to be better at challenging them in policy than within his party. Many people with power – from those in head office to the chairs and secretaries of local branches – want things to stay the same. Some Labour members think it is all very well having local, issue-based campaigns and discussions to get to know each other and build relationships, but this takes time away from an old model that still has merit: knocking on doors and getting out the vote, delivering leaflets and checking which way residents are voting. However, Graf believes it is not the case that these models clash: "The party that just says 'vote for me' isn't worth very much."

It remains to be seen whether this type of organisational change will feed into the manifesto, or influence the policies that Labour pursues, or its vision for the country. Graf's is still visiting the UK every few months; his next major piece of work is to look at how some of his proposals could be introduced. It's a tall order, but there are grounds for optimism. The loss of the Bradford West byelection to Respect's George Galloway back in March was devastating for Labour, but it did serve as a useful wake-up call.

For Graf, there's something in that dream of helping to build a genuine social-democratic party before he dies that won't quite let him go, and his friendship with Miliband is obviously very significant. Graf remains optimistic: "The idea of becoming a relational party is starting to come together … there is a huge appetite for what we are doing."

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Rowenna Davis, for The Guardian on Wednesday 21st November 2012 20.00 Europe/London

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image: © EdMiliband