09/16/2010 01:15 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Where Miliband Meets Obama

In the wake of the global financial crisis, the enormous question of how we can change our ways and become more sustainable is being asked in homes and communities the world over. In the UK, the prospect of unprecedented service cuts is prompting much discussion on the role of the third sector and civil society to influence behavior. Although Cameron's government pays lip service to "people power" in the form of the Big Society, it's no secret that it simultaneously gives much credence to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's libertarian paternalism, as described in Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Is this government looking to empower people, or simply for them to do better on their own with a net decrease in support?

In the Opposition camp, a party leadership election is taking place. While the majority of the candidates are calling for a return to Leftist demands for more public services and government sponsored care, the frontrunner David Miliband is taking a broader approach with his Movement for Change (M4C). Not unlike the Prime Minister, he wants to see far more community activity. But his awareness of what it will take to mobilize people arises more from his direct experience of local activism -- at home and abroad -- than Cameron's general critique of big government.

M4C, like Barack Obama's movement of the same name, owes its inspiration to Saul D. Alinsky author of Rules for Radicals, which holds that "there can be no revolution without the reformation" of individual agency. Says Alinsky: "There can be no darker or more devastating tragedy than the death of man's faith in himself and in his power to direct his future."

David Miliband believes that the best chance for meaningful change to come about is through the committed actions of trained community organizers whose priority is not simply to organize grassroots resistance, but to make relationships with the disempowered, help them to shape their own agendas and create networks of trust within which change can happen. These words trip easily off the tongue when written in government White Papers like those written by Miliband's predecessors Blair and Brown, but they begin to have more meaning when backed up by a movement that demands not only the renewal of the party, but also a renewed activism involving party and community equally.

While the government bizarrely cuts the funding of third-sector charities and organizing groups, Miliband has been using a large proportion of the massive funds raised for his leadership campaign to get M4C off the ground. Unlike Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg -- who only today used the pulpit of the Guardian to lecture "the poor" on their tendency to treat welfare like compensation -- Miliband's preference is to be amongst the crowd, sharing the work, open to influence. Like Obama, he chooses to act out the change of mood and style that he believes is crucial to encourage those who, it is now clear, will bear the brunt of the budget cuts. "I have become a different person since we started this" he beamed from the front of a packed church hall "and it's down to you and your energy for change." His voice was neither the first or the last to be heard in that rally, as one group after another took the stage to talk about their determination -- and their strategy -- for their local area to thrive.

I remember a similar personal transformation over the two years I spent working with Pat Kane on a project called Re-imagining Social Work in Scotland. Coming at a time when social work was in crisis following the preventable deaths of a number of children, we were warned by senior practitioners that morale was low, resentment of authority high and we would be in for a difficult time trying to "encourage" the workers. Like M4C, our four-day course was founded on allowing the participants, largely front-line workers, to tell their own stories of what it means to work with people on the margins of society: descriptions of terrible pain and helplessness but also astounding empathy, resourcefulness and resilience.

Using a number of subtle tools to help the social workers process and reframe their experiences, our intense engagement midwifed some ambitious but well-argued visions for change that were more convincing than anything the government had offered from their disconnected perches. Since then our personal narratives about social care have changed: instead of thinking instantly about the heavy weight of dependency, our minds turn easily to the quality and commitedness of the services -- the people who have what it takes to help others -- as well as the courage and remarkable selflessness of many who need help. The Movement for Change is similar, in that it priorities -- and offers training for - that level of engagement, understanding that both the disadvantaged and those available to care can benefit from the relationship.

Obama and Miliband have this in common: despite their strong left-wing credentials, neither are singularly committed to the historical, ideological frameworks of their parties. For both, Third Way politics opened up a new possibility for a broader engagement with society -- at least until that middle ground was muddied by the actions of its leaders in Iraq and the global economy. Their task will now be to align themselves with the people of The Shift generation who combine personal development with social development, expecting change to come about less from government initiatives, but largely from evolving habits of work and play that government must recognize and support, facilitating communities to thrive.

While it is early days to articulate The Shift -- though many are trying -- it's safe to say that it will bring new responses to the multiple crises our globalized world faces, saving money and resources while advancing our human potential. Here are my ones to watch: shorter working weeks and job sharing to combat unemployment, freeing up people for civil society and better quality family life. A new emphasis on preventative medicine, health and well-being to combat the wastefulness of treating sickness resulting from neglect. More reliance on soft power (engagement and attraction) rather than hard power (guns and money) in our global relations. A broadening of education to mean self-development and awareness as well as knowledge management.

And at the core of this new demographic -- one step on from the Cultural Creatives of the 90s -- are women, slowly but steadily finding their way to greater social influence, bringing a desire for better work-life balance with them. Neither Obama nor Miliband can afford to be too starry eyed about these shifts -- they may be a long time coming - but both have recognized that more women in public life is not simply an issue of their human rights, but a demand from society to find more balance in government. As Marie Wilson from The White House Project has said for many years, "Add Women, Change Everything."

The question is how fast can anyone move to usher the future in? If Miliband wins the leadership election, you could see a Movement for Change take hold in the UK -- it's a good vehicle for an Opposition in the middle of a recession. Would that act as any support for a beleaguered Obama in the midterm elections? in our shrunken electronic world, stranger things have happened.