Community organising has been very much in the ascent since the Coalition Government came to power proclaiming its Big Society agenda.
Prior to the election, Conservative Party leader David Cameron made no secret of his admiration, pledging to create a National Centre for Community Organising and fund the training to be carried out by “independent third parties such as London Citizens UK, who have proven track records in training community organisers and activists.”
Now in power the plan to fund the training of community organisers appears set to move ahead with Neil Jameson, the executive director of London Citizens and Citizens UK, an early visitor at a Downing Street reception. “We have been talking to the Coalition Government about the work we do,” said Jameson, who was keen to emphasis that the organisation would not be giving up any of its independence if it took up the state’s shilling.
Jameson explained that Citizens UK, the parent body of London Citizens, would be offering professional training in community organising at a cost to government. At present this training comes free to those who form part of its 150 strong membership organisations. This training has also been offered on a subsidised basis to the likes of the Oxfam, the Salvation Army and Church organisations.
The concern of many is that the organisation could be compromised or co-opted if it gets too closely embroiled with government.
Community organising as practiced by London Citizens has taken off in the capital over recent years. The work began in the early 1990s, drawing on the community organising model of Saul Alinsky in 1930s Chicago.
Community organising is about bringing people together and empowering them to achieved change in their own lives through political activism. It seeks to build relationships with those who hold the power and by direct civil action if the initial approaches fail. The most famous US son of the movement is President Barack Obama who trained as an organiser when younger.
The first organisation in the UK was The East London Communities Organisation (telco). Set up in 1996, it proved successful in bringing together different faith groups, schools, trade unions and other community based bodies.
South London Citizens and West London Citizens followed Telco. It is planned that North London Citizens will come into being over the next 12 months. Outside the capital the organisation was less successful, setting up in Liverpool, North Wales, the Black Country, Sheffield and Bristol. None of these survived, withering due to lack of funding to support sufficient organisers in the regions. “I guess we grew too quickly in the early 1990s,”said Jameson. “The first generation of organisers were on their own in the city where they worked. If the organisation does not encourage political action then it ceases to exist.”
The organisation has since retrenched in London looking to build its strength before once again expanding outside the capital. “Ideally we would like £120,000 in the bank before organisers relocate. Then they would work their butts off to achieve the aims,” said Jameson, who confirms plans to extend out to Cardiff and Milton Keynes over the next 12 months.
In London, the organisation seems to have gone from strength to strength. Membership organisations pay annual fees ranging between £600 and £1800 depending on size. For this the leaders of the membership organisation receive training and become involved in campaigns at local and national level. LC also gets funding from a number of trusts.
Among the national campaigns have been the living wage and Strangers into Citizens. The living wage campaign started in east London with research funded by Unison looking at the amount required per hour to live above the poverty line.
The campaign involved direct meetings with the heads of the likes of HSBC Bank and then direct actions at branch level. Successes followed with Barclays Bank becoming a particular advocate of the living wage for its lower paid workers in the cleaning sector. NHS trusts were also targeted, resulting in cleaners and security guards winning better wages. Finally, London Mayor Ken Livingstone took up the cause, creating a living wage unit in his office that set the living wage level for all of those employed by the Greater London Authority. Boris Johnson continued the work when he took over as Mayor, most recently setting the rate at £7.60 an hour. The campaign claims to have put £20 million in the pockets of the lowest paid families since 2001.
Johnson also became a flag waver for another leading campaign to regularise undocumented workers. He supported the Strangers into Citizens campaign that is seeking an earned amnesty for people who have been undocumented and worked here for a number of years. The Liberal Democrats also picked up the sentiments of this campaign during the election with their call for an amnesty for undocumented workers.
At more local level community organising means working with the police and others for safer streets, cheaper housing and better environment.
The power of community organising in bringing politicians to account is best seen at the assemblies. These are huge stage-managed affairs, attracting a couple of thousand people. Two of the most recent held at Westminster Central Hall were for the national party leaders prior to the general election and before that for London Mayoral candidates. The candidates were asked pre-arranged questions, put by selected leaders from the platform. It is about publically holding the politicians to account. There is no debate and no questions from the floor. The assemblies provide a great photo opportunity for the media of democracy at work but in reality are controlled with iron discipline. Member organisations commit to bring a number of people with them and are held to that pledge.
One member of a housing charity recalled that when they turned up with six rather than the pledged 10 people it was “a bit like being put on the naughty step.”
”There is a Stalinistic feel,” he said. Some member organisations also challenge the democracy of London Citizens. One deputy head teacher of a primary school recalled back in 2004, the first assembly that brought together Telco and South London Citizens. The packed meeting were to vote on seven areas to work on. The top four would go ahead for implementation. Seventh in the voting was the London Olympics, yet within a couple of months the hierarchy of London Citizens seemed somehow to have elevated the Olympics to top spot.
One Catholic priest thinks the organisation addresses middle class issues, not necessarily those of the community where they exist. He feels they adopt campaigns and then shuffle them according to political expediency. "They don't stick with issues, only those they can win and get kudos for," said the priest, who also saw the danger of co-option in taking government money to train community organisers. “There will be questions as to who will be boss, if the government is paying they will decide, not the community.”
Jameson though remains steadfast on this point, insisting community organising is about civil society. “We want to work with those on the side of civil society rather than the state,” said Jameson.
There is though clearly concern about co-option by government, if too much funding is accepted. Funding always comes with strings attached. Perhaps one sign of growing disquiet is the declining role of trade unions in London Citizens. At one point there were 20 branches from Unison, PCS and the Unite, today this has reduced to eight. Union branches also used to be well represented at assemblies, now there are few to be seen – replaced it would seem by school children.
Could the reduction have anything to do with the fact that in the case of the public sector some see the London Citizens getting into bed with a government that is committed to putting a good number of their members out of work?
Jameson though has a different explanation, saying that the unions saw things in a very single issue way. So there would be a campaign at a hospital for the living wage, “once this was achieved, they said thanks and we’re off.”
Whatever the cause there is certainly some soul searching going amongst those involved in community organising. This form of political organisation has made great strides, engaging faith communities in real action that has achieved change like the living wage. Large numbers have been mobilised. The danger now is that in taking government money, much of this work could be compromised. The growing concerns about internal democracy may also be causing some to question the work of community organising. Whatever the truth, it must be hoped that the astute leadership of London Citizens are aware of the dangers and do not risk destroying what has so far been a positive experiment in real grass root citizens activism.