Thursday, 22 April 2010

Community organisers must beware political co-option

Community organising has become flavour of the month with political parties as they jostle for public goodwill before the election.
David Cameron was the most recent convert, promising that a future Conservative government would fund national centres for community organisers.
Prior to the Tories' conversion, former work and pensions secretary James Purnell announced he was to train as a community organiser when he stepped down from Parliament.
This presents the rather intriguing possibility of a new Conservative government paying for the retraining of a former Labour Cabinet minister.
Community organising is about bringing people together and empowering them to achieve change in their own lives through political activism. It began in the US, with Purnell describing Saul Alinsky as "the godfather of community organising." Its most famous son was President Barack Obama, who trained as an organiser.
This form of organising took root in Britain in the mid-'90s. The first organisation, the East London Communities Organisation (Telco), was set up in the East End of London in 1996.
It brought together different faith groups, schools, trade unions and other community-based bodies. The organisation has grown since the early days, setting up South London Citizens and West London Citizens, which together with Telco now form London Citizens.
There are 150 member organisations, many of which come together for the showpiece public assemblies. The last assembly at the Barbican in London drew in 2,000 people with plans to take community organising country-wide.
Telco's living wage campaign was British community organising's first big breakthrough. Members of London Citizens exposed how people working in low-paid sectors, such as cleaning and security, were having to do two or three jobs just to stay above the poverty line. Many worked in the twilight zone of the economy and were afraid to be associated with trade unions.
Funded by Unison, Telco commissioned research and came up with a living wage figure that amounted to what was required per hour to live above the poverty line. A successful campaign followed, involving direct meetings with public and private-sector companies.
There were also very public disruptive actions, such as members going into banks in the West End of London on a set day with lots of small change to bank.
The campaign won converts, with Barclays Bank and a number of NHS trusts and colleges taking on the living wage ordinance. Then London mayor Ken Livingstone embraced the idea, setting up a living wage unit in his office to set the rate each year.
Workers for the Greater London Authority were to be paid the living wage. Boris Johnson followed suit, most recently setting the rate at £7.60 an hour.
Another related campaign, known as Strangers into Citizens, aimed to provide regulation for undocumented workers, and was backed by sound research. Johnson also came on board as a supporter of some type of amnesty for undocumented workers.
So far, so good. There is a risk, however, that the goals of community organisers will be co-opted by mainstream political parties. Cameron's plans to create national centres for community organising and fund the training to be carried out by "independent third parties such as London Citizens" might be seen as an attempt at such co-option.
Leaders of London Citizens responded saying that they expected government to listen to the concerns of civil society just as it did those of business and the trade unions.
Those who are sceptical about community organising might surmise that London Citizens has more in common with the voluntarism agenda espoused by the Tories' Centre for Social Justice than with the demands of over six million trade unionists. That accusation feels unfair. The strength of community organising lies in its ability to bring together different groups who then seek to speak truth to power.
If there is a Tory government, one cannot simply refuse to converse with the new bosses. In broad coalition terms, however, what will public-sector trade union branches from the likes of Unison and PCS think of an organisation that they help fund having such close relations with a Conservative leader?
This critique will become more pressing if a Conservative government starts putting those trade union members out of work.
So far organisers at the heart of London Citizens have managed to unite a broad span of civil society to speak out on behalf of the poorest, without being politically co-opted by Westminster factions. It must be hoped that they continue to show such good judgement, so they can continue to deliver social justice for London's neediest citizens.

1 comment: