Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Movement for Change and community organising

The Movement for Change could be one of the most enduring legacies of the Labour leadership campaign, and it has already made an impact in communities across the country. But dispelling some of the myths around it will also be essential for ensuring its and Labour’s future success.

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One of the most significant initiatives to come out of the leadership campaign was David Miliband’s Movement for Change, which Ed has now agreed to take forward.

As many people know, the Movement for Change is based on the community organising model of Saul Alinsky, which in recent years has been made famous by Barack Obama. So what is community organising and how can it benefit the Labour party?

Modern community organising began in the US in the 1930s when Saul Alinsky, who is regarded as the founder of the movement, began working with the impoverished Back of the Yards neighbourhood in Chicago. After a hugely successful career, Alinsky went on to write Rules for Radicals, his cornerstone work which set out his theory and methods of organising, and drew largely on his own experiences. Alinsky’s work had a profound impact on the young Barack Obama, who spent three years as an organiser after graduating from Harvard.

Community organising was brought to the UK by Neal Jameson, founder of the influential Citizens UK, which helps communities across Britain to organise. The success of Citizens UK, most recently in helping to implement the living wage campaign, was one of the reasons David Miliband decided to dedicate a significant part of his leadership campaign to community organising.

David realised that the principles of community organising could be utilised to renew and invigorate the Labour movement. Indeed, many of the ideologies behind community organising are rooted in the history of the Labour Party, which shares a common ancestry. Labour’s first leader, Keir Hardie, recognised that the party should be a party for social change rooted in communities, and that only by bringing together like-minded individuals and organisations could it bring about positive change.

Despite the success of the Movement for Change, it is clear that there remains a degree of confusion around community organising and how it can benefit the Labour party. Therefore, educating the party is going to be a crucial step in both highlighting the merits of organising, as well as dispelling the myths and cynicism.

So how does it differ from ordinary campaigning? Campaigning is a fundamental part of politics, but community organising takes the level of engagement and accountability to a new level. Significantly, it is premised on building long-term relationships that transcend the normal constituency formula of canvassing and case studies. And in the long term, these relationships result in community leaders being developed that are able to hold politicians and institutions to account to enable change in their communities.

Dr Luke Bretherton, a lecturer at King’s College London, recently gave the following description of community organising:

‘…Yet what community organising shares with the roots of the labour movement is a commitment to the need to form a common life around shared values and the prioritising of social relationships rather than an emphasis on economic or political ones to the exclusion of all else. In short, the market and the state have a place, but they must know their place. Hence one of the key rules of community organising: people come before programme. And if you want to find out what people really value and build relationship with them, you have to listen first. Before you can work out what to do together and how to act together, you have to take time to hear their stories to discover their values and what motivates them.’

It’s this level of engagement that has seen 1,200 community leaders trained up around the UK as a result of the Movement for Change, a move that will provide a bedrock of broad-base support that the party will reap the rewards of at the next election.

In my community in Enfield alone, the Movement for Change has helped me to tackle housing security on one of the most deprived estates in the borough. But, more importantly, the movement has given the Labour party representation in a Conservative constituency and council ward.

And around the UK it will be this level of action and engagement that will help the Labour party recruit new members, reconnect with the grassroots and appeal to voters in the key battlegrounds which will take the fight to the coalition.

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Ben Maloney

is secretary of Enfield Southgate CLP and a member of the Movement for Change team

3 comments

  • I agree with Ben about the benefits for the Movement of Changed, it’s why I joined it and can be a good way to get the message out a grass roots and certainly is a way when it gets support to get things changed. Having said that, the thing that troubles me is that a lot of the community actions asked for can be found in Community Safety Strategies which either haven’t been completely fulfilled or have simply failed in full. If for example you look at the Enfield Strategic Assessment: http://www.enfield.gov.uk/downloads/file/437/enfield_strategic_asssessment_summary_2009 which covers Ben’s community, alley gating is mentioned and areas associated to it were priorities. The problem I have is that when commitments (priorities) are made it shouldn’t then need the community to demand that these commitments be fulfilled. Were I live I have been ‘campaigning’ against anti-social behaviour for over a decade. The key element of my ‘campaign’ is for the ‘key objectives’ within our strategy which have been ‘key objectives’ in one form or another since the introduction of the 1998 Crime and Disorder Act to be fulfilled. The only way this can be done is for senior managers at the Borough Council to listen and either implement or change the ‘objective’ that is failing but instead of listening I have been banned from contacting them and forced to simply highlight problems, as they happen, to the department that cleans up the mess. Reporting issues to this lower department is futile, they often don’t even act on requests for things like graffiti to be removed and as their action or none action, as it usually is, has been going on for over a decade, which maintains a broken window syndrome and in turn encourages more problems they seem incapable of drafting a fix. In my opinion the above needs mending by a senior manager who can not only instruct the department to ‘stop failing’ but who can also establish good practice that would reduce if not eradicate issues in full. What I do can be seen as what Cameron calls taking part in the ‘Big Society’ which is laughable when you consider that its a Tory Council that has banned me from contacting them and as I’ve organized hundreds in a village hall, to demand the same thing, actually doing the ‘Movement for Change’ but as mentioned when things are already in place to deal with issues it shouldn’t then need any ‘call to arms’ to get them done. I do in part blame Labour for this failure (they have been told about it for years even in the BIG Conversation) and as every meeting I attend shows me that commitments made in Community Safety Strategies are failing across the UK would go as far as saying it had a significant impact on the last election but put the blame more at those in a job who simply are not doing their job, especially now that we have the Tories, sorry ConDems, in and the same things are happening. I do worry that a Movement for Change hides this very simple fact but believe it can highlight these concerns.

  • Whats the message, I was in labour for 43 years I left once I had difficulty telling Labour from the Tories, I still have difficulty telling the two parties apart. Socialism has gone we have three parties fighting each other for the middle ground. Welfare reforms can anyone tell me the difference between labour and the Tories, University charges can you again tell me the difference both parties intended to increase the costs. I’m sorry having a bunch of people in the community knocking on my door better get ready to be told where to go. what we need is a party which has the grass roots are heart, but then again who are new labour grass roots these days the middle England voters I suspect

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